LINKS
2016-07-01 / Up Close

Robyn Graboski's Wild Heart

Jill Gleeson | Photos by Matt Fern


Head up the long drive to Robyn Graboski’s home at the base of Skytop Mountain in Port Matilda, and her love of creatures great and small becomes quickly apparent. The founder of Centre Wildlife Care, Central Pennsylvania’s only facility for wildlife rehabilitation, has a passel of chickens and one very cocky rooster flitting around her front door. There are wild bunnies here and there contentedly munching on the grass as if drawn to the land’s St. Francis-like energy. Inside the house, fish tanks gurgle and a very old, very grumpy-looking Persian cat named Yoda suddenly appears, seeking a head scratch. The hordes of injured, ill and orphaned critters she cares for are tucked away downstairs in the basement clinic or in 10 pre-release structures scattered around the 15-acre property.

At 54, Graboski’s got a clear-eyed vibrancy that many people 10 years younger can’t claim. There is a soothing energy there, too. Peaceful, despite the near-constant ringing of her cell phone. But after decades of dedicating herself to her organization, she’s getting tired. When asked how many hours a week she still puts in, Graboski replies, “Oh, I couldn’t imagine.  It’s every day, all day that I’m here and on call. But it’s OK, it is what it is and I will do it as long as I can. I would like to find somebody to take over…I’d love to retire when I’m 65. Now that I’m getting older I’m slowing down a little bit.”

But not that much. In June, Graboski and her team of interns and volunteers were caring for eight fawns; a dozen ducks; various baby foxes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and chipmunks; four or five songbirds; and a lone weasel, to name a few. That’s not to mention the educational animals she can’t release back into the wild for various reasons. They include a few turtles, a yellow rat snake, a red-tailed hawk and a blind squirrel that find new purpose through educational programs in the community — including the annual Wild About Animals event and biweekly appearances on WTAJ’s Central PA Live.  

Where and how she does release those critters healthy enough to fend for themselves depends on what they are and what they need. Some — baby birds and raccoons, for example — are provided food at the release site. Woodland birds are liberated on Graboski’s land, but raptors are generally set free where they were found. Mammals, so numerous they would overrun CWC if released there, usually go home with volunteers to be released on their property.

The Beaver Falls native began her wildlife rehabilitation career in 1988, four years after her graduation from Penn State with a degree in animal science and around the same time she started working at the university as a research assistant. At that time Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center offered a wildlife rehabilitation program; Graboski apprenticed with them until 1994, when they shuttered it. In short order she’d snared her own permit, opening CWC in 1995 in the basement of her Lemont home. In the organization’s salad days she was taking in 100 or 200 animals annually, but by 2006, when she moved to Port Matilda, CWC was up to as many as 800 a year. She now tends about 1,500 animals annually with the help of about 50 volunteers.

Even with all that help, though, Graboski’s days are long, beginning at 6:30 a.m. and ending sometime around dusk, although that can stretch until 10 or 11 at night if animals require critical care. She begins by bottle feeding the fawns and from there on out it’s a ceaseless juggling act of supervising and training the volunteers, taking inventory and ordering supplies, admitting and evaluating new animals and updating the website and Facebook page. While Graboski’s volunteers and interns handle the majority of the endless feedings (the baby birds alone get fed every half-hour), she gets hands-on for duties like dispensing medication, de-worming and vaccinating the animals. After feeding the fawns a second time, she usually gets to call it a night.

If it all sounds like a clear path to big-time burnout, her life used to be even more hectic. Since marrying Restek innovations chemist Randy Romesberg in 2007, Graboski has learned to take a little time for herself. She and her husband go out to dinner almost every night in the summer, because if they didn’t their meals would be constantly interrupted by the phone ringing, or volunteers asking a question, or folks bringing animals to their doorstep. If they want a night alone, they check into a hotel. Last fall, they even managed a vacation to Cancun, though she had to take time during it to work on the CWC newsletter.

Graboski grew up on a farm, where she raised steers for 4-H. There were also chickens, pigs and cattle on the property — production animals, used for meat and eggs. Despite her early and heartfelt love for beasties, she says she was never conflicted coming of age in that environment. “In fact, it’s probably why I can deal with working in rehabilitation better than a lot of people,” Graboski details. “I learned at a young age that death was a natural part of life. We see a lot of death at Centre Wildlife Care, because we take in animals that were hit by cars, shot, attacked by cats. The ones we lose that really get to me are our beloved educational animals, the ones we keep that can’t be released back into the wild.”

And indeed, when she begins talking about Barbara, a black snake lost in the past year that had been with CWC for 17 years, there are tears in her eyes. But there is a strength to Graboski, which has undoubtedly served her well through the long years of hard work and what she calls CWC’s “growing pains.” The effort has, for all intents and purposes, been a labor of love; she does it all with no support from the state or federal government. There is simply no money allocated for wildlife rehabilitation. Rarely, CWC picks up a small grant of $500 or $1,000, but the organization is in essence entirely funded by donations.

“When I started rehabilitating wildlife I had a full-time job,” Graboski notes. “I was self-funded, but I only took care of a few animals a year. There’s no way that anyone could afford to do what we’re doing now without having substantial support from the community like we have. We’re lucky to be in State College and have the support that we do.”

Even with that support, which after 20 years has grown enough to allow her to draw a sustaining salary, Graboski isn’t entirely certain why she keeps at it, day after day, year after year. “I guess because nobody else will do it,” she muses. “It’s stressful and demanding. Obviously there is no money in wildlife rehabilitation. It’s not glamorous. But the rewards are fabulous. It is fulfilling. We can’t save everything, but we can make a difference in small ways and help these animals and give them a second chance back out in the wild.” •SCM

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