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The Underground Squirrel Doctor of New York City

One of the city's few licensed wildlife rehabilitators runs a secret (and adorable) animal hospital out of her rent-controlled apartment.

by Samuel Lieberman
Mar 19 2015, 6:00pm

Bernie Goetz, one of Lisa's patients.

A few months ago, three police officers banged on Lisa Bertram's apartment door in the middle of the night with a sick baby squirrel in their hands. She went to the door and poked her head out, took the squirrel into her apartment, and the officers left.

"Typical New York, no one [in the building] even asked me about it," she says of the incident. "I just got weird looks on the way to the laundry room or getting my mail. Maybe people thought I was really dangerous and they shouldn't get involved with me."

Bertram, an unassuming 47-year-old, hardly seems dangerous—she looks more like an elementary school teacher than a criminal. The police had sought her out when they found the limp squirrel outside of their precinct headquarters in Harlem because Bertram is one of New York City's few wildlife rehabilitators. This means she takes care of squirrels, pigeons, opossums, and other animals, running a sort of adorable MASH unit out of her rent-stabilized apartment. (She didn't want her real name to be published since her landlord doesn't know about the animals.) Bertram is among a small group of rehabbers who are licensed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and receive wounded metropolitan fauna and nurse them back to health. According to DEC figures, there are 120 in New York's five boroughs.

Rube, Georgia, Mason, and Roxy

This work is completely a labor of love, Bertram says—she receives no government money for her efforts. Each baby squirrel or infant opossum she nurses costs her an average of $180 or $200. She typically looks after neonate (newborn) animals that have fallen out of their nest. They look like little pink gummy bears. The city turns to wildlife rehabilitators, she says, because veterinarians usually do not have the time or will to nurse wildlife back to health. She provides incubation and frequent medication for the animals and, when they're ready to return to the wild, she lets them go outside of the city in what she calls a "soft release."

Baby animals need to be fed every two and half hours, and when they are not being fed there is cleaning and medicating to do. On top of all of that, Bertram supports her endeavors by working as a dog walker. On a typical spring day she'll have four to five dogs in her house along with a full complement of squirrels, opossums, pigeons, and sparrows. She barely makes time to feed herself, and almost never has the money. She spends $100 a month on laundry for the animals and $300 on fresh, organic food for her patients.

Fred and Peanut, two pigeons Lisa claims are in love

Five years ago, Bertram went through an ugly divorce, and as a result, had a fair bit of time on her hands. One day she was walking down the street when she saw an injured baby pigeon that had fallen out of its nest. She doubled back and realized that she could not walk away from its suffering; she had been doing dog rescue for a few years and decided it was time for an expansion. From then on, she has taken care of urban animals.

She converted her bedroom into a year-round rehab center packed with cages. She sleeps in the living room behind a wood-paneled partition that separates her from incubating baby animals, who are housed in shelving units until they are eight weeks old. Her bathroom is "the treatment room." This is where she keeps the medicine—IV bags hang from the shower bar—where she dresses animals' wounds and gives injections and fluid treatments.

Bertram is in a unique situation, even among her fellow wildlife rehabilitators. Hers is the last rent-controlled apartment in her building and is running her apartment animal hospital discreetly so that her landlord will not find out. "He would love a reason to throw me out," she says. "I have to keep a low profile. I really don't want to advertise having animals."

"I see hurt animals all over the place now. It's impossible to go back."

Bertram takes all sorts of precautions to makes sure that she is not found out. She brings her small mammals into the building in cat crates. When she has to throw out a can of, say, opossum formula, she wakes up and goes to the back of building early in the morning, right before the garbage men come, and adds her bag to the building's pile. She says she has to make sure that everything is kept clean and lives in fear of her patients escaping and roaming her building.

Pogo, a week-old squirrel.

From mid March through November she is constantly on call. Bertram says her hectic schedule during "baby season" gets in the way of ordinary socializing. Her friends would ask her to come to parties or to go to the beach with them and she would always have to say no. "You do this for some time and your friends just stop asking," she says.

But Bertram keeps her spirits up. She names her patients after characters from her favorite TV shows. She is a big fan of British TV, so when she got a male squirrel and three female squirrelettes, she named them after the characters from Keeping Up Appearances. Her most recent pack were all named after characters from Parks and Recreation.

Bertram says that her rehabilitation practice has changed the way that she looks at the world. "It's like a veil has been lifted," she says. "I see hurt animals all over the place now. It's impossible to go back."

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Tagged:
New York
PIGEONS
parks and recreation
Vice Blog
squirrels
wildlife rehabilitation
baby animals
oppossums