The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has hampered efforts by the Ohio Wildlife Center at a crucial time: spring.

As a result, revenue-generating programs for the nonprofit agency have been put on hold, and the center has been forced to run its free veterinary hospital for native wildlife without any of its volunteers – all at a time when baby animals begin to arrive for care, officials said.

The center, 6131 Cook Road in Concord Township, not far from Dublin, Powell and Shawnee Hills, opened in 1984.

It offers rehabilitation, education and wildlife-health studies, said executive director Dusty Lombardi. The goal is to release animals back into the wild.

Last year, the center's free veterinary hospital for native wildlife, 2661 Billingsley Road in Columbus, just east of Dublin's city limits, helped 6,400 animals from 55 Ohio counties.

The center has a prerelease facility at 6245 Cook Road. Animals that have recovered are placed there to be conditioned to stay away from people, Lombardi said.

Central Ohioans in need of the center's services may call 614-793-9453 or contact the Ohio Wildlife Center Rescue and Response Team via Facebook, said assistant executive director Stormy Gibson.

But the pandemic has limited how much volunteer help the center receives.

The nonprofit has 250 volunteers, but none are permitted to help inside the center's facilities during the pandemic, Lombardi said.

One of those volunteers is Gahanna resident Dave Wood, 68, who has volunteered for about 15 years.

Wood volunteers for the rescue team and has participated in more than 70 rescues this year, including more than 30 involving raccoons with distemper.

He said he also answers a lot of calls regarding geese.

Wood said he adheres to social-distancing guidelines and wears a mask and gloves. The calls he responds to are for animals outside residences and structures, he said.

The Ohio Wildlife Center is keeping its 25 employees, who are full time and part time, on payroll right now, Lombardi said. Staff members have been cross-trained staff so they can perform many tasks.

Whereas the hospital typically has eight to 10 people on a shift, now three to four staff members operate there the whole day, Lombardi said.

However, residents are not permitted to enter the building. People must leave animals outside the facility and ring a newly installed doorbell.

People are dropping off more animals than usual, Lombardi said.

She said that since the beginning of March, about the time a state of emergency was declared because of the pandemic, the center has tracked an increase of 41% to 45% – it fluctuates daily – in the number of animals being delivered to the hospital for care.

Climate change and a warm winter could be causing mammals to reproduce earlier, Lombardi said, and the state's stay-at-home order could mean more people are at home to see animals in their yards.

Meanwhile, more animals mean higher costs for medicine, food and hospitalization, Lombardi said.

"That's kind of scaring us," she said.

Hospital operating expenses typically are about $440,000 annually, Lombardi said.

The center receives grant money, and it also offers programs that generate revenue. Those include educational programming, summer camps, rental of the center's barn for weddings and other special events and the SCRAM! program for humane animal-control and removal services.

Most of those programs have been affected by the coronavirus.

Although the SCRAM! program still includes goose-mitigation-service agreements with cities, staff members only can help individuals calling with other issues from outside their homes, Lombardi said.

"Our business is dramatically slowing because of that," she said.

The center also cannot rent its barn for events, and its educational programs ended when the schools closed in mid-March because of the pandemic, Lombardi said. The summer camp also is not expected to be viable this year.

On top of that, the center had to cancel Wild Night for Wildlife, its fundraiser scheduled April 2.

The event typically brings in about a quarter of the nonprofit's budget, Lombardi said. Last year, it raised about $230,000, and a similar amount was anticipated for 2020, she said.

"That was crushing for us," she said.

Lombardi said the nonprofit is considering virtual fundraising events, even though its supporters also have been affected financially.

"It's just been a difficult time for us," she said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah