About a year ago, James Naughton, sixty-one, a veteran actor, singer, director and thirty-year Weston resident, was asked by a friend if he would lend his sonorous voice to narrate a video for Wildlife in Crisis (WIC), a local nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitating injured and abandoned animals. When Naughton said, “Sure, I’d be happy to,” he didn’t realize that he would soon have a need for the organization himself — or that he would become its staunchest supporter.
Last June, Naughton and his wife, Pam, were relaxing inside their eighteenth-century farmhouse when they heard their two Schnoodles yapping at something in the backyard. Naughton recalls, “It was a fawn, and it must have been born the night before. It appeared to take its first steps and walked right up to me and rubbed against my leg.” Moved by the sight, Naughton called Wildlife in Crisis and asked them what to do.
“They told me to put on gloves, rub some dirt on my hands to get rid of my scent and take the fawn outside the fence so the mother could get to it. I did as they suggested, and the crisis was averted.”
That is, until the next night, when the scene played out all over again: This time, with a different fawn that appeared to have a broken leg.
Although it was 9:30 p.m., Dara Reid, of Weston, the director of Wildlife in Crisis, answered the call and replied, “Bring him up; it sounds like he needs a pin in his leg.” So Naughton bundled the little fawn in a towel and drove to the tiny clinic tucked in the woods of Weston, where Dara and her husband, Peter, spend their days (and sometimes nights) tending to the needs of more than 5,000 animals — from tiny hummingbirds to majestic bald eagles.
Naughton says, “While Dara went to work setting the fawn’s break, my wife and I spent time playing with the other baby animals in the office. I began talking with Dara and learned that she and her staff of volunteers field more than 15,000 calls like mine a year. She said, ‘We’ve been here since 1989 and although people call when they find an animal in crisis, nobody really knows we’re here.’ ”
Looking around at the cages filled with tiny abandoned songbirds, baby red squirrels and adorable, motherless raccoons, Naughton found himself under their spell, and pledged to use his platform as an actor and an activist to raise awareness and funds. Despite being in the middle of directing Surface to Air, a new off-Broadway production, Naughton gladly made himself available to help WIC.
Not surprisingly, it was quite the coup for an organization from such humble beginnings to gain the support of Naughton, a handsome and charismatic Broadway actor, singer and director, whose credits include directing (Our Town and The Price); singing and acting (he won Tonys for Best Actor in a Musical for City of Angels and Chicago); TV appearances (Law & Order and Ally McBeal); and movie roles (Devil Wears Prada and Childless, with actress Barbara Hershey).
From Humble Beginnings
Wildlife in Crisis was founded in 1989. A year later, an anonymous benefactor donated its Weston facility, and the organization has remained a nonprofit ever since. It’s a safe-haven for people to call when they find an animal in distress, without worrying that the animal might be destroyed, as with some animal-control groups.
Wildlife’s first resident was Teddy, a forlorn raccoon who came to WIC abused, malnourished and malformed. With much love and care, he healed and was released with his peers, only to return on his own several weeks later, having been mauled by another animal. Because of a spinal infection, torn-off tail, nerve damage to both hind legs and abscessed wounds covering his body, even the center’s skilled vet thought he would die. Instead, the feisty fellow thrived, living at the facility for ten years until succumbing to cancer. Reid says, “It is in Teddy’s memory that we continue our work at Wildlife in Crisis. He is our inspiration.” The emphasis at WIC is on emergency medical care and temporary housing for injured and orphaned animals, not on keeping releasable animals in cages for public education. Dara says, “We run a nurture center, not a nature center.”
Indeed, WIC is the only organization of its kind in Connecticut. It is the closest thing to a wildlife veterinary hospital in the state. No other organization exists on a state, municipal or private level that does the kind of work routinely done here. “Our goal is to make Wildlife in Crisis a permanent institution in Connecticut,” says Dara. “We feel these animals deserve a place to heal, grow and regain the necessary strength for a second chance in the wild. Our mission to care for debilitated wildlife and return them to their natural environment has remained uncompromised over the past eighteen years.”
Clearly, the clinic is outgrowing its facility, so the next big item on the agenda is a capital campaign to build a state-of-the-art wildlife veterinary hospital and education center. “Right now, we are hoping to purchase an adjacent property on the market for $800,000,” Dara says. “This is an incredible opportunity for us to expand and improve our operations to better serve the community.”
Dara, a volunteer herself, says she feels a moral obligation to help the plight of animals affected by loss of habitat: “We are all competing for precious resources that are becoming more and more scarce as the human population increases. Every animal that is brought to WIC is a victim of suburban sprawl. Whether it’s the baby bluebird that has been attacked by a domestic cat, the endangered long-eared owl that has been hit by a car or baby raccoons orphaned as a result of their mother being trapped.”
One of the most amazing aspects of this boisterous animal-care facility is that it is entirely volunteer-run. “Because of the generosity of our supporters, we feel it is important to devote all funding directly to the animals,” she says. “No salaries are paid at Wildlife in Crisis.”
Instead, the clinic is staffed with local volunteers who are a key part of the workforce. Dara explains, “The backbone of our staff is made up of young, unpaid interns from here and abroad. Once trained, they provide the continuity of skill and care that is needed to run our wildlife clinic. Some are veterinary students and others have undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology. All work very long hours and take meticulous care of the animals.”
With so many volunteers and interns, dependable staffing can be a challenge. “Our volunteers need to understand that we really do count on them to show up when they say they are going to. Caring for living beings is a big commitment, one we take very seriously,” Dara says.
The WIC volunteers come from diverse backgrounds. Some are retired professionals, others volunteer on their days off and some are college students. “We have over 100 volunteers, with a key group of about a dozen that we can truly rely on, such as Adam, a student at Western Connecticut, who came to us at the suggestion of his political science professor to complete the community service component of his class. He stayed for the entire summer. And Bob, a retired investment banker, who is always willing to rescue raccoons caught in dumpsters, swans entangled in fishing line and skunks with yogurt containers stuck on their heads.”
Preserving Open Space
When they are not patching wounds and feeding, feeding, feeding all the animals, the interns are working to beef up the Wildlife in Crisis Land Trust to help protect open space and animal habitats in perpetuity. For this effort, they are seeking people who share a desire to preserve the beauty and integrity of the natural landscape. Dara says, “Every bit of land that we can preserve in its natural state also will improve the quality of life for those who come after us.”
James Naughton and Dara Reid share an interest in local land preservation. He got involved a few years back when friends — including Westport’s favorite son, Paul Newman — were spearheading the charge to save nearby Trout Brook Valley from being developed into a golf course and luxury homes. He recalls, “Investors were talking about developing this gorgeous, 800-acre tract of land around the reservoir. The grassroots fight raised $14 million, and the people won.” Today, the pristine land and trails are used for hiking, bike riding, horseback riding and dog walking. What is more, the area remains a sanctuary for local flora and fauna.
Friends with Newman for twenty years and on the board of Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang since 1989, Naughton says that having friends who are concerned about local issues inspires him to do more. “You meet a guy like Paul, and his involvement rubs off,” he says. Now, Naughton is hoping to get Newman fired up about his “pet” project, Wildlife in Crisis.