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Giving care, finding solace

The Baltimore Sun

Gerda Deterer is missing the crisp day outside, missing the mellow sunlight softly inching over the 17 rolling acres outside her Hampstead home.

Instead, the veteran wildlife rehabilitator is hidden away in her basement, bent over the brown-and-gray dappled head of a barred owl, gently prying its yellow beak open to feed it with a pair of forceps. The owl is docile and weak because of a head injury and a broken collarbone suffered after it rammed into the windshield of a car.

"How ya doin', child?" she coaxes in a soft German lilt that still emerges 47 years after she left her native country for Baltimore. "I'm here, I'm takin' care of you, OK."

The owl is taking care of her, too.

Every moment she spends on this barred owl, or the debilitated porcupine, or the malnourished bald eagles, is a moment she isn't thinking of the husband she lost the day after Christmas. The Carroll County refuge she built with him to rehabilitate wildlife has, in recent weeks, become a sanctuary for her, too.

"Thank God, it's been busy," the 66-year-old says. "The critters keep me going."

When Wayne Deterer died last month, he left his wife running a wildlife refuge that had grown to become the fifth-largest in the state, with 50 volunteers helping care for about 3,500 birds and animals a year.

"If you had a dream about how wildlife rehabilitation should look, feel, the Deterers' place would be it," said Mary Goldie, a permits coordinator for the state's Department of Natural Resources. "They have a lot of space for the animals. They've planted special trees and vegetation around the hawks so they feel at home. It's amazing."

The Deterers' work began modestly nearly 25 years ago out of a small gray bungalow in Dundalk. Back then, Gerda Deterer, a retired pastry chef, specialized in injured birds and had them in every nook and cranny of the couple's home.

Her husband had to straddle crates holding geese and swans in the bathroom to shave in the morning. Owls and hawks perched in cages in the living room and the screened porch. The dining table held incubators to keep hatchlings warm.

Gerda Deterer taught herself how to care for them and obtained state and federal licenses in 1986 to house birds and nurse them back to health. Her husband's job at a meatpacking plant helped pay for the animal food and equipment. She did the work for free, accepting calls from veterinarians and nearby residents who found injured or orphaned birds.

Nowadays, it's only the size of her operation that has changed. She works on a donated lot of 17 acres in Hampstead, where hawks, eagles and owls heal in large enclosed coops complete with tree limbs and bowls of fresh mice.

Inside the yellow home that volunteers donated to the couple three years ago, rooms that other families might use for dens and bedrooms instead hold a rainbow of macaws, cockatoos and lovebirds in dozens of cages.

To virgin ears, their cooing and cawing is cacophonous. To Deterer, it's music. She walks from one cage to another, whispering to each one and lingering especially close to a bald macaw named Jasper.

"They're self-mutilators," she says, looking at Jasper's naked head. "Families buy them and don't realize how much care they need. Macaws are smart and they can tell when they're not being loved. They feel hurt, get stressed, start plucking out their own feathers."

The work is still free at Wildlife Rescue Inc., the name the Deterers gave to their operation once it formally became a nonprofit in 1994 and expanded to include animals as well as birds.

Veterinarians and residents from as far as the Eastern Shore still call for help. On a recent afternoon, she juggles three calls. There's a hurt blue heron in Anne Arundel County, a great horned owl in bad shape in Queen Anne's, and an injured vulture in Cecil County.

"Come now," the callers press. She can't. She must tend to the injured barred owl she just picked up that morning from a Harford County veterinarian's clinic. She calls a volunteer to pick the other birds up and prays she can help them in time.

The home's basement is like a clinic, with stainless-steel counters stocked with jars of forceps and sutures and large cases of powdered milk formula to feed the hundreds of baby birds and animals that flood the refuge every spring. This is where she cares for the owl, dark and warm in a towel-covered incubator.

She is worried about the listless speckled bird. When she tries to feed it, the bird is slow to open its beak. When she runs her hand in front of its black saucer-like eyes, the bird doesn't flinch or blink. Slow reflexes are a sign of a head injury.

"I like it when they get feisty," she said. "That's when I know they're feeling better. This one has a ways to go."

She can't spend too much time on this one, though. There is a success story waiting for her outside. A sharp-shinned hawk, brown, gold and restless, is waiting to be released. After months of healing from a wing injury, she and volunteer Liz Smith think this one's ready to return to the wild.

Smith holds the bird in her leather-gloved hands and points it into the wind, then lets go. The bird drops slightly, then pumps its wings hard to reach the tall branch of a nearby tree. The women scream and exchange high-fives. And as she always does during these times, Gerda Deterer prays, "Be all right out there. I hope I don't have to see you again."

The birds have kept her busy all day. She's had no time to miss her husband until she starts winding down well after dark. She starts missing him when she clicks on the television and sees a rerun of his favorite show, Law & Order. She turns the television up, so he can hear, then chastises herself for "actin' crazy."

"I have my bad moments," she says. "The way I look at it, he's still here."

She remembers him every time she passes by the cages and fences he helped build. Every time she passes by the buggy he used to ride on their property. Every time she sees the rabbits that were his favorites.

"I have to go on running this place because that's what he would want me to do," she said. "This is his legacy."


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