I was fortunate enough to enjoy the outdoors as a child, roaming the woods and exploring, playing in creeks, watching birds and camping with my family. This began my love for nature and wildlife that has shaped my entire life. It was only natural that I pursued zoology at college and was eventually able to use this to share my interests with others through teaching and creating Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Hubert.
Many children today lack the ability to do as I did and no longer have the safety or freedom to roam unsupervised. Woods have been replaced with shopping centers and creeks are polluted. Camping is almost extinct as families no longer share outdoor experiences with their children. How are the younger generations going to learn about conservation, ecology, nature, native wildlife and their role in the environment of the future? This has been a growing concern of mine, and something that I worry about.
Possumwood Acres was created as the culmination of a dream to establish a center for wildlife rehabilitation. All injured and orphaned birds and animals now have a place to receive care and treatment so that they have a second chance at life in the wild. When the sanctuary began in 2004, only 50 animals and birds were treated that first year. In 2017 we admitted more than 1,550 patients. Obviously this enterprise outgrew my abilities to manage it single-handedly, and volunteers were recruited. Now more than 450 volunteers participate annually, donating over 25,000 hours of their community service time to helping wildlife. Staff has been hired to help supervise and manage the workloads.
To help meet the future need for a new generation of wildlife rehabilitators and environmental educators, I created a course in 2005 that is taught through the continuing education department at Coastal Carolina Community College. Students learn how to become wildlife rehabilitators and earn their own state and federal permits so that they can care for wild birds and mammals legally. Possumwood Acres is also determined to become the premiere training facility for interns interested in gaining the hands-on skills involved in rehabilitation care and treatment. This summer we averaged 15 interns weekly who trained for eight-week sessions and came to us from all over the United States. Many were pre-veterinary school students and veterinary technician students completing their certificate programs.
I watch the children who come on our tours and see them become excited about the birds and animals on display. As they feel the soft fur of our education opossum, or gently pet the ducklings, or brush the bunnies, I see their eyes grow wide in wonder. Parents bring their children to volunteer together and share in the experience, working with the resident animals and caring for the many birds. Laughter abounds and delight is evident on children’s faces as they watch the antics of the bossy guinea hens chasing the peacocks and turkeys around. Feeding leaves to the pigs and goats is fun for even the toddlers. Older teens thrill at the opportunity to work closely with our raptors and try to outstare the owls. Watching all these interactions brings me hope that these families and children will continue to be fascinated with the outdoors and nature. It would be wonderful to see these families return over the years and eventually bring grandchildren along for the fun.
Working with local high school students as a mentor for their senior projects allows me to also help guide their thoughts about the future for wildlife. These students are our future lawmakers. Hopefully they will try to protect the environment and preserve wildlife habitats. They will be the leaders of tomorrow that hold the lives of today’s endangered species in their hands. My dreams for saving wildlife rest with them and I believe that they will make the difference. These students have the opportunity to learn why this is so vitally important. They are able to see for themselves the impact that the outdoors and wildlife have on people. If I can play a small part in that future, I will be happy.
I believe that the healthy benefits of “green therapy” can be shared here at Possumwood Acres with everyone. Simply being outside in the sunshine and fresh air has been proven to have positive effects on both mental and physical health. None of this is new and I’ve been preaching this my entire life, but the concepts of “eco-therapy” and “Vitamin N” are gaining a new awareness because of the growing desire to have natural methods for recovery that avoid drugs and medication.
Our “Come Find Your CENTER” (Caring, Eco-therapy, Nature, Tranquility, Environment, Raptors) program has grown to offer benefits that allow participants to: reduce depression, anxiety and stress; lower blood pressure and lose weight; gain energy and stamina through exercise; make friends and share interests with others; meditate in a quiet garden; listen to nature sounds and soothing music; work off anger; and, best of all, refresh, renew and relax.
Books have long been my go-to for simple relaxation and I have always felt sad for anyone who had difficulties or was unable to read. We now use Mr. Bun-Bun, a rescued domestic rabbit, in a program to help dyslexic children improve their reading skills and overcome their reluctance to read in public. This little rabbit is also used as part of a reading readiness and pre-K skills development program for Head Start children. The rabbits are rescued from the animal shelter and given a new home with us, and hopefully one day may even be adopted. I view this as “win-win” for all concerned, children and rabbits alike.
I have been blessed to be able to combine my love of birds and animals, teaching and working with children all together into the life I have now. The local support has always been tremendous and I am proud to be a member of this community. The growth and success of Possumwood Acres is due to this community support. Without all the many wonderful volunteers, interns, dedicated staff members, students, friends, and especially my family, there would be no Possumwood Acres.
I would be a very poor person indeed without this wealth of riches from these friendships that have developed with others who also share my dreams and passions.
Toni O’Neil of Hubert is director of Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary.