The Heart of Our Lakes

The Heart of Our Lakes

Each year 6,500 animals from all around Our Lakes arrive for help at the Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre (SPWC) in Napanee.

“We also help patients avoid unnecessary help by advising the public, we manage several thousand phone calls per year,” explained Leah Birmingham, RVT Medical Director SPWC. “It’s mostly orphans found after the mother was relocated.”

Sandy Pines’ peak season runs from about May through September when human-wildlife interactions are at their peak. Birmingham barely stops moving when things get busy. In addition to her medical and leadership roles, she also runs the Internship Program and handles all media relations.

“I was the first summer student hired here in 2001 during summer break from the vet tech program at St. Lawrence College,” she explained. After graduating college the next year she worked at Beardall Animal Hospital before eventually returning to SPWC to be, “Our Founder/Director Sue Meech’s right hand, and potential replacement if something were to happen to her and she was unable to carry on the wildlife work.”

While there really is nothing typical about wildlife rescue work, a typical day at SPWC starts with treatments and medications for any medical patients in need. “We then clean and feed a variety of wild animals, both in the hospital, surrounding buildings and outdoor enclosures,” she said. “We gather supplies for enrichment from the wild and dispose of organic waste from cleaning our outdoor enclosures. Throughout the day, and in different numbers each day, patients are brought in by either volunteer drivers or the people that find them.”

Awaiting those incoming patients is a main hospital building and several smaller buildings that house wildlife as well as many outdoor cages and enclosures. “We have an aquatic centre for aquatic birds and semi-aquatic mammals,” said Birmingham. “We are located on 60 acres. We have a full veterinary operating room, complete with x-ray equipment, and can provide wildlife with very similar treatment to a regular veterinary hospital.”

The team around the Centre is lead by Founder/Director Sue Meech and a volunteer board of four Directors. In terms of boots on the ground, in addition to Birmingham there is Administrative Director Kelly Fraser, she organizes the reception, banking, fundraising and HR; and Julia Evoy is a Veterinary Assistant who graduated St. Lawrence College in 2007 and has about 15 years experience at SPWC. “We also have several full-time animal caretakers and other RVTs and many, many amazingly dedicated volunteers,” added Birmingham.

Sandy Pines has been in operation for a quarter century now operating at a former farm on Highway 2 just west of Napanee. Its mandate is to help all injured and orphaned wildlife and release them back to the wild. “We also give advice to people from all over Eastern Ontario with concerns about wildlife conflicts they are experiencing … We offer humane solutions which result in the animal relocating itself, allowing the animal to remain in its home area,” explained Birmingham. “We also have an excellent education outreach program and give presentations all over to encourage compassion and care for our wild neighbours.”

As part of that goal of public education and outreach, the Centre will host a release party to roll out its latest initiative on April 2. After a year in production, SPWC is ready to release a 5-part video series with accompanying lesson plans on species-at-risk in Ontario. The series aims to raise awareness of species disappearing in our community and is a call to action for youth and adults to create a world where these species can thrive here again.

“We see several species-at-risk each year like Northern Map Turtles, Bald Eagles, and Grey Rat Snakes,” explained Birmingham. “It’s a huge undertaking to prevent species loss more than we already have and it varies in so many different directions. There’s no way one organization can tackle all of that. We need people working on habitat, working on education, working on saving individual species, working on saving a variety of species. We need it all.”

The videos and lessons (designed for Grades 6-8) will be available on the SPWC website after the event. This project was made possible in part by an award from the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund for Educators and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation. For more details and to reserve a free ticket to the release party, visit Click here to register for free For questions about the release party, email

“We do not receive any government funding, we survive on donations alone,” she said. “We are currently running an online 50/50 raffle to help with funds. We also accept donations on our website and through the Canada Helps platform.” People who want to help can start by following the Centre on Facebook and watch for posts about specific needs. “At this time of year, several clamshells of spring mix would be appreciated.”

Over the last two decades, Birmingham has noticed many positive changes in terms of people’s attitudes about wildlife. “Over the 20-plus years I have worked in wildlife rehabilitation I have seen the overall concern for wildlife go up,” she said. “When I first started people would feel as if they were doing us a favour by bringing an animal in. Now most feel fortunate to have a place to bring these animals to when they need help.”

She added there are small things people can do to minimize their impact on the wildlife around them while out enjoying nature. “Don’t litter, try to remove snagged hooks from waterways as waterfowl get caught up in it or lead poisoning from the tackle,” she concluded. “If baby animals are found in your house do not relocate mom until you have been in contact with a wildlife rehab centre for more advice.” 

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