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Wildlife center still recovering from Sandy

John McCoy
The storm's timing meant that many of the old-growth hardwoods that encompass the center's exhibits still had leaves left on them, which made them even more likely to break under the weight of 3 feet of wet snow.
John McCoy The only major bird of prey remaining at the West Virginia Wildlife Center is the facility's bald eagle. Center superintendent Gene Thorn said the eagle cannot fly; if it had, it would have escaped like 12 other birds that flew away after their cages were torn open by falling trees during October's superstorm Sandy.
John McCoy The wild turkeys' pen also sustained significant storm damage, but the center's two turkeys didn't wander away.
John McCoy Snow and branches collapsed the steel structure that holds the raccoon cage's roof aloft. Almost all the center's enclosures will need to repaired to some extent.
John McCoy Because European wild boars aren't particularly agile, they weren't able to escape even when the front fence to their enclosure was mashed by a falling treetop.
John McCoy Quick action by the center's staff kept all of the large predators from escaping. The wolf pen sustained only minor damage, but the mountain lion and black bear enclosures took heavy hits.

FRENCH CREEK, W.Va. -- At the West Virginia Wildlife Center, signs of last October's hurricane-spawned snowstorm are still painfully apparent.

Tops of large trees litter the ground. Fences to the animals' open-air habitats have been knocked askew. Exhibits sit empty, the creatures having fled.

"It was a bad time," said Gene Thorn, the center's superintendent. "We're still recovering from it, and it will be a while before things are back to normal."

The remnants of Hurricane Sandy, which became known as "superstorm Sandy," dumped 2 to 3 feet of wet, heavy snow on the Upshur County mountaintop where the center is located, snapping 80-year-old trees like matchsticks.

"Those were old-growth trees -- big trees -- and a lot of them fell on exhibits. Most of our enclosures took a hit in one way or another," Thorn said. "It looked like we'd taken a hit from a World War II bombing raid."

No animals were killed, but most of the center's birds of prey escaped when falling limbs tore open the netting that formed the roofs of their exhibits.

"We lost 12 birds -- a golden eagle, barred owl, a red-shouldered hawk, two red-tailed hawks, a great horned owl, a Cooper's hawk, a black vulture and four ring-necked pheasants," Thorn said.

"The pheasants will be easy to replace, but the birds of prey won't. They were rehab birds that couldn't be released back to the wild. Now we'll have to wait for birds to become available and hope we can get them. The one that really hurts is the golden eagle. Those don't come along very often."

The center's bald eagle is still in its exhibit, but only because it has a bad wing and couldn't fly away. The only other raptor that didn't escape was a tiny screech owl.

"Fortunately, we didn't lose any mammals," Thorn said. "But we had to scramble to make sure that didn't happen. The fence to one corner of the bear enclosure got flattened, and the mountain lion pen suffered considerable damage. Our staff did great work to make sure none of our large predators got loose."

Thorn said the damage to the mountain lion enclosure occurred in a portion of the fencing that was too high for the cats to jump over.

"We got lucky there," he said.

All the predator pens have electric wires strung inside the chain-link fencing to discourage climbing, and Thorn believes the animals' memories of getting zapped helped prevent them from taking advantage of the damaged barriers.

"We were without power here for more than a week," Thorn said. "We ran generators to keep things going."

Workers have since carted away dozens of truckloads of fallen limbs and sawn-up tree trunks from literally hundreds of damaged trees. Thorn said "The Loop" -- the roughly circular paved path that visitors follow while touring the exhibits -- has been cleared, and the center is officially open.

"We're still planning to have our Groundhog Day celebration," he added. "We're probably going to do it a little differently, maybe at the amphitheater instead of the groundhog pen, but we'll get it done."

The center might not stay open long, however. Thorn said fencing contractors have been bidding on the repair job, but added that the work couldn't begin until after the special vinyl-coated chain-link fencing can be made and shipped to the contractor.

"Apparently brown vinyl-coated fencing isn't an off-the-shelf item," he said. "It has to be special-ordered, and takes four to six weeks to be delivered. It will take another two weeks to do the actual work, and an additional week after that to put new netting on top of the bird and raccoon pens."

Thorn said the center would be closed while the fence repairs are being made.

"We'll do well to have everything done by April 1, which is our usual date to be open full steam," he added.

He called the snowstorm "one of the two worst things ever to hit the Wildlife Center."

"The staff tells me there was a windstorm in 2001 that did a lot of damage, but I can't imagine it being worse than this."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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