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NC Press: Bless its scaly little head

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Sun Feb 4 19:15:49 2007  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

DAILY NEWS (Jacksonville, N Carolina) 04 February 07 Bless its scaly little head (Chrissy Vick)
Snakes, lizards and alligators may frighten some.
But to Jen Grooms and Shannon Baker, they're just part of the family.
A normal day for the two animal lovers usually involves washing turtles, feeding lizards, doing surgery on snakes and sitting on the backs of alligators.
It's not only an average day's routine, it's what they live for.
"All creatures need a chance at life," Grooms said. "We hope we're filling a need."
As a veterinary technician and licensed wildlife rehabilitator in mammals, reptiles and amphibians, Grooms said she has seen that need for her services grow. Once she moved to Jacksonville four years ago, word spread that she specialized in reptiles. Grooms said she is getting numerous phone calls for help.
The calls range from relocating alligators on Camp Lejeune to identifying snakes in people's backyard. People also began bringing her turtles that had been attacked by dogs, iguanas that were improperly cared for as pets and snakes that had been struck by cars.
With a soft spot for the creatures, Grooms could never turn one away. That translated into more than 250 reptiles that came through her care in 2006 alone.
But there were limitations to the care they could provide.
Grooms, who teaches classes for Coastal Carolina Community College's veterinary assisting program, decided with former student Baker to try to do more. In August, with the help of Baker's parents, Linda and Bob Matheny, they decided to form the Herpetological Education and Rehabilitation Project known as H.E.R.P. Wildlife Rescue.
"We were helping other local organizations out of our own homes," said Grooms, who has been a rehabilitator for 15 years. "Together, we thought we could make a bigger difference and help more animals. There was a need. We wanted a place for Onslow County and the surrounding counties to go."
A big hurdle of forming the organization was overcome when the Matheny's donated their home and 18 acres of land in Jacksonville to H.E.R.P. Wildlife Rescue. The couple has always kept their home busy by caring for pygmy goats, dogs, cats and sugar gliders (flying squirrels from Australia).
Now, the Mathneys' green farmhouse is also filled with a variety of species of snakes, lizards, birds, ferrets, turtles and cats.
"Without Linda and Bob (Matheny) none of this would have been possible," Grooms said, pointing around the land to various barns and storehouses that are now homes for injured reptiles and amphibians. "The land and materials have been instrumental in getting this started."
A former horse stable on the property is now a heated home and hospital for sick animals such as yellow-bellied sliders, scarlet snakes, a green iguana, a bearded dragon and much more. Most of those animals are well, bedded down for the winter and awaiting their release back into the wild in the spring.
In a storehouse next door, Grooms and Baker are now able to do blood work, minor surgeries and quarantine sick animals.
For anything more serious, veterinarian Gus Keel donates his time.
All believe in giving an injured animal every chance to make it.
"If it's got a will to live, we'll find a place for it," said Grooms, who was born and raised in Richlands. "I was taught to have a profound respect for all living things. The biggest thing is we help these animals who would have otherwise been euthanized."
But it isn't always easy. If an animal is too sick to live or suffering, Grooms and Baker have to make the decision to euthanize.
"Sometimes it can be a hard predicament - there's a dark side to it," Grooms said. "If we can't save an animal, it has to happen. We usually cry."
The two are not quick to give up, though, like the case of one 65-pound alligator-snapping turtle that was hit by a car.
"No one thought she'd make it, but she did and was later released," Grooms said. "Sometimes a wildlife officer will call and say they don't think an animal will make it, but they know we'll give it a chance."
When the animal does end up living, it gives Grooms and Baker a reason to keep going.
"The next morning we wake up and it helps to see we're making a difference," Grooms said. "Anything that comes to us, we'll take care of until we can find a home."
If an animal is non-releasable due to being injured or sick for life and unadoptable, they find themselves a new home at H.E.R.P. Wildlife Rescue.
And while the organization specializes in helping orphaned, sick or displaced animals, they do not assist in nuisance removal. They are eager to help identify snakes and educate the public on exotic animals.
"We like to let the public know why they don't make great pets," Grooms said. "People are better off helping an organization like us than improperly caring for one. They're not like cats or dogs."
Most exotic animals, reptiles and amphibians need a specialized diet and surroundings. There are also no specialized veterinarians in the area, Grooms said.
"Something important to me is educating the public about snakes," she said. "Often snakes are killed unnecessarily. They actually help control the rat and frog population."
Grooms and Baker speak regularly to school groups and various local organizations. But sometimes, experience is the best tool.
"We get some pretty compassionate people that bring animals in," Grooms said. "It really educates people why they shouldn't pick up that baby squirrel, why they shouldn't take in that box turtle and let the kids feed it lettuce until it dies a slow death."
H.E.R.P. Wildlife Rescue is the only local rescue organization that answers 24-hour calls for any sick wildlife in the area. The two have even traveled as far as Raleigh and Charlotte to pick up sick animals.
"The state called us to take a number of turtles rescued in Charlotte when authorities raided a home there," said Grooms, standing next to volunteer Joanne Bork as she washed the turtles in a wading pool last week. "They were stuck in a foot of feces for who knows how long with a number of other animals."
The turtles have multiple serious injuries and Grooms isn't sure whether all of them will make it.
But hope is what keeps them going.
Grooms and Baker have a similar hope of soon obtaining a non-profit status, when they will then be able to apply for grants and receive donations. Until that time, Grooms and Baker continue to solicit volunteers in their efforts.
"We want more buildings so we don't have to constantly move the animals from barn to barn," Baker said. "As it stands now, it's a lot of work."
That's not to mention that she currently sleeps in a bedroom full of cages housing snakes and lizards due to lack of space.
The two currently have materials to build new structures, but lack the manpower. In the future, they hope to dig a pond on the property for the non-releasable turtles. They also hope to construct nature trails and natural caging through the surrounding woods for other non-releasable animals.
"For non-releasable animals it would help for them to be in an area more like their natural habitat, since very few are indigenous," Baker said.
The trails will also serve as a viewing area for visitors.
"Right now the animals' needs are met, but it's not aesthetically pleasing," Grooms said. "But we're not a zoo. We're a healing place. We just hope with more awareness we can get more people to help."
Contact staff writer Chrissy Vick at or by calling 353-1171, ext. 239.
Want to know more? H.E.R.P. Wildlife Rescue specializes in wild and exotic reptiles in surgical, nursing and critical care, emergency triage and transport of all species. There are also educational programs H.E.R.P. Wildlife Rescue, call Jen Grooms at 526-1423 or Shannon Baker at 526-4408 or by e-mail at


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