It all started with a crow named Merlin.
Nathou Attinger (she/her)—the founder of Virginia’s Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary—had always loved animals. Growing up, her family had dogs, cats, and even a few goats. But the wildlife thing didn’t start until 2000. Then, one of the customers of her landscaping business walked up to her with a bird in his hands. It was glossy and black, and it couldn’t fly. The man told her he’d found an injured baby and raised it, but it had never fully recovered. Now, he wasn’t sure what to do. So, he asked Attinger if she would take it. She accepted without hesitation. That night, she moved the crow, Merlin, into her guest room. Then she built him an outdoor enclosure.
At first, Attinger’s partner, Beverly Butler, wasn’t too thrilled. “You know what you’re doing is illegal, right?” she asked.
At the time, Attinger was surprised. But, sure enough, Butler was right: If she wanted to legally care for wild animals in her home, she’d need a wildlife rehabilitation permit. So, Attinger applied. Within a few years she was building enclosures in her backyard to house baby squirrels, baby birds, and everything else that came her way. Soon, she had more animals than she could handle. Before long, she and Butler were filling out paperwork to establish the Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, hiring other rehabbers, and building a rehab empire that now cares for over 1,000 animals every year.
To get the whole story, we sat down with Attinger to talk about how she went from backyard animal lover to one of Virginia’s biggest wildlife heroes.
PUBLIC LANDS: So this all started while you were running a business. How did you balance that with this sudden influx of baby animals?
NATHOU ATTINGER: Well, when you have baby birds, you have to feed them every 20 minutes. So I had about eight little cages in the cab of my truck, and I’d bring the baby squirrels and birds to work with me. Pretty soon my whole landscape crew knew how to pee and poop baby squirrels. So we’d sit in a circle, and I’d feed them and we’d pass them around and they would pee and poop them. There were four people on my crew, and the only prerequisite was to love animals. So they loved it, but let me tell you, not a lot of landscaping was getting done! Eventually we realized we had to hire someone.
So when did you decide to move the operation out of your house?
My backyard is 40 acres, so I had plenty of room for the animals. It was the humans that were the problem. I remember one day, at about 2 or 3 in the morning, this guy comes into my house, and I'm asleep, and he’s got a wounded hawk in his arms, and he says, ‘Nathou, wake up and help me here!’ That’s when I thought, ‘OK this has gone too far.’ It took us two years to raise enough money to buy the new place, but we did. We moved [to our current location in Shipman, Va., about 30 miles southwest of Charlottesville] about four years ago now.