At the Piedmont Wildlife Center near Chapel Hill, clinic manager Jeanette Curley and veterinarian Leslie Martin finished emptying the 1,400-square-foot rehabilitation hospital of its turtle room and baby bird nursery, including a saucy jaybird with a hurt toe. The hospital was quiet, save for the constant cheeping of the remaining baby birds asking for their next meal.
Facing a $200,000 budget shortfall, the Piedmont Wildlife Center’s hospital officially shut its doors July 6, moving the original closing date set by the center’s board of directors forward by more than three weeks. The educational center remains open and is hosting summer camps.
The hospital typically treated between 1,900 and 2,300 animal patients a year. “I’m a little distressed about people who will not have somewhere to drop off the wildlife they find,” said Curley.
“No one wanted to see the hospital close,” said Dr. Bobby Schopler, a veterinarian and Piedmont Wildlife Center board president. (Scholpler was the veterinarian and wildlife expert at the Animal Protection Society of Orange County, before resigning under fire from its board in 2003.) “Over half our budget was for the rehabilitation [hospital] and it’s always been a known net loss.”
Curley, Martin and two animal-care technicians were laid off June 19, the same day the center announced in a press release the hospital was closing. Five summer interns were also let go, including one who had driven from California to work at the hospital over the summer.
The hospital’s financial woes forced Curley and Martin to close the clinic before July 31, without the assistance of Executive Director Gail Abrams, who has been on vacation and has not visited the hospital for two weeks. Without funding, hospital workers could not treat wildlife that would need stabilization and extended rehabilitation past July.
According to tax returns for 2007, the most recent available, the center generated $367,000 in income, primarily from donations and grants, and spent $365,000; those amounts include educational programming. The center’s 2008 tax returns have not been completed.
Abrams said it costs a quarter of a million dollars a year to run the hospital, including $20,000 in food and medical expenses. Staff salaries are the center’s largest expense, Abrams said.
Abrams takes in $53,000 annually. On average, that amount is commensurate with salaries of executive directors at nonprofits, according to several employment Web sites.
Curley, a full-time clinic manager, earned $27,000 a year; Martin, $31,000.
Curley and Martin said they were unaware of the clinic’s dire financial condition. “I was shocked when I read in the press release it was a $200,000 budget shortfall,” Martin said.
Martin had just been hired in May as a part-time veterinarian. “I feel I just got started here, and I genuinely enjoy working here and rehabilitating the wildlife.”
“I’m numb,” said Curley, who has been with the clinic for more than five years. “I go home and lay on the couch, and I cannot move.”
Martin said she has been unable to use the clinic’s X-ray machine because there isn’t enough money for radiation badges for staff and materials for developing and film. “It comes to around $300 a month,” she said, “and I kept hoping this would be the month we’d get to use it.”
Martin and the interns have been taking animals that need X-rays to local clinics or the N.C. State Veterinary School.
“I worked really hard to save money,” Curley said. For example, she switched from paper towels to linens and rags that could be washed, reused syringes and reduced water usage.
Abrams said the center’s board of directors will meet to examine operational and financial plans. “We need the financial support of the community,” said Abrams. “You can make a donation, we are still accepting donations if people can do that.” However, donations won’t go toward rehabilitation, the first item on the Piedmont Wildlife Center’s mission statement.
With the assistance of volunteers and interns, Curley and Martin removed more than 100 baby birds from the clinic last month. Some went to in-home rehabilitators and others went to a wildlife clinic up in the mountains, Curley said.
The turtles will go to North Carolina State University Veterinary School and homes of volunteers and staff.
Curley and Martin don’t have new jobs lined up. “I’m going to need a few weeks to regroup,” said Curley. “This clinic and the wildlife have been everything to me.”