April 06, 2009
Nina Fischesser, Director of Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute at Lees-McRae, attends National Conservation Forum in San Diego

Nina Fischesser, Director of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute (BRWI) at Lees-McRae College, was selected by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to attend a national forum, February 19 and 20 in San Diego, California, entitled "It's Alive! Petals to Primates: Preservation Challenges of Living Collections." She is one of more than 50 representatives of small and medium-sized living collection institutions nationwide invited to participate based on their leadership in the profession and in their communities.

The conference program explored the range of challenges facing America's smaller institutions housing collections of plants and animals. National conservation leaders, government officials, and professionals from zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers and living history farms addressed issues relevant to caring for and sustaining treasured living collections. IMLS, the primary source of federal support for the nation's libraries, museums and living collections, presented this event in cooperation with the San Diego Zoo, and Heritage Preservation, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving the country's heritage.

"Living collection institutions-from aquariums to zoos-play a very special role in our communities. We value them as places where we can learn about natural history and science, consider concepts of conservation and sustainability, and experience nature with friends and family," said IMLS Director Anne-Imelda Radice, Ph.D. "At IMLS, we know that these special museums face unique conservation challenges. We are delighted to offer this opportunity for professionals from these institutions to come together and learn from each other."

The Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute at Lees-McRae College cares for more than 600 injured or orphaned wild animals from western North Carolina annually. These include animals attacked by cats, hit by cars, with gunshot wounds, caught in fences and a myriad of other human-induced causes. This vital wildlife rehabilitation work includes medical assistance (in conjunction with trained veterinarians), feeding, housing and supportive care. Fully recovered animals are released in appropriate wild habitats.

The BRWI is also the central point of the wildlife rehabilitation and pre-veterinary science disciplines at Lees-McRae College. Students at the Institute become intimately familiar with the care, needs, and behavior of wild and domesticated vertebrates. The program offers a wide range of classroom and laboratory courses balanced with clinical experience performed in the Institute.

Nina Fischesser, the Institute's director, has been rehabilitating wildlife since 1989 and serves as the guiding force behind the mission of the Institute. Dr. Lee Bolt, the veterinarian who treats the all the wildlife that at the Institute, accompanied Fischesser to the conference. They both hope to bring back much of what they learned at the conference and put it into action at the Institute.

"We were the only rehab center [at the conference]. We're one of a kind. It was almost like our debut into the world of living collections. Even though the Institute is not as large as other places, our program has a big impact on our communities. It was a great opportunity to introduce all of these people to what wildlife rehabilitation is like in the higher education setting," said Fischesser.

Fischesser was also able to make some unique connections at the conference. The San Diego Zoo, largely considered the best zoo in the world, expressed interest in collaborating with the BRWI, which would be an incredible resource for students. Fischesser also made some international connections that could open up possibilities for future international service trips. One trip would take students to China to work with giant pandas, and the other would travel to Mexico and work in all of the three zoos located in the heart of Mexico City.

"What this was all about was connections - connecting to other places and other people. Dr. Radice basically told us 'Don't be shy.' Make friends, make connections. This is how we will succeed in protecting what is precious to us. Overall, we're much more effective when we have each other," said Fischesser.

The BRWI was awarded a Conservation Project Support grant from the IMLS last spring. One goal of the grant is to install and utilize digital cameras and hardware to monitor rehabilitation animals and maintain digital archives.

While in San Diego, Fischesser and Dr. Bolt consulted with personnel at the zoo on use of the video equipment that will be installed at the center this year.

Dr. Bolt will use the video equipment in his office, Sweeten Creek Animal Hospital, so that Fischesser and students can follow the wildlife cases from beginning to end, including observation of treatments at the animal hospital.

"Dr. Bolt wanted to see how he could use the new technology in his office too," Fischesser explained. "[At the BRWI], we will be able to follow behaviors of animals in the absence of human presence. We can track who is having a hard time and why and who is successful and why."

Also with funds from the grant, the BRWI will improve its website, utilizing the digital videos on the Web. Visitors to the website will be able to follow an animal's progress online.

"We will record and archive progress in the flight cages. We'll have video from when the bird first arrives at the center until he's ready for release," Fischesser said. "We can follow the rehab of these animals full-circle."

The improvements in technology at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute will benefit the center greatly, both in the rehabilitation of the animals and in the education of the students.

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