How the Wildlife Center’s “Critter Cams” helped UVa nurses cope with COVID

This story was reported by Randi B. Hagi for WMRA.

On Saturday, nurses at UVA’s COVID Clinic got a behind-the-scenes look at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which they say helped them through the darkest days of the pandemic. Reports by Randi B. Hagi of the WMRA.

[ambi – kestrel calls]

Verlon the American Kestrel was one of the ambassadors who welcomed a group of nine UVA Health employees, some with children, to the Wildlife Center of Virginia on Saturday. They also got to meet Marigold the Virginia Opossum, who nibbled on fruit and a hard-boiled egg while outreach coordinator Connor Gillespie talked about some of the dangers possums face.

CONNOR GILLESPIE: Sometimes they can even get blinded by headlights or something and just be disoriented. [bird calls] It is therefore up to us to be a little vigilant. Slow down, especially at night when they are more active…

Outreach Coordinator Connor Gillespie introduces Marigold to the group. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/WMRA)

It was one of the first groups to visit their facility in person since the pandemic began.

ED CLARK: We felt that no band deserved it more.

It all fell into place because founder Ed Clark came to the clinic for a COVID test.

CLARK: It’s been so rewarding to have the nurses from the University of Virginia Hospital’s COVID unit here today because of a personal experience, honestly, that I had. In December I had to come in and get tested, and while filling out the information, the nurse asked me where I worked, and I said Wildlife Center of Virginia – well, she just had a seizure .

SAMANTHA SIMMONS: And so when he said it, it was like, “oh my God – wait!”

Samantha Simmons is a registered nurse at the COVID clinic. She told Clark that all of her coworkers are big fans of the Wildlife Center’s Critter Cams — live video feeds of animal ambassadors and patients, including five black bear cubs.

person wearing a mask
Samantha Simmons, COVID clinic nurse. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/WMRA

CLARK: And when the baby bears are in full performance mode, it’s like watching clowns on crack.

SIMMONS: We’re all big animals…so on our most stressful days, or when we were feeling down, or constantly hearing our numbers go up, we kind of tuned into the Critter Cams, and c It was just a little something we could do in such a difficult time.

The nurses’ rounds began at the indoor facility, including the veterinary clinic and operating room — where much of the equipment came from UVA Health and other local hospitals.

CLARK: You see, we joke that human doctors have it easy. Many of them are human doctors because they couldn’t get into veterinary school.


NURSE: That’s right!

CLARK: …You know, your patients can tell you where it hurts! And very few of them anyway, I hope, try to bite you or scratch you or scratch you –

SEVERAL NURSES: Uh… [laughter]

bird behind the fence
Hudson is a resident gyrfalcon at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/VPM News)

And they got to hear stories about the center’s 40-year history along the way.

CLARK: The reptile room used to be a bedroom, basically, a dormitory for one of our students…a young woman called the cops one night, said someone was trying to break into her house. And she was on the inside, and she’d looked through the peephole, and whoever looked through the peephole and knocked on the door. The cops came around the corner –

NURSE: It was a bear.

CLARK: It was a bear!


CLARK: Knocking on the door because she was cooking in her room – it wasn’t supposed to be!


Outside, they were able to visit the center’s educational ambassadors – animals that for some reason, such as a deformity or an imprint on humans, could not survive in the wild, and so they live at the center – as Buddy the Bald Eagle.

CLARK: Buddy is single. He is in a monastery program.


NURSE: Okay. I’m not going to make Buddy female.

CLARK: Honestly, we don’t really want to get into that, because they’re supposed to be trained to date when they bond – and they don’t always. Just because we put a woman in there doesn’t mean they love each other. You can imagine someone saying arbitrarily, “Ah, there’s a man! [laughter] Work it out!” They hurt each other a lot when they don’t get along.

Cynthia Edwards, a former COVID clinic nurse who now works in the allergy clinic, said she started donating to the center after her colleagues hooked her on the teddy bear camera.

The person is smiling
Cynthia Edwards, now a nurse at UVA Health’s allergy clinic, helped organize the tour. (Photo: Randi B. Hagi/WMRA)

CYNTHIA EDWARDS: Watching the cameras took the stress out of the clinic. It was definitely a strain reducer, and it also helped the nurses bond and engage with each other, as we used to have debates over which Critter Cam was best… Every nurse felt quite passionate about her own Critter Cam and the animals she loved. look. But it’s just, it helped us to put smiles on our faces throughout the day, to deal with the pandemic and to deal with the heaviness of the situation.

[people and bird ambi out]

You can view Critter Cams and other center educational materials at

Disclosure: The Wildlife Center of Virginia is featured in VPM PBS’s Untamed program.

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