Come January, people who encounter injured or orphaned wildlife will have to drive a little farther to get the animals to safety. The Southside Virginia Wildlife Center, located at 439 Hunter St. in Danville, will close its doors at the end of the year because of poor funding and the director’s desire to spend more time with family.
The nonprofit organization filled a void in the area, serving nine counties with their wildlife needs. For seven years, Tanya Lovern, director of Southside Virginia Wildlife Center, helped everything from orphaned fawns to gunshot opossums.
Operating a wildlife facility isn’t quite what Lovern envisioned when she first moved to Danville in 2003. She struck up a conversation while at a local veterinarian’s office and discovered disturbing news — the animal doctor informed the North Carolina-licensed wildlife rehabber that not a single wildlife rehabilitation center existed in the area.
“I said, ‘That’s impossible. That’s just crazy,’” Lovern said.
Rehabilitating animals since the age of 17, Lovern kept her licensure active in the Tar Heel State. She told the vet about her background and didn’t think much of it.
Not long after the encounter, she received a call from a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries employee who requested her assistance with an injured hawk. Lovern explained her licensure didn’t cover Virginia, but used her expertise to help the employee. When the Virginia office heard about Lovern’s assistance, they gave her a call.
“They said, ‘If you have a North Carolina permit, send it to us,’” Lovern said. “They sent me a Virginia permit.”
Upon receiving her permit for the Commonwealth, Lovern started a small rehabilitation operation in her home.
“I started out with cute, furry, small things,” Lovern said.
The rehabber welcomed 20 to 30 animals per year when she first started, but the wild houseguests quickly grew in number, size and diversity. When people inquired about turtles, fawns and rabies vectors, Lovern expanded.
The director purchased a property that wasn’t in the best shape. She renovated the space and turned it into the Southside Virginia Wildlife Center.
When the facility opened, the number of animals receiving care multiplied. Last year, the center aided 212 opossums and about 120 raccoons out of over 800 animals served.
“I get a lot of raccoons. They’re my favorite,” Lovern said. “I do like my scary things better, the things that can tear off my face.”
Over the years, Lovern’s rehabilitated everything from fawns covered in maggots to great horned owls with broken wings. There are a couple of favorite patients that stick out in her mind, one of which was a wild fox.
An officer helped save a fox who suffered a traumatic head injury. When Lovern encountered the animal, she looked into its eyes, a tactic she’s used over the years to communicate with her patients.
“He looked at me and gave me a look. From that look, I can tell if an animal’s done, if they’ve given up, or if they want to fight — 99% of them fight,” Lovern said.
Several weeks later, the officer returned to the center.
“He said, ‘I know the fox probably died, but I just have to know what happened,’” Lovern said. “I took him back and he got to look that animal in the face.”
Another favorite success story involved a opossum who’d been shot in the face, left to die in a trap for a week, and then gave birth to a litter of joeys. When a community member brought the family to Lovern, the director immediately focused her attention on the babies. As she removed the litter, the mother displayed faint signs of life.
Lovern quickly attended to the mother and made a promise to the creature.
“I told her I’d do everything that I could for her and when she was healthy enough, I’d give her her babies back,” Lovern said.
The mother opossum stretched out her paw and wrapped it around Lovern’s finger, a trend that continued during every treatment.
“I thought, ‘Human beings did this to you. How can you trust me?’” Lovern said.
Helping wildlife kept Lovern going, but people’s words and actions, mainly those who called on her for help, sometimes made the work difficult.
“People attacked me like I was some crazy criminal thing,” Lovern said.
Community members cursed Lovern, screamed at her, called her names, told her she was a terrible person and even threw animals at her. This happened when she couldn’t pick up an animal right away.
“You can imagine how hurtful that was,” Lovern said. “Everyone thinks what I do is a hobby, but I started the center to fill a void.”
The director’s hard work, dedication and personal investments kept the center functioning through tumultuous times, but took a toll.
“It affected my life, my livelihood,” Lovern said.
Lovern realized after the birth of her first grandchild she wasn’t able to spend as much time with her family as she would’ve liked.
A lack of area funding for the center also weighed on the director’s mind. Grants outside of Danville provided money to help the facility, but Lovern never directly received a grant from within city limits.
Near the end of May, she announced the center would close at the end of the year.
Maj. T.W. Jones with the Danville Police Department expressed that he appreciated the advanced notice, but would miss Lovern’s expertise.
“She’s been a great resource for us,” Jones said. “She would always respond. She’s a wonderful asset.”
When Jones or other animal control officers encountered an injured or orphaned wild animal, Lovern came to the rescue.
“I can’t think of a single time she didn’t show up,” Jones said. “She’s such a vital resource. From T.W. Jones and the men and women at the Danville Police Department, we’re really going to miss her.”
In 2020, people who encounter wild animals in desperate situations will have to travel outside of town to find help.
The Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center, located in Roanoke, typically serves Roanoke, Roanoke County, Botetourt, Salem and surrounding counties, but soon may experience an influx of animals from locations the Danville center serviced.
The Roanoke center is permitted both federally and by the commonwealth, so they may take animals from any part of the state. Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center specializes in small mammals and birds.
“It’s important that we have these animals,” said Sabrina Garvin, Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center executive director. “People don’t realize the importance.”
Some animals typically thought of as nuisances — like bats, snakes and opossums — often help regulate populations of ticks, mosquitoes, mice and rats.
“Each animal plays a role and it’s so important,” Garvin said.
The Southside Virginia Wildlife Center is up for sale for interested parties who possess the proper licensure and know-how to run the nonprofit.
The center consists of 2.5 acres, multiple enclosures, two buildings with kitchens and laundry rooms in each, a deer barn with a kitchen, individual inside and outside stalls and a fully fenced-in field.
“I’m actively looking for someone to take it over,” Lovern said. “It’ll take a miracle, but I’ve seen miracle after miracle after miracle.”
While Lovern said her blood, sweat and tears went into the center, she’s hopeful for the future. She still plans to help out in the community, but also hopes to take some time to herself. Eventually, she hopes to offer assistance to those dealing with domestic violence situations.
But for now, Lovern’s focus remains on the hundreds of wild animals the center services every year — over 5,000 to date.
“I pray that someone comes up here and says, ‘I can do this,’” Lovern said.