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Sweetbriar Nature Center

Photo courtesy of Sweetbriar Nature Center
Photo courtesy of Sweetbriar Nature Center

Learn about wildlife and interact live with an educator each week on the Sweetbriar Nature Center Facebook page every Thursday at 2:30 p.m. The staff will share a different animal with you along – a baby bird, rabbit, opossum – with a story or a talk.

Donations are greatly appreciated for the over 100 resident  animals that are currently being cared for at the center. Items from Sweetbriar’s wish list (www.sweetbriarnc.org) may be dropped off a the center’s front door and monetary donations may be made directly during the Facebook live program. Sweetbriar Nature Center is located at 62 Eckernkamp Drive in Smithtown. For more information, call 631-979-6344.

By Melissa Arnold

As most businesses come to a standstill to aid in social distancing, many people are looking for ways to help their neighbors and community. While there’s plenty to do for one another, local wildlife organizations have their own plea: Don’t forget the animals.

It’s a tough time for places like the Save the Animals Rescue (STAR) Foundation in Middle Island, a non-profit which rescues and rehabilitates a wide variety of injured wildlife. They also provide a place of sanctuary for those animals not well enough to return to their natural habitats.

Photo courtesy of STAR Foundation

“We rescue those unusual pets that people have abandoned, birds and reptiles, guinea pigs, rabbits, and we’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said STAR Foundation co-director Lori Ketcham. “We are 100 percent reliant on volunteers, and have no paid staff or municipal support. [Normally] about 30 hands-on volunteers assist with rescues, provide animal care, clean cages, help with transport and do whatever else we need help with.”

The STAR Foundation has a long-standing relationship with the Animal Emergency Service clinic in Selden. Temporary limits on staffing and social distancing measures have added additional pressure to the clinic, and for now, STAR is no longer able to send animals to them for immediate care.

“They’re short on equipment and supplies, and what can they do? We [in the animal care field] need gloves and masks just like every other profession, and when those things are gone, they’re gone,” Ketcham said. “And while we’d happily welcome vets who are willing to provide care, not every vet is certified to work with wild animals, so we can’t turn to just anyone.”

The warmest months of the year are also the busiest times for animal rescue organizations, between the arrival of new baby animals and those that sustain injuries while out and about. STAR cares for about 150 animals at a time — currently they’re bottle-feeding baby squirrels and rabbits, caring for woodchucks and all kinds of birds, from quail to great horned owls, and small exotic pets with nowhere to go thanks to suspended adoptions.

While the foundation is keeping a skeleton crew of two to three people on-site, sanitizing regularly and staying separated as much as possible, each new person that enters the building resets that process and introduces new risks, Ketcham explained.

At Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, they have the same concerns. 

“It’s certainly a big challenge for us — since we’ve been closed to the public, we have only one or two people coming in to work,” said Sweetbriar’s education director Eric Young. “Volunteers have taken some of the animals home for care, but that’s only temporary.”

Photo courtesy of Sweetbriar Nature Center

The center is home to countless animals of all kinds, from bustling ant colonies and hissing cockroaches to box turtles and groundhogs, the occasional goats and foxes, to name a few. Young estimates there are around 50 different kinds of animals on site. At the moment, its on-site Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is caring for several owls and rabbits, a hawk that suffered a gunshot wound, gulls and Canada geese, among others. 

As education director, Young said he’s feeling the loss of the many students who visit the center at this time of year. Sweetbriar interacts with thousands of students annually, including in-school presentations and class field trips.

Now, with schools closed and students adjusting to digital learning in varied forms, Young is trying to find creative ways to bring the animals online.

“We’re thinking about sharing our animal presentations on YouTube, and I’m in the process of putting together resources to share with teachers,” he said. 

At this point, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation Janine Bendicksen is simply hoping for a quick end to the pandemic so that they can ensure the wellbeing of the staff.

“The Town of Smithtown covers our utilities and major repairs, but we still depend on financial support to pay the salaries of our staff, care for the animals and purchase formula, medicine and food,” Bendicksen said. “Our greatest need right now is to continue to support our staff.”

Ketcham echoed the need for continued donations in these difficult times. 

“We plan our fundraisers well in advance, and without doing five or six fundraisers a year, we’re not going to make it,” she said. “We don’t know what events we will be able to hold. Everything is up in the air right now. It costs about $8,000 a month to keep the center going, and donations have slowed to a trickle.  We have utility bills and insurances, cleaning, food and medical supply bills, no matter what else is going on. Without programs or fundraisers, it will become critical in no time.”

Both the STAR Foundation and Sweetbriar Nature Center are encouraging those who wish to support them with donations to send money only at this time — please protect the staff and do not bring supplies to their physical locations.

To donate to the Save the Animals Rescue (STAR) Foundation, visit www.savetheanimalsrescue.org. Call 631-736-8207 for urgent assistance with wildlife.

To donate to Sweetbriar Nature Center, visit www.sweetbriarnc.org. For those who find an injured wild animal, call 631-979-6344 and leave a message.” All our phone calls go directly to an answering machine that we check each day, we will call them back and give advice. We will accept wildlife if possible,” said Bendicksen.

You can also visit the Department of Environmental Conservation website at www.dec.ny.gov and search for “wildlife rehabilitator near me” to connect with other rescue organizations in your area.

Girl Scout Hailey Van Cott works on the prey pen at Sweetbriar Nature Center. Photo from Hailey Van Cott

When choosing a project for her Gold Award, one Stony Brook Girl Scout drew on her love for animals.

Hailey Van Cott, a junior at Ward Melville High School and a Girl Scout since kindergarten, recently began repairing the prey pen within the flight aviary at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown as part of her Gold Award project. A visitor to the center for years, she knew the location was the right choice.

“I really love what Sweetbriar stands for and I knew I wanted to help them out for my Gold Award,” she said.

To help with her project, PSEG Long Island awarded the Girl Scout $200. She said she plans to use the money to put down Astroturf around the sides of the prey enclosure, which helps the birds grip as it’s a softer texture than a piece of wood and in turn prevents foot problems.

PSEG representatives said the project is in line with their goal to relocate osprey and other raptor nests from electrical facilities to safe nesting locations.

“I really love what Sweetbriar stands for and I knew I wanted to help them out for my Gold Award.”

– Hailey Van Cott

“We want to help ensure these wonderful birds continue to return to the area year after year while, at the same time, protecting the reliability of the energy grid,” said John O’Connell, PSEG Long Island’s vice president of transmission and distribution. “Hailey’s project aligns with our commitment to protecting the local raptor population.”

Her mother, Deb, said she wasn’t surprised when her daughter chose to help out at Sweetbriar.

“She’s always liked to help animals,” the mother said. “She’s definitely a big animal person. She’s also always liked to do community service.”

Her mother said with Girl Scout Troop 2867, her daughter has helped Smithtown Animal Shelter by making dog toys and conducting supply drives for them. Outside of Girl Scouts, Van Cott has made memory wire bracelets and sold them at her father’s office and donated the money to Save-A-Pet Animal Shelter in Port Jeff Station.

Isabel Fernandes, a wildlife care coordinator at Sweetbriar, said Van Cott has done an amazing job repairing the prey bin, and Sweetbriar is always appreciative for the help they get from Scouts.

“We are a small staff so it’s important that we have people who can help us and get projects and other things done here,” Fernandes said.

The coordinator explained that the pen is enclosed in the 80-foot flight conditioning enclosure aviary, which is used for wildlife rehabilitation to help injured birds fly again and exercise their muscles before they can be released. The center prey pen ensures the birds maintain their hunting skills.

Fernandes said there is currently a great horned owl in the aviary that was removed when Van Cott was working on the enclosure, as it’s important to keep human contact as limited as possible — something she has now learned through experience.

“The more interaction with humans they have, the more adjusted they will become,” the Girl Scout said. “They need to learn how to capture the prey themselves and how to survive on their own.”

As part of her Gold Award project, in addition to working with her family on the enclosure, she will talk to younger Girl Scouts about the project, Van Cott said, as well as educate them about the importance of animal rehabilitation and how birds of prey control the rodent population.

“Every animal has its part in the ecosystem,” she said. “I’ve always loved big birds. I’ve always loved seeing them out in the wild just looking up and seeing a hawk every now and then.”

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Photo from Sweetbriar Nature Center

Sweetbriar Nature Center, 62 Eckernkamp Drive, Smithtown is in need of old newspapers to line the enclosures for the wild animals they are rehabilitating. They can’t use the ads or the shiny stuff, but the rest of the paper would be greatly appreciated. The New York Times is their favorite sized paper but any newspaper will do. For more information or to schedule a drop off, call 631-979-6344.

Tales, Trails and Treats, Sweetbriar Nature Center's Halloween celebration provided families with a day outdoors with hands-on activities.

Sweetbriar Nature Center, located at 62 Eckernkamp Avenue in  Smithtown, is hosting a variety of events to bring people closer to nature and animals. On Oct. 26, young children were invited for a spooky trick or treat trail complete with animal encounters. Friday night , Nov. 1, families with children ages 7 and up are invited to hike in the darkness to meet nocturnal animals and call in maybe an owl or two. Bring a flashlight. The event costs $10 with discounts available for Scouts. For more information, call 631-979-6344.

Photos by Media Origin

 

 

the orphaned fawn in Bendickson living room, before finding an adoptive doe. Photos from Janine Bendickson

Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown got an emergency call May 28 from Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). He was driving on the Sunken Meadow Parkway when he encountered a man on the side of the road aiding a dying doe that went into labor after being struck by a car.  

Janine Bendickson bottle-feeds the newborn colostrum. Photo from Janine Bendickson

The man, Gordon Edelstein, was pulling a fawn from the birth canal as Trotta got out of his car. Another newborn fawn, which was lying nearby, seemed healthy, he said. The second-born fawn was breathing faintly, so Edelstein, a retired Marine administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Unfortunately, only one fawn survived. 

“It was a horrible scene and sad to see,” said Trotta, a former cop who often stops at roadside incidents. “Life is so fragile.”

Janine Bendickson, the director of Wildlife Rehabilitation at Sweetbriar, who quickly arrived at the scene estimates that the fawns were born about one week prematurely. She wrapped the surviving baby deer in a blanket and took the animal home and bottle fed it colostrum, the nutritious milk that mammals produce and mewborns typically get when they first nurse.  

The next day, as fate would have it, Bendickson noticed that a wild deer in the nearby woodlands had also just given birth.  

A wild deer accepts an orphaned fawn as her own. Photo from Janine Bendickson

“Deer typically don’t accept fawns from another doe,” Bendickson said. “But we thought we would give it a try.”

The new mother approached the orphaned fawn and started licking and nurturing it. The doe then accepted the fawn as her own and let it nurse. 

“We were all moved to tears,” Bendickson said. “It’s a tragic story with a happy ending.”

Bendickson, who has worked at Sweetbriar for 20 years, said that the rescue was one of the more remarkable experiences of her career. 

A video of the Bendickson bottle feeding the fawn can be found here.

A red-tailed hawk at Sweetbriar. Photo by Talia Amorosano

Time to clean out your closets and help a noble cause! Sweetbriar Nature Center, located at 62 Eckernkamp Drive, Smithtown seeks donations for its annual spring Yard Sale for Wildlife fundraiser to be held on May 11 and 12 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Antiques, collectibles, memorabilia and other “cool” stuff accepted. Please no clothes, books, baby supplies, electronics or anything that weighs over 40 pounds unless it fits the above guidelines. All funds raised will support the nature center’s mission of providing nature education and wildlife rehabilitation. To drop off items or to arrange a pick up, call Eric at 631-979-6344, ext. 302.

It’s that time of year again. Sweetbriar Nature Center, 62 Eckernkamp Drive, Smithtown will hold its annual Wildlife Baby Shower on Sunday, May 20 at 1 p.m. Come celebrate nature as it comes alive in the spring with beautiful flowers, vibrant green leaves, and, of course, baby animals. Sweetbriar takes in hundreds of orphaned animals a year. A Sweetbriar rehabilitator will show you how baby animals are cared for by their parents in the wild and here at the nature center.  A cake to celebrate will be shared with all to celebrate the occasion.

Please bring donations to help them feed their wildlife.

How you can help ……. wish list:

  • CHEERIOS
  • APPLESAUCE-NO SUGAR
  • TUNA IN WATER
  • AD/CANNED FOOD
  • DRY CAT FOOD
  • DRY DOG FOOD
  • CANNED CAT FOOD
  • CANNED DOG FOOD
  • WEE WEE PADS
  • RUG SKID PADS
  • ALMONDS
  • WALNUTS
  • DISH DETERGENT
  • LAUNDRY DETERGENT
  • VINEGAR
  • FACECLOTHS
  • OLD TEE SHIRTS
  • SPONGES
  • LARGE ZIPLOCK BAGS
  • LARGE TRASH BAGS
  • TOLIET PAPER
  • PAPERTOWELS
  • GRIT
  • OATBRAN CEREAL
  • OATMEAL
  • LIDS OF PEANUTBUTTER JARS
  • PUPPY FLEA SPRAY
  • VETWRAP
  • TRIPLE ANTIBIOTIC OINTMENT
  • ZIP TIES
  • WATER BOTTLES
  • SHREDDED WHEAT

Admission is $10 children, $5 adults, discounts available for scouts. For more information, please call 631-979-6344.

 

Einstein the screech owl. Photo by Kevin Redding

TIME TO CLEAN OUT THOSE CLOSETS

Let’s help Einstein and his friends at Sweetbriar! The nature center, located at 62 Eckernkamp Drive, Smithtown seeks donations for its annual spring yard sale and fundraiser on April 28 and 29 including antiques, collectibles, memorabilia and other “cool” stuff. Please NO clothes, books, baby supplies, electronics or anything that weighs over 40 pounds unless it fits the above guidelines. Proceeds will go toward the center’s mission of providing nature education and wildlife rehabilitation. To make a donation, please call Eric at 631-979-6344 or Joe at 631-901-5911.

A haven for Long Island’s injured wildlife

By Kevin Redding

Three weeks ago at a construction site in Elwood, a young red-tailed hawk was lying on the ground with its eyes closed. It had been hit by a car and its skull was fractured.

But today, that same bird of prey can be found perched inside a spacious flight aviary at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, gliding from one branch to another and darting its head in every direction in search of its next meal. Dan’s Bird, as it’s known on the property after it was rescued by Daniel DeFeo, a Sweetbriar volunteer since 2015, will eventually be released back into the wild as one of more than 1,000 injured animals the nonprofit will rehabilitate this year. 

“As a wildlife rehabilitation center, we are about 50 percent successful with what goes back into the wild, where most other centers are at about 30 percent,” said Janine Bendicksen, Sweetbriar’s curator and wildlife rehabilitation director. “We can do everything a vet hospital can do except surgeries, as far as medications and setting bones. We’re also the only center where people can just walk in and drop animals off. It’s a real service to the public.” Whatever the site can’t do on its own, she added, is handled by the staff at Best Friends Veterinary Care in Nesconset.

All in a day’s work

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, Bendicksen — who has been at Sweetbriar for 18 years, is at the site five days a week and is in charge of teaching educational programs, fundraising for big events and running the summer camp and wildlife rehabilitation camps — made her rounds throughout the property, making sure to greet every critter along the way, including permanent wildlife patients like Einstein the screech owl, who has suffered a broken wing and leg and takes shelter among piles of towels and blankets inside a laundry room; Jack, a kestrel with a missing eye and a crossed beak due to exposure to the pesticide DDT; an old turkey vulture that was hit by a car in Pennsylvania, broke its hock and sustained a wing fracture; and an opossum that was found starving to death and is expected to be released in the spring.

There are also box turtles, mallard ducks, rabbits and chipmunks. A groundhog and a deer too. The site is licensed to take in almost any animal, Bendicksen said, except rabies vector species like raccoons and skunks.

Squeezed into a tiny wooden habitat, Bendicksen summoned two flying squirrels from inside a nesting box. Although they are nocturnal, she said these animals only slip into semihibernation during the day and can be woken up to eat and play. “These guys came from somebody’s attic,” she said. “Every couple of weeks we get another one because somebody uses a Havahart trap to catch them.”

Even though the nonprofit, which officially opened in 1986, has been rehabilitating wildlife for more than 30 years, Bendicksen said the program has grown in “leaps and bounds” over the last decade and each year the site takes in more and more. This is due to both Sweetbriar’s growing popularity in the community and people and developments “encroaching on animal’s habitats,” Bendicksen said.

The goal of Sweetbriar, of course, is to bring every animal back into the wild, and specifically back to exactly where they were found, but in many cases, the outcome depends on the specific animal and its situation. For instance, some injured animals can’t live in captivity and these — as well as animals that don’t recover from their severe traumas — must be euthanized.

“It’s the humane thing to do,” Bendicksen said. “Seagulls come in all the time and they don’t do well in captivity. While in cages, they get what’s called bumblefoot [inflammation on the soles of the feet], which they eventually die from.”

Not long after she explained this, William and Mary Krumholz of Smithtown brought in a box containing a seagull they found hobbling in the Costco parking lot.

“It looks like the wing is broken,” William Krumholz said. “It could hardly run away from me. It was only a matter of time before it got run over.”

After wrapping the seagull in a towel and doing some quick detective work in the rehabilitation room, Bendicksen deduced more than likely it was struck by a car, and found that the last digit of its wing was separated and hanging on by a part of the bone. She assured the Krumholzs that it would be taken to the veterinarian to be checked out further and told them about the inflammation concern with seagulls.

“But, if that’s the case, what you did do was save him from starving to death or being eaten or run over,” she said to them. “We’ll do our best.”

Mary Krumholz nodded her head. “I mean, that’s nice, but … It was only a car ride over here and I already feel bad.”

Bendicksen later said one of the most challenging parts of the job was to resist the urge to become attached to the animals that come in.

“It’s why we try not to give names to any injured animals we release, just the permanent ones,” she said, “because you become too close to the animals and it makes it very, very hard if you have to make a difficult decision. We wish we could release everything back where we found them.”

The human touch

People have been bringing animals to Bendicksen to be patched up since she was a young girl growing up in Hauppauge.

“There are little kids here who just stick their hands into cages and that would’ve been me — I was always told to be a veterinarian,” Bendicksen said. “My mom’s friends would call and say, ‘The cat just grabbed a baby bunny and it survived.’ I would always build little habitats for them and make sure they had a comfortable bed, even if it was just, like, a frog.”

Bendicksen grew up to be the owner of a children’s clothing business called Janine, which employed stay-at-home moms. In the late 1990s, however, she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, which forced her to give up everything for a while.

“I went through two years of hell and then had to kind of start my life over again,” she said. When she became cancer free, she came to Sweetbriar with her children for one of its volunteer picnics. She struck up a conversation with the site’s director, who, after finding out more about her, asked if she’d be interested in helping them curate the site.

After some extensive training, a licensing process and testing from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Bendicksen was a teacher on the site. It didn’t take long before she became director of wildlife rehabilitation. “This place saved my life,” she said. “What makes you happy as a child should be what you do as an adult. I’m extremely lucky.”

Val Timmerman, a Stony Brook University student and one of Sweetbriar’s 14 volunteers, said everything she knows she learned from Bendicksen.

“She’s so awesome and knows everything,” said Timmerman, who stumbled across Sweetbriar almost two years ago while searching for animal rescue facilities close by. “Being able to make even a small difference in the patient’s lives, making things a little bit better for them, is what I love. And, of course, releasing them, finding out that a possum or something we didn’t think was going to make it is doing so well now. It’s great.”

Bendicksen said without her volunteers, the site wouldn’t survive. “These people are near and dear to my heart,” she said.

DeFeo, who studies biology at Suffolk County Community College and hopes to be a zookeeper one day, is at Sweetbriar every Saturday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. taking care of all the birds of prey on the property, preparing all their food, changing their water bowls and cleaning out their dirty cages.

“I’ve always loved animals,” DeFeo said. “Just going out there and saving an animal’s life — it’s such a beautiful feeling. And I always feel a sense that I will do anything to save that life.”

Before pursuing the animal field, DeFeo said he was an electrician. But he knew he had to call it quits after nearly suffering a severe injury.

“If I fell off a ladder and broke my back, I’d be miserable for the rest of my life,” he said. “But if I got my arm bitten off by an animal, I’d probably still be happy and go to work the next day. This is what I’m meant to do.”

How you can help

“The public needs to be better educated on what they need to be afraid of, what they shouldn’t be afraid of and what they should do when they find an animal,” Bendicksen said, adding that any and all residents who do come across an injured animal should call Sweetbriar before handling it or bringing it in.

Here are some helpful tips Sweetbriar staff members have assembled:

• Baby birds are often seen fully feathered but trying to fly, with the parents nearby. These are fledglings. If they look bright and alert, it is best to leave them alone. If possible, keep cats and dogs away from the area for a few days in which time the birds will learn to fly. The parents will continue to care for them even though they are on the ground. If you are not sure the parents are nearby and you are concerned, you may put the bird in a nearby bush or on a tree branch and observe from inside the house for a few hours. If the mother sees you in the yard she will not come near.

• If an adult bird can be caught, probably something is wrong and it needs help.

If you encounter any kind of turtle crossing the road, it is okay to help it along. However, please carry it to the side of the road in the direction it is heading. By putting it back on the side it is crossing from, it will start crossing the road all over again.

If an opossum is found smaller than 8 to 10 inches, it probably needs attention. Orphaned babies are often found looking for food near a dead mother, especially alongside roads. These animals rarely contract rabies because of their low body temperature.

• DO: Place the animal in a secure cardboard box with small holes placed on the side or lid. The box should be just big enough for the animal to stand and turn around, to prevent the animal from thrashing around and hurting itself. Place paper towels or a T-shirt on the bottom of the box.

• DON’T: Keep peeking at the animal or handling the animal. The more you look at an animal or handle it, the more you stress the animal and reduce its chance of survival. Resist the temptation to put an animal inside your shirt. Cute little squirrels are notorious for being covered with fleas.

Sweetbriar Nature Center is located at 62 Eckernkamp Drive in Smithtown. The center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call 631-979-6344 or visit www.sweetbriarnc.org.