Beastly Behavior

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

"Basically, what's happening is you've got a civil war going between two organizations," said Cindy Eckert, TWRC's current president. "When they split up, they just went after us tooth and nail."

With the lines of communication cut, the wind began to talk. In May 1994, the letter from the SPCA became the basis of the Parks and Wildlife Department's inquiry. When the Post story about the investigation appeared in July, as the shelter was moving inside the mall, the TWRC faithful blamed the timing on a Wrecker campaign to shut the shelter down.

Vivian thinks she understands how the tale of the chilled bird was born. It was a horror story told after-hours at the shelter about a neighbor boy who was interested in taxidermy: as his first project, he put a live bird in his home freezer. As for the other bird story -- slamming the trunk lid down on the heron's neck, again and again, blood everywhere -- Vivian says she has no idea where that came from. She didn't own a car then, but a van without a trunk. Anyway, she said, it wasn't something she would ever do.

"Who saw this?" she asked. "Nobody could ever come up with the who because the who doesn't exist. It never happened."

The little old lady who is said to have witnessed the death of the heron is also said to have been so distressed by it that she just wanted to forget the whole thing -- at least as far as making official reports and talking to reporters. It was people she told who told the SPCA's Patricia Mercer, and Patricia Mercer said she felt an obligation to tell someone else.

"Investigating the truth is up to the authorities," Mercer said.
As a duly authorized secondhand source, Anonymous the First came forward. She would only speak over the phone. She didn't want her name printed because she was "afraid of what Vivian can do." She was a TWRC volunteer who left for WR&E with about a dozen others when they heard about the heron.

"None of our feelings have faded," she said. "It's still a thorn in my side because I don't think they have the best interests of the animals at heart."

Money and publicity are what matter to TWRC, said Anonymous. Certainly, it isn't the animals. Anonymous was always willing to give a creature a chance, but Vivian practiced "indiscriminate euthanasia." Anonymous believes the heron story absolutely, and it was she who told the SPCA. She trusts her source, and does not trust Vivian, "because of the things she's done."

Like what?
"Horrible things."
Like what?

Well, there was the time a poor old guy brought in a poor little starling, and Vivian talked him into a donation, and as soon as he left, she popped the head off that bird and took the $5 for lunch.

"I thought that was awful."
But Anonymous kept talking, and it came out that the bird looked to be in bad shape, and that Vivian had killed it in "a very quick, humane way," and that she had left a note indicating she would pay the money back.

"Maybe it is being petty and picky," said Anonymous, "but it was piled on top of everything else."

Like what? she was asked. But she couldn't remember.
"I've given you all the specifics I can," Anonymous said. "What you need to do is get a spy in there, someone to go and get firsthand information. That's what I would suggest."

It was like the conversation of crickets. Where one buzzes, another one listens, and another buzzes, and when you get too close, they go silent, and remain silent until they are sure they are unseen.

Anonymous the Second said there was a snake at the wildlife shelter that no one ever petted.

Another woman said she heard that Vivian euthanizes all unprotected birds and most mammals. "I don't talk behind people's backs," she said, and she boldly gave her name but then called back to say her husband wouldn't allow it. She became Anonymous the Third.

Danielle Carelock was another Wrecker and the only brave soul to stand and say that, yes, she had been badmouthing the TWRC shelter but had never set foot inside it.

"I was trying to tell my friend to tell her friend to be careful," she said. "That's all."

In due time, with such reports pouring in, TWRC developed its own rumor mill and began to see conspiracy. As Ed Steele explained it, it sounded kind of like this:

A friend told him that a friend told her that a friend said she'd heard that a Wrecker had been tongue-lashing TWRC. Someone else said they had talked with someone who said they had seen this Wrecker's name on the SPCA donation list -- and you know what that means, don't you? Well, it was proved once and for all when a friend said she sat next to a friend of the Wrecker, who said the Wrecker was trying to round up support to build another wildlife shelter.

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