If you are ever near Arkabutla Dam, be sure to drop by and say hello to Rufus and Rashi.
No, they aren’t park rangers with the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
Rufus is a cute little eastern screech owl while Rashi is a curious and attentive red-shouldered hawk. They are both “house animals” that are used by Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation, Inc. (MWR) at Arkabutla Lake to educate the local community on environmental, conservation and habitat destruction issues.
MWR was created to meet the increasing need for wildlife assistance in north Mississippi. MWR is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization where hundreds of injured and orphaned wild birds and mammals are cared for each year. The organization also offers a variety of education programs at community festivals, civic organizations and to thousands of school children annually.
MWR is the only state-licensed facility for wildlife rehabilitation in north Mississippi and serves Alcorn, Benton, Bolivar, Coahoma, DeSoto, Grenada, Itawamba, Lafayette, Lee, Lowndes, Marshall, Oktibbeha, Panola, Prentiss, Tallahatchie, Tate, Tishomingo, Warren and Yalobusha counties.
“We treat all indigenous species of Mississippi through state and federal permits,” said Executive Director Valery Smith, who founded MWR in 1995. “We have a steady stream of birds of prey that come through here. We also help raccoons, possums, squirrels, foxes, otters and different types of reptiles.”
Smith said the annual animal intake numbers have grown from 400 to more than 750 in the last couple of years.
“Over the last 20 years we've had an 84 percent increase in admissions for care by our trained volunteers,” Smith said. “Additionally, requests for our popular wildlife programs have increased tenfold, largely due to population growth in this area. Interest in conservation and environmental education is growing every year. Our major goals are fostering respect for all living things and forming academic alliances with area schools, colleges and universities and exhibiting, maintaining and restoring the native habitats and species of Mississippi.”
MWR moved into the old U.S. Corps of Engineers Field Office building at Arkabutla Dam in November. The building was left vacant after the corps moved into a new facility on the northern side of the dam in 2012.
Last year, MWR received a $150,000 Environmental Education grant from Entergy to construct an education pavilion that will open this spring at the new Arkabutla Lake Wildlife Rehabilitation & Nature Center or “ARK” for short. The ARK is will be located on 154 trail-laced acres of natural habitat donated by the Corps about 10 miles west of Hernando on Highway 304.
MWR is currently accepting additional grant money and donations to construct a new permanent rehab and nature center, which will also be located at the ARK. The project is expected to be complete in the next three to five years.
The new rehab and nature center will help improve the rescue, rehabilitation and release of Mississippi wildlife.
The ARK will be a 27,000-square-foot Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certified facility with classrooms and resources to prepare injured and orphaned wildlife for return to their natural environs. The ARK also will offer workshops, school and Scout programs and a "touch room" for the mentally and physically challenged.
“The ARK will be a regional resource for wildlife rehabilitation as well as a destination for environmental education,” added education director Kate Friedman.
There are currently two miles of trails, stage, wildflower garden and interpretive signage at the ARK that are open to the public.
“We will also be starting a new program called the Coldwater River Nature Conservancy,” said program director Natalie Bright. “It’s a program that will help expand our trail system and land donations into neighboring counties. It will also promote outdoor activity with nature photography and education programs at the ARK and other outdoor settings.”
Smith, Friedman and Bright recently released a barred owl, which was brought into the rehab center from Hernando after its wings were tangled in fishing line.
Smith and her crew conducted several tests on the owl before putting it in a flight cage to check for any abnormalities. After four days at the center, the owl was deemed healthy enough to go back into the wild. The bird promptly flew into a grove of tall oak trees that surround the center after its release.
That’s just one example of the tremendous work MWR does.
The center is currently treating a barn owl that was found in a ditch in DeSoto County and covered with motor oil, according to Smith.
Although Smith said her staff prefers not to name the animals that are receiving rehab, the barn owl routinely protests his daily bath in warm water and Dawn dishwashing detergent by squawking and screeching at his handler. Smith said that forced her to call him “Snotty” as a playful nickname.
“The motor oil has to be completely removed from his feathers before he can be released back into the wild because it is affecting his ability to produce natural oils.” said Smith, who also rehabs birds on her property near Eudora.
Smith added that “Snotty” is doing just fine and hopes that he can be released sometime this spring.
The staff at MWR consists of several dedicated and unpaid volunteers since the center receives no federal, state or municipal funding. MWR also currently conducts “house rehab” which allows volunteers to take animals home with them in order to provide care.
A move into the new center this spring will also certainly help with MWR’s treatment of bald eagles.
The staff recently triaged a bald eagle at the surgery center that is housed in the building at Arkabutla. The eagle was later sent to the Mid-South Raptor Center in Memphis because MWR does not currently have a flight cage large enough for an eagle to fly in. Other eagles that have been treated at MWR have been sent to places such as Louisiana State University, Auburn University and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in the past.
That scenario will change with a move to the ARK, which will feature a cage that is at least 35-feet long, 100-feet wide and 16-feet high.
Smith said the eagle that was recently triaged would be brought back to MWR when its rehab is complete so it can be released back to its home in Quitman County.
“We hope he can find his way back to his mate because bald eagles typically have the same mate for life,” Smith said.
Smith added that the new center will not only help her staff treat more bald eagles, but it will also help stimulate their population growth in the area.
“Bald eagles will definitely be the focal point of our bird exhibit,” Smith said.
Smith said her staff is already making plans for Eagle Fest in September, which is the biggest fundraiser of the year. The annual event, which features the Eagle Run Wild and Free 5K race, is a destination for school trips, family outings, wildlife enthusiasts and nature seekers.
Eagle Fest was cancelled last year because MWR was focused on getting the new education pavilion built. Around 1,200 people attended the event in 2015.
Bright, who is the Eagle Fest event coordinator, said the gathering is a great opportunity for corporate sponsorships and donations are tax-deductible.
As with any non-profit organization, donations are an integral and important part of MWR and its success.
Monetary donations can be mailed to Mississippi Wildlife Rehab, Inc., 3905 Arkabutla Dam Road, Coldwater, Miss., 38618.
MWR also accepts items such as old blankets, animal crates and bird cages.
For more information on how to give or become a volunteer, call (662) 612-6455 or go to the MWR website at mswildliferehab.com