Beastly Behavior

Wildlife rehabilitator Vivian Steele got along fine with animals. It's people who gave her trouble.

Vivian once had 150 animals in her care -- just about everything furry and feathered that crawls and flies. She had them in the back yard, the garage, even occasionally in the bathtub. Handling even this volume, neither she nor any rehabber was likely to affect the overall population of a species, but Vivian was content working for the individual. Her sympathy extended to the whole animal kingdom. Little rat babies are only an inch long, "and they're so cute!" she said, and she saw no quandary in raising these rats to release in the wild, while buying other rats from a company called Gourmet Rodent to feed to the wounded birds of prey.

"I didn't kill them," she explained. "They came frozen in little ratcicles."
Each spring brought a crush of orphaned animals, and each fall when it was over, TWRC leaders would say something had to be done. Many husbands were protesting ("I wanted supper," said Ed. "I didn't care about any baby birds.") and many volunteers were burning out and quitting. Vivian saw nothing being done, and she took control.

"I didn't know they didn't see this organization as broken," she says now. "It was very obvious to me it was broken, and I worked my tiny behiny off to fix it."

Ed did not immediately benefit, for the first shelter was opened in their garage. Then and now, it was to be a central location for the deposit of animals. For everyone but the Steeles, it was meant to quiet the phones, eliminate visits from strangers and distribute the beasts more evenly.

Eventually, that's what happened, but experienced rehabbers resented it deeply. "Who's this Vivian person -- can't even find her car keys!" was how Vivian remembered it. To them, the drop-off center meant the public would be leaving donations now with Vivian. She believed the money should go into a general fund for rehab supplies. The rehabbers told her they didn't like her brands and that the money was rightfully theirs.

Whatever she proposed, they denounced. When Vivian suggested they all use one discounted veterinarian, they told her they liked their own. When she tried to set up a baby-sitting service so they could occasionally travel, they told her they didn't like each other. They argued about everything.

"It was like, 'Ladies, please -- let's breathe a little, learn to laugh some,' " Vivian said.

In 1992, she opened a new shelter in a beat-up trailer behind Town & Country Mall. The experienced rehabbers stayed away, but there were plenty of others. They all loved the animals and had their own ways of expressing it. One woman claimed to sleep nude with her opossums. Other rehabbers sought a spiritual connection with a bird and hired a medium to ask the beast if it was ready to be released.

In such a crowd, "no matter what you do or say," said Vivian, "the dreaded 'e' word always comes up." TWRC's policy on euthanasia was clear -- animals that would never again survive in the wild must be humanely destroyed -- but many rehabbers couldn't make the decision. They had volunteered to save life, not to end it, and Vivian was one of the few unafraid of death. She remained calm because she knew she didn't cause these injuries and that her only role was to stop the pain. When she could, she loaded up the frail and broken and made her van a tumbrel to the vet, but there were other times when the suffering was so severe that Vivian closed her hand around the heads of little birds and, in the way that is generally recommended, ended their lives with a twist. This was her "final gift."

"She was a cold, cold person," said Anonymous the Second.
All of these tensions found themselves well-represented on the board of directors. They were "a lot of little old hens bickering," said one of them, Carol Meyer, and she dragged Ed Steele into it, thinking maybe a man could keep the peace. As the new treasurer, Ed's first impression was of "a loose group of people who liked animals but hated each other's guts," and keeping the peace was something he could never do.

When Vivian asked for $500 for three months' rent for her shelter in the dilapidated trailer, there was a faction on the board that had been dreaming already of something grander -- of a chunk of land donated somewhere near the zoo, of the donations that would build a very pretty wildlife rehab center, with all the bells and whistles.

Members of this group offered little support for the shelter in the trailer. They frequently voted against it, and would never visit, even when a party was held specifically to draw them there. In November 1992, they had arranged for the removal of Vivian Steele as volunteer coordinator, when they realized that Vivian and Carol Meyer had a plot of their own. The two women arrived at the annual election with 36 angry shelter volunteers. They voted out the president, and voted Meyer in. The shelter volunteers took control.

Within days, the old president and two other board members resigned their TWRC memberships. In League City, they soon founded the Wildlife Rehab and Education Coalition. The last word of the name was dropped after they came to be known as the Wreckers.

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