Injured animals find help in Massapequa home

Every morning, Cathy Horvath wakes up at dawn, and over a cup of instant coffee, she cuts up dead mice.

The mice are breakfast – not for her children – but for the many wild animals that are temporarily residing in her home. From their single family house in Massapequa, Horvath and her husband Bobby, run Wildlife In Need Of Rescue and Rehabilitation (WINORR), a not-for-profit wildlife rehabilitation organization.

“I feel like I’m Mother Earth’s helper,” she said. “This is my purpose.”

A test of heart

Twenty-five years ago, Horvath received her wildlife rehabilitation license through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The test consists of 100 multiple choice questions, and requires a grade of 80 percent to pass. According to the DEC, anyone can take the exam to become a legal, licensed rehabilitator, even if the person does not have any past experience with wildlife.

Kelly Martin, president of the New York State Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (NYSWRC) says the DEC conducts a background check to see if the applicant has violated conservation laws. The check does not include any criminal or misdemeanor charges, such as a traffic violation.

“If you broke a law and then paid the fine or handled the matter, I don’t think that means you have a clean slate,” said Martin. “But I also don’t think that should prevent you from getting your license.”

Martin explained that most people who receive their license seek additional information and training before they begin to rehabilitate wildlife on their own. New York was one of the first states to develop a testing system, and Martin said the test is considered a starting point for rehabilitators. The DEC keeps a watchful eye by having them submit annual logs of their work. The DEC places a lot of trust in rehabilitators, hoping they understand it’s more than just a hobby.

“You have to have common sense and a big heart,” said Horvath. “And a realization that once you touch something, you’re responsible for it.”

Horvath’s full-time job as a veterinary technician means that she has more knowledge than the average person about caring for sick and injured animals. Over the years, her volunteer work grew from fixing a few broken wings on the side, to a menagerie in her home–all while raising four children.

An expensive cause

For Horvath, working with animals has always been a passion. Since she’s been old enough to leave her yard, she has been bringing home injured bunnies or birds. She said her parents hated animals, so she would have to hide them in her closet.

Now, the animals she rescues can roam through her home and yard, and her patients have expanded to nearly any creature that needs help. She and her husband rehabilitate about 800 animals a year, including eagles, baby chipmunks, poisonous snakes and even a bobcat.

Horvath said she never turns away an animal in need, regardless of the injury or the creature.

But taking in every animal can become an issue. WINORR does not receive any rehabilitation grants or funding. Everything the animals need, the Horvath’s pay for themselves.

Since she's been old enough to leave her yard, Horvath has been bringing home animals. She's pictured with a great horned owl above.

Since she’s been old enough to leave her yard, Horvath has been bringing home animals. She’s pictured with a great horned owl above.
LIR Photo Credit: Cathy Horvath/Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation Facebook page

“It does add up, but we do what we can,” said Horvath. “People sometimes leave donations when they drop off animals, but this is all volunteer and it comes out of our own pocket. We scrounge and scrape.”

Wildlife rehabilitation grants are difficult to obtain, as the grants are normally for research or education, not for the costs associated with rehabilitation. Horvath said that in addition to the rarity of rehabilitation grants, finding the time to write a request is nearly impossible between working a full-time job, caring for the animals and raising a family.

“As a grantor, if you’re looking to give money to someone, a larger center or shelter has an appearance that the money will be better spent than with an individual rehabilitator,” said Martin, who is also a home-rehabilitator.

While grants are usually distributed to larger, organized wildlife rehabilitation centers such as the STAR Foundation and Sweet Briar Nature Center, Horvath said they are all willing to help each other because they are working for the same cause. These local animal organizations often promote WINORR, and sometimes take a few animals from Horvath if she becomes overwhelmed with work.

Horvath saves money by sending the animals to Dr. Ellen Leonhardt, the medical director at Animal General of East Norwich, who gives WINORR a significant discount on procedures. WINORR also receives some financial assistance through their educational programs, which they provide for schools, the Boy Scouts of America and Audubon societies. Horvath and her husband use the animals that are not releasable to demonstrate the importance of caring for wildlife.

For Horvath, educating others is the most important part of wildlife rehabilitation. She has witnessed some horrifying human-inflicted injuries, like a redtail hawk that was beaten by a shovel and had its talons chopped off.

“People do vicious things to animals. When they’re fearful –  they hurt things,” she explained, noting that the educational programs help people realize the beauty and innocence of wild animals. “I love sharing, and that’s really what it’s all about. I would be selfish if I kept all of this to myself.”

Community support

Horvath’s work almost came to a halt last spring when the Town of Oyster Bay received an anonymous complaint about the noise in her home. The town told Horvath she would need to remove all of her animals within two weeks. Panic-stricken, she took to Facebook for help and soon discovered a large community of people who support her work.

“Neighbors I didn’t even know were saying nice things about me to the press,” said Horvath. “Someone made a petition, and it got a couple thousand signatures. The whole thing just blew up.”

After a meeting with Horvath and her husband, and a visit to their house, the town gave up the fight to shut down the home rehabilitation center. Horvath said town supervisor John Venditto assured her he would handle any further complaints so she could continue her work.

Now that she has the support from the town, her friends and neighbors, Horvath said she has no plans to relax any time soon. She said that despite her continuously chaotic life, she can’t imagine a better feeling than helping injured animals and releasing them back into their natural habitat.

“I’m not going to stop until I can’t use my hands or I’m too arthritic to use a syringe,” she said. “Everybody says, ‘oh you can’t save the world…but, I can save what I can save.”