I’ve been volunteering at the wildlife hospital for over a week now. The hospital was formed 20 years ago by some college students because no facilities existed in Greece to rehabilitate wild animals (though there are now some other organizations that care for wild animals, the wildlife hospital is still the oldest and best-known). The hospital has persisted with the help of volunteers and benefactors, but very little help from the country of Greece, which does not have the same kind of system to help fund non-profit organizations as we enjoy in the U.S. The people who run the Aegina facility (there is also a facility in Thessaloniki, Greece) truly do it as a labor of love. Their philosophy is “the needs of the animals come first” and they are clearly passionate about what they do. The center receives approximately 3000 to 4000 injured and sick animals every year—some are injured in collisions with vehicles, some by shot pellets (illegal poaching is common here), some are poisoned by illegal baits intended for foxes and wolves, and some are simply found or abandoned (we have many abandoned wild animals that people attempted to domesticate).
The Aegina center’s leadership is comprised of three main characters: Pavlos (Paul), Yiannis (John), and Mirena (just ‘Mirena’). Pavlos is the unofficial ‘jack-of-all-trades’ at the hospital and has an infectious laugh that sounds a bit like an asthmatic hyena. He’s also a former car and motorcycle racer, a past which one can still detect in his driving given the way he pushes his beat-up Volkswagen Golf at top speeds through the winding, narrow roads of Aegina. Quite frankly, his driving scares the hell out of me. Yiannis is a scruffy botanist and ‘Giorgios of the Jungle’-type who is perfectly at ease walking around in nothing but shorts, flip-flops, and with a cockatoo perched on his bare shoulder. He makes quite a sight. I asked him once where the cockatoo poops when he’s riding on his shoulder like that and Yiannis’ reply was, “on me.” One look at his backpack confirmed that this is, indeed, true. Yiannis’ primary job, aside from helping with the administrative tasks involved in running the hospital, is to create the correct habitats for the animals who arrive and also select the proper habitat in which to release them when that time comes. Last but not least is Mirena, a veterinarian who immigrated to Greece from Bulgaria. She appears to be the person really running the show here and has a powerful, yet carefree ‘Bohemian’ personality. Mirena can often be found either bandaging and caring for the animals or arguing vehemently with Yiannis whenever he’s around. Arguing with Yiannis seems to be Pavlos’ and Mirena’s favorite pasttime, if frequency is any judge. All of the arguments are in Greek, of course, so I have no juicy details to divulge—except one time Mirena used her broken (and very spare) English to tell me that Yiannis is ‘crazy,’ so I suspect that her assertion of his mental status has something to do with the arguments. Of course, she probably didn’t mean this literally—he certainly doesn’t seem crazy to me, just a little eccentric.
Aside from these three major figures at the hospital, the rest of the people here are made up of volunteers like me. Many come and go—some for long stays and some short. The ‘main’ ones (i.e., longer-term volunteers, like me) are a young girl from Finland, three gals from Barcelona who are here to complete a graduate requirement for their Veterinary degrees, a student from Stanford, and several people from Athens. They’re a fantastic bunch of people and are making my experience here all the richer.
Our days here are pretty routine. Volunteers work five days a week, two of which are full days and the rest half-days. A typical day goes something like this: from 9:00 to 12:00 we all work on feeding the animals and cleaning out their cages. Then, we break for an hour and from 1:00 to 3:00 we take care of ‘special needs’ animals such as those in the quarantine or in the emergency room. ‘Taking care’ of them can mean just about anything—from hand-feeding baby birds to administering medications. On full days, our schedule resumes at 6:00 (a 3-hr siesta is observed between 3:00 and 6:00) and we help Mirena check in new arrivals. Throughout the day we also mix in general hospital cleaning and maintenance. It can be pretty exhausting work, especially considering that it’s incredibly hot during the day and seems to get hotter and hotter each day that I’m here (regularly over 100 degrees).
I can honestly say that I wasn’t sure I would like it here at first. The living conditions are much more rustic than I am accustomed to and since wild animals are here, it naturally means exposure to all kinds of things that make my skin crawl, such as animal feces, fleas, ticks, parasites—you name it. At first I thought, “what was I thinking?” Still, it has quickly grown on me. I love the animals and balance out my squeamishness to animal-related ickiness with frequent hand-washing that borders on the obsessive. All of the animals here really grow on you and some of their stories are atrocious. The cockatoo I mentioned previously was brought to the hospital when someone found it wrapped in plastic wrap and tossed in the garbage, ostensibly because its owner tired of it. We also have a macaque monkey and a marmoset, both of which were abused by their handlers and not cared for properly. This place is a veritable zoo of all manner of wildlife and sad stories of how they came to be here.
Also, one of the things I really love about this place is that volunteers are allowed to participate in everything. Some places have their volunteers only do the ‘dirty work’ and mundane tasks—here, we are allowed to hand-feed baby birds, help change bandages, administer medication, and even catch birds that are ready for release (many of our birds are in large cages that mimic their natural habitats). I discovered that I’m quite good at catching birds—since I am unemployed, maybe this new skill could come in handy ; ).