A view of Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary

Meet Virginia’s Queen of Wildlife Rehabilitation

Photo: Courtesy of Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary

Nathou Attinger lives with dogs, cats, chickens, doves, rabbits, and a cockatiel—just a small sampling of the thousands of animals that have her to thank for their lives.

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.

Baby squirrels at Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary Photo: Courtesy of Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary

What about animals makes you excited to come to work every day? 

They’ve always been so much more appealing to me than human animals. I think it’s because they are who they are and they don’t pretend to be anyone else. There’s no bullshit. And they’re very intelligent. I think animals are so much smarter than humans. I mean, animals haven’t ruined the planet—we have. Plus they’re adorable.

I hear you’ve made some discoveries about climate change affecting the animals? 

Yes, we have a boatload of baby squirrels right now—maybe 30. With global warming, they’re coming earlier and earlier every year. It used to be that the first baby squirrels would come in mid-March and now, this year, I think the first one came on February 3rd. I’ve been watching the climate change for years now, but this is just a verifiable example of what’s happening. So we share that during our educational programming, and it helps us tell other people about climate change.

How do you keep all the sad news about suffering animals from getting to you?

Rehabbers have a very high attrition rate because it really is exhausting emotionally. But you have to learn how to build a wall because you can't treat them if you're scared for them. It's the same thing as working in an emergency room—you can’t give them the care they deserve unless you’re cool, calm, and collected. So I’ve noticed that distancing myself a little bit has allowed me to do that. It is hard for some people to adjust, but it takes two years to become a rehabber, and by the end of those two years most people understand. We have a lot of support from the community. All our finances come from grants or donations from citizens. We also work with a lot of other rehab places, like the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro.

What kind of people usually bring in injured critters?  

Certainly people who like to hike and camp and love nature are more in tune with it, but I’ve noticed that it’s usually little kids who find the baby birds or whatever; it’s because their hearts are in it. We had a little guy come in once. He was maybe 5 years old, and his mom drove him all the way from Charlottesville to my house, and he had a box with him. In it was a black widow spider. He said, ‘I had to bring this spider here because I think my mother would have killed it.’ I was really touched by that. So, I took it and released it in my garden.

What’s the strangest animal you’ve had to care for? 

Probably a baby beaver. They’re used to always being with their mother, so basically they can never be away from you. You have to get a onesie and carry the beaver everywhere you go. Luckily there’s a lady in Virginia Beach who specializes in them, but we kept him for two days before we brought him to her. So I carried the beaver around during the day. Then, when I would sleep, he’d be in a tank or something and I’d have to put my hand in there so he could cuddle against my hand. If you don’t do that, they go into severe depression and die. It’s no kidding around. I don’t know how that lady in Virginia Beach does it.

What’s something you wished other people understood about animals?

People are so afraid of animals—people are even afraid of mice. The number of people who kill groundhogs around here is crazy. And it’s amazing how many people feel animals are dirty or dangerous, or they think they could get a disease from them. I’m not saying you can’t, but that kind of fear just isn’t helpful. It ends up with the animal getting hurt. 

All animals play an important role in the ecosystem. And I think an animal has a right to live regardless of their role on this planet. They have as much a right to live as we do. 

Animals are amazing, and it’s important to remember that they were here first, and they’re not going to hurt your stuff. And if they eat part of your garden? Well, just make sure your garden is big enough for him and you.

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