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How the Wildlife Center's "Critter Cams" helped UVa's nurses cope with COVID

opposum eating
Marigold the Virginia Opossum enjoys a snack at the meet-and-greet. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/WMRA)

This story was reported by Randi B. Hagi for WMRA.

On Saturday, nurses from UVA's COVID Clinic got a behind-the-scenes look at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which they say helped them get through the darkest days of the pandemic. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[ambi - kestrel calls]

Verlon the American Kestrel was one of the ambassadors who welcomed a group of nine UVA Health employees, a few with kids in tow, to the Wildlife Center of Virginia on Saturday. They also got to meet Marigold the Virginia Opossum, who snacked on fruit and a hard-boiled egg while Outreach Coordinator Connor Gillespie talked about some of the dangers possums face.

CONNOR GILLESPIE: Sometimes they might even become blinded by the headlights or something and just become disoriented. [bird calls] So it's kind of up to us to be a little bit vigilant. Slow down, especially at night, when they're more active …

Person with opposum
Outreach Coordinator Connor Gillespie introduces Marigold to the group. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/WMRA)

This was one of the first groups to tour their facility in person since the pandemic started.

ED CLARK: We thought there's just no group that deserves it more.

The whole thing came together because founder Ed Clark went to the clinic for a COVID test.

CLARK: It's been so gratifying to have the nurses from the COVID unit at the University of Virginia hospital here today because of a personal experience, honestly, that I had. In December I had to go in and get tested, and when filling out the information, the nurse asked me where I worked, and I said Wildlife Center of Virginia – well she just had a fit.

SAMANTHA SIMMONS: And so when he said it, it was like, "oh my gosh – wait!"

Samantha Simmons is a registered nurse at the COVID Clinic. She told Clark that all her colleagues were huge fans of the Wildlife Center's Critter Cams – live video feeds of ambassador animals and patients, including five Black Bear cubs.

Person wearing mask
COVID Clinic Nurse Samantha Simmons. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/WMRA

CLARK: And when the baby bears are in full performance mode, it's like watching clowns on crack.

SIMMONS: We're all big animal people … so on our most stressful days, or when we were just kind of feeling down and out, or we kept hearing our numbers going up, we would just kind of tune into the Critter Cams, and it was just a small, like, something small that we could do in such a difficult time.

The nurses' tour started at the indoor facility, including the veterinary clinic and operating room – where a lot of the equipment came from UVA Health and other local hospitals.

CLARK: See, we joke that human physicians have it easy. A lot of them are human doctors because they couldn't get into vet school.

[laughter]

NURSE: Kind of true!

CLARK: … You know, your patients can tell you where it hurts! And very few of them anyway, I hope, try to bite you or scratch you or claw you –

MULTIPLE NURSES: Erm … [laughter]

Bird behind fence
Hudson is a resident gyrfalcon at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/VPM News)

And they got to hear stories from the center's 40-year history along the way.

CLARK: The reptile room used to be a bedroom, basically, a dorm room for one of our students … a young lady called the cops one night, said somebody was trying to get in her door. And she was inside, and she had looked out through the peephole, and whoever it was was looking back in through the peephole and banging on the door. The cops came around the corner –

NURSE: It was a bear.

CLARK: It was a bear!

[exclamations]

CLARK: Banging on the door because she was cooking in her room – wasn't supposed to be!

[laughs]

Outside, they got to visit with the center's educational ambassadors – animals that for some reason, such as a deformity or having imprinted on humans, would not be able to survive in the wild, and so they live at the center – like Buddy the Bald Eagle.

CLARK: Buddy is a bachelor. He is in a monastery program.

[chuckles]

NURSE: Okay. Not going to get Buddy a female.

CLARK: We don't really want to get into that, honestly, because they are supposed to be trained to go out when they pair bond – and they don't always. Just because we put a female in there doesn't mean they'd like each other. You can imagine somebody arbitrarily saying, "ah, here's a man! [laughter] Deal with it!" They do a lot of damage to each other when they don't get along.

Cynthia Edwards, formerly a COVID clinic nurse, who now works at the allergy clinic, said she started donating to the center after her coworkers got her hooked on the bear cub cam.

Person smiles
Cynthia Edwards, now a nurse at UVA Health's allergy clinic, helped set up the tour. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/WMRA)

CYNTHIA EDWARDS: Watching the cams brought down stress in the clinic. It was definitely a tension-reducer, plus it also helped the nurses bond and engage with each other, because we used to have debates about which Critter Cam was the best … Each nurse felt pretty passionate about their own Critter Cam and what animals they loved to watch. But it just, it helped us just put smiles on our faces throughout the day, and dealing with the pandemic and dealing with the heaviness in the situation.

[people and bird ambi out]

You can check out the Critter Cams and the rest of the center's educational materials at wildlifecenter.org.

Disclosure: The Wildlife Center of Virginia is featured in VPM PBS's program UnTamed.