ROANOKE, Va. - Dr. John Garvin's favorite place in the world is within walking distance of his front door.
"This will be good," Garvin excitedly whispered as he made his way to the edge of the woods behind his Roanoke County home. The morning sun had come out from behind clouds - illuminating his squirrel sanctuary and encouraging some of its animals to make their presence known.
Garvin, 56, is an emergency room physician, and he is also one of 15 licensed rehabilitators with Wildlife Care Alliance. The nonprofit organization was founded by Gwenn Johnston, a veterinary assistant at the Blue Ridge Animal Hospital, in August 1998.
The rehabilitators care for injured and orphaned wild animals of all kinds throughout southwest Virginia. There are similar organizations in Tidewater, Richmond and northern Virginia.
15 to 20 squirrels
Garvin takes care of 15 to 20 squirrels at a time in his back yard and takes in other small animals such as chipmunks and rabbits. He uses a method called "soft-release" - the animals are free to come and go as they please from cages made of untreated wood and hardware cloth. The cages are set up in the woods and the animals become acclimated to nature slowly and decide when to leave for good.
A squirrel that Garvin explained was "not quite wild enough," clung to a tree only a couple of feet away, staring at him. Another squirrel came up to him and begged for food. Garvin squatted down and fed him a nut.
"When they feel real comfortable they'll run up your leg," he said.
But Garvin is quick to point out he is no Dr. Dolittle.
"It's not to develop pets - it's to restore to the wild," he said. But he admitted he sometimes becomes "attached to the critters."
One such "critter" is a flying squirrel he named Millie - as in millimeter.
"When she first got here she could stand on my thumb," he said. "She was a wee thing."
Millie had a joint infection that was cured by surgeons at the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro. Garvin cared for her in a nursery in his home over the winter.
Ready for release
Now healthy, Millie resides in a modified soft-release cage equipped with a door. Garvin leaves it open at night so the nocturnal flying squirrel can explore the woods. During the day the cage remains closed.
"I'm a' comin' in to getcha, pilgrim," Garvin said in his best John Wayne voice as he opened the box inside the cage where Millie was sleeping.
Garvin's laid-back demeanor has helped him work in an emergency room for 32 years.
The balding man with a gray beard owns a sign warning of an "attack squirrel" that hangs in his nursery and a coffee mug that reads "too much sex causes baldness." But his good humor is dampened momentarily as he thinks about the bittersweet morning when he finds Millie's cage empty.
'Going to be tough'
"Millie is quite cool," he said. "That's going to be tough."
Garvin continued his morning rounds in the nursery where birds and groundhogs sat in boxes waiting to be fed. He spends about two hours a day feeding the animals.
The birds need to be fed every 45 minutes from dawn to dusk. When he leaves for work at Lewis-Gale Medical Center, volunteer baby sitters take over. The baby sitters are vital to the program, Garvin explained, and are trained to give injections and feed the animals.
Garvin has been rehabilitating small mammals at his home since August, but he just received his songbird license this spring. Dorothy Runion, a friend of Garvin's, runs Roanoke Wildlife Rescue. He began volunteering there two years ago and his interest grew from there.
Many of the animals people bring to him are injured by cats or by falls from trees. Healthy orphaned babies are frequent visitors to Garvin in the spring and fall. He said people can lower the number of animal injuries by using simple precautions such as checking trees before they cut them down, checking tall grass before mowing it and burning brush in the winter, when it's less likely to be inhabited.
Four of the five groundhogs living in the nursery were orphaned in April when a Roanoke County man shot two adult groundhogs in his back yard.
"His wife said, 'Congratulations, it's spring. Here's the shovel. Go find the babies,'" Garvin said.
The four groundhogs were joined by another, slightly older, groundhog, who taught the others how to climb. Some baby birds that are difficult to feed begin eating after watching other birds eat. Millie had a cagemate and Garvin hoped the two flying squirrels could learn from each other, but her cagemate died.
As he made the rounds feeding the screeching baby birds, Garvin explained that rehabilitators are poor substitutes for parents. While he expects injured squirrels or groundhogs to live when he brings them in, baby birds are riskier.
"Baby 3 died this morning," he said as he checked on a cardinal hatchling.
But the good moments outnumber the bad. Garvin said he laughs at the groundhogs' antics and feels the happiness of a successful release. The sadness that accompanies a death is just another emotion that comes with the job.
"It is being alive," he said. "It engages everything.
"People say the secret to life is being in love with what you do. Well, I am."