A pandemic that has forced the economy to a screeching halt doesn’t change one simple fact when it comes to local animal sanctuaries: There are still mouths to feed.

For Jesse Rothacker, founder of Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary in Manheim, and Tracie Young, founder of Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Washington Boro, maintaining their nonprofits is more than a full-time job. Rescuing animals and educating the public about them, they said, is a 365-day-a-year commitment regardless of a pandemic.

But they’re struggling: Organizations such as these are receiving less donations, taking in less revenue from programming and receiving even more animals in need of their help because of COVID-19.

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Reptiles from home

While Rothacker would normally bring his reptiles on trips to libraries, summer camps and schools, he said the onset of the pandemic threw a wrench into the way he does programming.

Approximately 100 programs Rothacker had planned for this year have been cancelled, costing him tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. Several have been adapted to virtual programming. Only a few had spaces large enough to support social distancing and other COVID-19 restrictions.

Rothacker said he applied for a grant through Recovery Lancaster to recoup some of his lost revenue, but he has not heard back yet.

In the meantime, Rothacker has gotten creative. On an afternoon in late July, he was stretching out snakes in his backyard for a virtual program with Aaron’s Acres, a summer camp for children and young adults with disabilities.

“You actually learn different ways to interact through Zoom,” Rothacker said, adding that his audience could easily find videos of reptiles through YouTube, so he has to find ways to engage them as he normally would in person.

Initially, Rothacker wasn’t promoting his virtual programs as much with the hopes that in-person programming would soon be possible. Now, he might be doing this type of programming for the rest of the year.

In April, he purchased a green screen, a new laptop, lighting and cameras to enhance his online programming. Since then, he has been working on formatting a virtual assembly option for schools that can be catered to specific age groups.

But virtual programming is still not ideal. Rothaker said he is seeing a significantly smaller attendance at his virtual events than he would see for an in-person program. He attributes it to what he called Zoom fatigue.

More intake, fewer donations

Some organizations, such as Young’s Raven Ridge Wildlife Center, have seen more action, but with less revenue.

Young said she saw an increase in animals imprinting on humans as more people took to the trails and parks once the weather started to improve -- and some took the wildlife home with them.

Imprinting occurs when a young animal starts to identify with the human rather than its own species.

By the time the animals get to Young, it can be very difficult for her to break that connection to humans, she said.

Currently, she has a goose in a fenced-in area of her yard with several geese decoys to break the imprint. On the fence is a sign telling visitors to stay away so the goose can learn that it is, in fact, a goose.

Young said she usually gives an animal three to four months to break it of imprinting. That means three to four months of increased expenses for food and other supplies. If the animal cannot be cured, it must be euthanized, because it could never return to the wild.

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With an increase in imprinting, Young said she has to turn away some animals. She will recommend that those who found the animal take it to the next nearest wildlife sanctuary, which is almost two hours away.

“The flux of numbers have gone up very high, but we're the only one in Lancaster County,” Young said. “We’re it.”

On a daily basis, Young receives about 30 calls asking her to take in injured or imprinted animals. Last year at this time, she said she would only receive half as many calls.

While she is receiving twice as many calls, Young said half as many donations are coming in during the pandemic. Young normally receives about $500 a week, she said.

Young said she understands why. But that doesn’t change another simple fact: “The animals need us.”


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