MWR Minute – April 2024

Spring has sprung. The temperatures are rising, the flowers are blooming, and MWR has seen a steady stream of new patients this month. We have also been very active in the community participating in local festivals and providing education programs. Learn more in the Program Update below.

This month we honored MWR founder Valery E Smith who was called to her heavenly home in April of last year. As a memorial tribute we shared stories and pictures from many of those whose lives were uniquely touched by Valery’s powerful spirit. See the full content here:

And just a reminder as we continue into baby bird season, not every baby found on the ground needs someone to help. Please check out this link for useful information to determine when it is best to intervene or to let momma and daddy bird do their thing.

Patient Update:

This month we admitted 102 new patients into care representing 28 different bird and 4 turtle species.

Sponsor Thank You:

A big Thank You to the following people who answered the call to sponsor our rehab patients through
Sponsorship Sunday this month.

  • Jeff Leathers
  • Diane Sales
  • Rick Vanelli
  • Tyler Hollingsworth
  • Laura Haulum
  • Theresa Hissong
  • Allie Smith
  • Lindsey Vick
  • Anita Rush
  • Ally Downen
  • Searcy Cunningham
  • Cassandra Truan

Your gift is life-giving for these animals. Keep an eye out for upcoming Sponsorship Sunday opportunities.

Program update:

MWR had a HOOT at the Memphis Botanic Garden’s Family Campfire Night. We enjoyed meeting many enthusiastic families and sharing a variety of nocturnal creatures with them including insects, arachnids, reptiles and of course owls.

This month MWR provided education programs to Funschooling Nature Co-op and Point Day School. We always appreciate the opportunity to connect with local families, teaching and inspiring them to help protect native wildlife.

Participants in part 2 of our Backyard Wildlife Habitat workshop series, A Bountiful Buffet, learned to provide a variety of natural food sources for native wildlife and were able to take home native seeds and seedlings to plant in their own yards. Creating these native habitats will be an impactful benefit to the survival of our local wildlife.

MWR had a great time participating in the annual Desoto County Earth Day Festival at the historic County Courthouse Square in Hernando. We especially love being a part of our local community events.

We were especially honored to be invited to the annual Blue Block Party for the Arc Northwest Mississippi, held in Olive Branch. It is a privilege to support their mission advocating for and providing programming for people with disabilities.

The month ended with the first session of Yoga at the ARK with Jill Morris. We hope to offer this program again in the fall.

Looking Ahead:
School is almost out, and our summer camps are the perfect activity for your 8-12 year old. We have
REDUCED THE PRICE for each camp to $200 and still have some spots open for our Wildlife (June 24-28)
and Nature Art (July 8-12) summer camps. Plus, there is still time to apply for one of the Valery E smith
memorial camp scholarships that will cover the full cost of the camp. Learn more Here.

This Saturday, May 11, MWR will be at two different events. From 9a-3pm visit us at the 5 Star City Fest in Senatobia and from 10a-4p you can see us at the Camp Creek Natives Pollinator Palooza in New Albany.

Join us at the ARK, Saturday May 26 from 10a-noon for our Nature Photography Workshop with Melissa Gilbert. Learn more and register Here.

And we are only a month away from the first annual MWR Golf Tournament, scheduled for June 07 at
the Wedgwood Golf Club in Olive Branch. For team registration and sponsorship opportunities visit Here.

Remembering Val Series: 8

A year ago today, the beloved founder of Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation went home.

Valery Elizabeth Smith will always be missed. The last year has been hard, but we carry on, knowing she would have wanted us to keep saving these animals, whom she loved so much.

“I cannot help but think how blessed I am to be able to be a part of all that I love and hold dear.”

-from The Call of the Wild, by Valery Smith

Remembering Val Series: 7

Today officially marks one year since Valery Smith’s passing. We have something special coming up, but before that, here are two stories of other animals with whom Val shared a very special connection. There are countless others to be sure, but here are Val’s Little Helper and Val’s Most Memorable Release.

Wind Dancer:

“Wind Dancer” was another of Val’s favorite education ambassadors, an amazing American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) whose Native American name was Nyuol al shi aa^eh, which translates to wind dancer. He was admitted to MWR in 2004. Someone had kept him in a small cage for a year, leaving him imprinted and causing his muscles to atrophy without regular exercise. Unable to ever fully recover his flight, he was deemed non-releasable. But Wind Dancer was an excellent education ambassador.

He also turned out to be a great foster dad! One day Val admitted a fuzzy, white, bright-eyed nestling Kestrel into care. Wind Dancer became quite vocal when he saw the baby, so Val decided to see if he would foster the baby. She cautiously placed the baby bird in a large container inside Wind Dancer’s cage. He immediately began to feed the baby! He would then spread his wings, jump in the with the baby, cover it up, and keep it warm and safe. That was the beginning of Wind Dancer’s foster dad career. If Val had baby songbirds in the same room with Wind Dancer, she had to keep them covered. Otherwise, Wind Dancer would be obsessed with them, and not in the usual sense of birds of prey!

One day while Val was busy, the cover slipped between Wind Dancer and a nest of four baby Robins and Val heard Wind Dancer being very vocal and making sounds she had never heard before. When she went to investigate, the four American Robins had with their mouths open in Wind Dancer’s direction. She saw him run over and pick up half a mouse and try to stuff it through the bars to feed the Robins. As cute and funny as it was, after that she was always careful to keep the cage covered, but he was a smart little Kestrel. When baby birds in rehab began to vocalize a feeding call, he was the first to sound the alarm and let Val know that someone needed to be fed!

Shula, the bald eagle:

“Shula” is the name given to the American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) by her rescuers. It means “peaceful one” or “perfect one” in Hebrew.

In November 2019 a family of four were watching three eagles flying above them when someone noticed a fourth bird on the ground and unable to fly. MDWFP officer Austin Tallant was called and arrangements were made to transport the eagle to MWR’s ARK Wildlife Hospital where Dr. Stefan Harsch and Val dedicated the next two months to giving the eagle the best care they could.

She almost did not make it. The bird had a severe electrical burn on its leg, and despite a lingering infection from the hot wire, her loss of appetite, and a negative reaction to some of her medications, the eagle miraculously made a full recovery. One of Val’s pieces of advice to new rehabbers was, “Be patient, give it time.” That proved true with Shula!

The weather was beautiful on the day of the release. We returned to the field where Shula was found. A small group of folks were invited to attend the release. Officer Tallant pointed out the location of her nest across the lake on a levee. When Val opened the crate door, Shula walked out and looked around as if to get oriented. She took flight and circled not once, but 4 times over our heads. On the fifth circle, in the sky to the left of the release site… there they were! The other three adult bald eagles, obviously one pair and a single eagle without a mate, circling in the distance. All of a sudden one of the three broke away and flew straight toward Shula! By that time, she was flying over the lake, toward the nest site on the levee. He flew straight to her and they both disappeared over the tree line. Shula was back together with her life mate. It was a breath-taking, beautiful release.

Remembering Val Series: 6

From Melissa Gilbert, NMMR director:

Not many people know the full history of how we {North Mississippi Mammal Rehab} got to where we are today. As we approach our 4th anniversary, I would like for you all to know how it all got started…all the way back to the beginning!

This tiny, newly hatched turtle is the reason NMMR exists today. This photo was taken August 29th of 2010. Of course it all started way before NMMR was founded. This particular day was the first time I formally met Valery, founder of Mississippi Wildlife Rehab, Inc. Valery took this tiny patient in after he hatched with issues. I had no idea that day would lead me through such an incredible journey.

Back then, I did photography as a profession. When I met Valery, and saw the amazing work she was doing with wildlife, I knew I wanted to help in some way. I offered Valery photos in trade for portfolio work. It’s the only way, at that time, I figured I help and give back. Plus, I was fascinated by everything I learned that day and I felt drawn to come back and visit again.

It wasn’t long before I signed up as a volunteer, started learning wildlife rehab, and mentoring under Valery. I went on to working with raptors and learned how to educate with wildlife from Kate. Valery taught me most of what I know today about rehab. Kate taught me education and working with wildlife ambassador’s. Some of my most memorable and enjoyed moments were spent with with Mississippi Wildlife Rehab as a volunteer. After almost 10 years, I decided to spread my wings, and took the opportunity to take over the mammal program Valery started many years ago. In January of 2019, NMMR was officially born.

This January NMMR will celebrate the start of our 4th year of establishment….all because of this tiny little turtle and my amazing friend in wildlife, Valery. When they say, “Surely just one life, of one tiny animal, doesn’t matter in the large scheme of things”…you can be certain that they are most definitely wrong! So, when you see our post and photos of tiny field mice and the like, know that you are looking at a direct reflection of our mission in that patient. Every mammal in need has a place here at NMMR, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. Each one has a purpose and it’s our honor to care for them. This is how it all started and it’s how it will always be.

Special thanks to Valery and Kate for believing in me, loving me, and mentoring me. You both are the reason there is significant change in the world. God bless you both for your many years of work with wildlife…and for sharing your love for it all…with me.

Melissa C. Gilbert

Wildlife Director/Founder NMMR, Inc.

Remembering Val Series: 5

Continuing in our memories of Val posts!

From Christy Fortenberry Milbourne of Central Mississippi Turtle Rescue:

I think my favorite Val memory is from the first time I ever talked to her. I’d heard her name for years, both before and after we got our individual rehab permit. In my eyes, she was like a celebrity. She had paved the way for people like me who wanted to help wildlife and I held her in very high regard. When we finally raised the money to become a 501c3, I needed advice from other rehab organizations because I simply had no idea what I was doing. I’d made friends of a few other rehabbers and they all told me that I really needed to call Val. She would be the one with the best info since she’d been doing it for so long. To say I was nervous about calling her is an understatement lol. But I finally did… and she was so kind to me. We probably talked thirty minutes to an hour as she freely and happily answered every single question I had and even added her own advice. She was genuinely excited for me and wanted to see me succeed. I felt love from her from that very first phone call. I called on her many more times after that and got to know her better and better. But it will always be that first “meeting”, that first phone call, that solidified my decision to continue down this path, and it was that first phone call when I knew that I would always have a friend and supporter in Val Smith.

From Val’s dear friend, Tracy Crump:

Touched by Val

I first met Val about a year after she founded Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation, when she learned that our son volunteered at Lichterman Nature Center in Memphis. She called and asked how we could collaborate. A short time later, Val presented her very first program to our homeschool 4-H group. She was so nervous about it. My mother had come along to the meeting because she loved animals, and Val said it helped her stay calm to watch my mom’s smiling face. Val kept the kids enthralled, especially when she dumped a bag of trash on the floor and had them gather round and guess how each piece of litter could be harmful to animals. The only mistake Val made was telling the group—three times—that the only way to diagnose rabies was by cutting an animal’s head off! To Val, it was just part of rehabbing, but the kids looked horrified. Their eyes got bigger and bigger each time she said it. We laughed about it later, and Val became a top-notch speaker.

We went on to work together on many projects, including her first raptor cage. My husband and son and another dad and his son went to her property several times to construct the cage. It looks tiny now compared to the newer cages built, but it allowed Val to get her federal certification in record time so she could begin caring for her beloved birds of prey.

One of the first hawks she rehabbed was a young red-tail who came to her dehydrated and emaciated. The hawk pulled through, thanks to her care, but Val soon discovered it had never learned to hunt because it apparently invented the word “clumsy.” Time after time, she released a live mouse, and the hawk would skid into the trees or her backhoe or just crash, flipping head over tail, because he was diving too fast to recover. It took three months, but he didn’t give up—just like Val. She persevered when people believed her dreams of “animal doctoring” were merely a hobby. Continuing to gain education, join organizations, and push through despite multiple sclerosis, Val built a reputation as a qualified professional one step at a time.

Val was not only soft-hearted about animals but also toward kids. When our younger son was a teen, he and a friend built a turtle habitat for MWR. But Val insisted on cooking them lunch each time they came, and she let them ride her 4-wheeler to the construction site. They thought they’d died and gone to heaven. I finally had to put a stop to the meals ATV riding so they would actually get the work done.

I published several stories and articles about Val over the years, but my favorite was about a sparrow. A woman called one morning, frantic because the tiny bird had flown into her picture window. Val said the first thing that flashed into her mind was the verse from Matthew that says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” When the woman brought the bird, she was weeping uncontrollably. Val sat her down and asked what was wrong.

“My husband just told me he wants a divorce,” she said. “We have three young children, and I’ve never worked outside the home. I was sitting at my dining room table considering suicide when this bird flew into my window. After that, all I could think about was getting it help.”

Val said, “Thank you, Jesus!” and for the next two hours she shared with the woman how God had walked her through dark times in her own life. That’s when Val knew God was using the animals to allow her to share Christ. What she thought was a simple ministry was something much bigger.

Later in Val’s career, I went to her house to do an interview. She, of course, insisted on cooking spaghetti for me. We sat and talked about her plans for MWR and she said, “I’m going to be 60 soon!” I didn’t really understand the significance of her remark until she said, “In 10 years, I’ll be 70!” Finally, it dawned on me that she still had so many plans she wanted to accomplish and was afraid she was running out of time. Most of us can barely plan beyond tomorrow, but Val was already looking ten years down the road, hoping for the day she could build a full-scale nature center. She was a visionary with a heart for animals as well as everyone she met.

Remembering Val Series: 4

One of Val’s favorite education birds was “Spirit”, a Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni) that Val acquired as an education ambassador from another facility in 2002.

Val always liked to give her birds Native American names. Bi nai’adae is Apache for “spirit.” Spirit fell from the nest as a hatchling and sustained a non-releasable injury to the wing. She could fly short distances, but not the distance needed for release. Swainson’s Hawks have the longest migration of any hawk in the U.S., migrating from California to Argentina every year, often using the Mississippi flyway.

Val and Spirit had a very special relationship for 21 years. Every year Spirit went into nesting mode. She would build a stick nest in her enclosure and lay 3 or 4 eggs. Val let her sit on the eggs for a short while, then remove them while Spirit was not looking. In her later years, Spirit was retired from education programs due to her age. Her retirement was spent relaxing and taking walks through the woods with Val, her favorite person. The two had a bond that only those who work with birds long term understand, a way of reading each other’s body language, mood, and tone.

In early 2023, as Val privately battled her own health issues, Spirit passed away, preceding her beloved keeper by only a few months. No doubt she was waiting on the other side, ready to show Val how to fly.

Remembering Val Series: 3

From one of Val’s friends and MWR volunteer, Natalie Bright:

“Val was a woman that I deeply loved and admired. Working along side her at MWR, I quickly learned she had a great sense of humor and was a woman of class. Very well respected, and rightfully so.

She always had a way of making me want to be a better person by loving all of God’s creations. When we worked at the hospital together, we would have long talks about her vision and the future of MWR… you know, when we hit the jackpot! Lol. We would laugh, sometimes cry, but mostly enjoyed each other’s company as we shared stories about our families and friends. She loved big, and she was my friend. She would often tell me she loves all her children and daughters-in-law, but if she ever had a daughter, she would want one like me. I would kid with her and tell her that she was just buttering me up to hurry and get that newsletter out!

When Val first got sick, she made sure we made our visits count. She wanted me to know she was going to be okay with what the future held for her. In true Val style, she showed me love and comfort even when she was the one that needed it the most. I will always remember our last prayer together as we held each other’s hands and gave our worries to God. She taught me that.

Every time I see a hawk or an eagle, I immediately am taken back to a place of comfort, knowing she is with me. My friend, Val.”

From one of MWR’s consulting veterinarians, Dr. Harsch:

“I have a pic of Val with a Bald Eagle that got dropped by MS Fish and Wildlife. This was the first eagle I treated with her. She called me, all excited, and I drove down from Memphis to her place to examine the bird. This was very early in our friendship, and I didn’t know Val that much, but I was very impressed the way she handled that massive and aggressive bird. Then I knew she was a special person, and I am glad to have been one of her friends until the very end.

Dr. Stefan Harsch”


Remembering Val Series: 2

Continuing from yesterday’s post, here is another remembrance of our founder, Val. This one is from her long time friend and MWR board member, Karen Brown.


Crossed Paths

Looking back, I think it was ordained for Val and I to cross paths. Odds were against it, in normal conditions. My husband and I had recently moved to Coldwater, MS on 15 acres in very rural Tate County. There were a few trees on property requiring their removal for safety reasons. Unknown to us, a nest of Flying Squirrels was destroyed in felling one of the trees, resulting in 3 orphaned very young babies. The local veterinarian provided a phone number and name of ‘a lady who dropped by with a business card’ offering to take any wildlife in need of care. Traveling on unfamiliar back roads from Coldwater to Lake Cormorant without GPS was iffy but finally pulled up to Val’s house with the baby squirrels. We met in the driveway, shook hands and I asked her what she was doing and how. I was escorted into her house—past various small animal cages—and down to the basement which was OP Central of her efforts. I was impressed with her obvious caring and ability to minister to these needy bodies. Val explained she was hoping to grow her small rehab to enable more birds and animals to benefit from her knowledge. So, I stayed 2 hours and we began a friendship that would span 27 years until her death. Oh, and I did leave a donation which may have been why she initially liked me… 😊 At that point in time, she was doing almost everything herself—I believe there was one person she had trained to care for songbirds. Val needed help.

We began talking regularly and slowly I learned a bit of her history. Prior to moving to Lake Cormorant with her family, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis which left her immobilized at times and severely affected her eyesight. Val told me her grandmother was part Indian and passed her love and respect of all living things to her. She shared with me that one of her prayers was to find healing to allow her to care for her family and to rescue needy wildlife. I discovered she had immersed herself in “Rehab Classes” and learning State and Federal requisites and laws to become a legitimate non-profit animal rehabilitation organization. The first few years was a round of bake sales, yard sales, and begging cage materials to feed and care for a growing number of intakes. We were a Board of two for awhile, when Val’s prayers, perseverance, passion and vision came together and real growth began, slowly and steadily. That first grant gave us $2000 to purchase materials for cages to be constructed by scouts and organizations—a great win for the animals and MWR Inc. Rehab. Classes were held to recruit additional trained rehabbers and Board members added for a balanced organization.

Our friendship grew fast and firm almost from day one. Almost-daily talks became interspersed with multiple texts of everyday happenings and soul to soul. Lunches at AC’s in Hernando were a regular occurrence of 2 – 3 hours full of laughter and sometimes tears. Val had a way of making each of us feel we were her most special… and we were. She loved mightily her God, her family and friends, and MWR Inc. and in that order, I believe. I am so very grateful for her friendship and the love we shared, brought about by 3 orphaned flying squirrels. It has been an honor to be associated with Valery Smith through MWR Inc., to watch it grow and become forever friends.

She is missed most exceedingly.

Remembering Val Series: 1

There are many “firsts” in rehab.

The first miracle recovery, the first patient of a species, the first time someone actually wins a literal “wild goose chase.” The first of many releases… and the first of many, many losses.

The first year without someone, the first year of the void where they once were.

Tuesday will mark MWR’s first year without our beloved founder Valery Smith. Val was a true hero for wildlife, a pillar of compassion whose work touched countless lives, both animal and human. Not a single day passes that we do not feel her loss keenly.

Yet even in sorrow, there is joy. As we approach the anniversary of her passing, we wanted to share memories of Val from some of her friends in rescue and conservation. If you were blessed enough to know her, we hope you find a piece of the joy she gave to you in these pictures and stories. And if you never had the chance to meet her, may you get a sense of who she was, and how deeply she loved.

From long time volunteer and educator, Kate Friedman:

Val and I were very close friends for almost 20 years. We talked almost every day and I always looked forward to seeing her name on my caller ID.

I first met her in passing a few times during the late 90’s. We later became close friends when I started working at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in 2005. MWR was one of the top exhibitors in Audubon’s annual Hummingbird Festival. The first weekend we met, Val and I started talking about training her education birds. She was so eager to learn, and she already had the patience and ability to read a bird’s body language. She picked it up very quickly!

For years afterwards, I would help MWR with their booth at the Hummingbird Festival. Val would rent a cabin at Wall Doxey State Park for the weekend. Each day after the festival, we returned to the cabin and got all of our birds fed, watered and secured for the night. Then we would heat up something in the microwave and open a bottle of red wine. We stayed up late talking about birds and bird care. We shared stories about our past—some sad, and some happy. We shared hopes for our future, often tossing around ideas for the ARK nature center. Sometimes we talked for hours until we realized we really needed to get some sleep!

The last time I saw Val was a few days before she passed. I was traveling out of the country the next day, and sadly, we both knew that she would pass before I returned.

It was hard. We hugged. We laughed. We cried. We laughed and cried and hugged some more. Before I left her side, I told her that the MWR Board and I would carry on her vision for a nature center and wildlife hospital. She squeezed my hand, gave me a wink and a big smile and said, “I know you will.”

MWR Minute – March 2024

The month of March allowed us to catch our Rehab breath as we prepared for the upcoming baby bird season, our busiest time of year. Now through early summer eggs will be hatching and new birds will be emerging from their nests. Some will require human intervention, but many are just going through the natural process of learning to fly. In most cases the parent birds are the best suited to care for their young. Before you take up a baby bird you thinks needs help, please check out this useful information.

As the month came to a close, MWR was able to successfully re-nest 2 baby owls that were found on the ground, and we are anticipating being able to re-nest a third baby owl in the near future. Learn more here.

Spring is the perfect time to enjoy our ARK trails and check out the new Bee Hotel donated to MWR by Logan May as part of his Eagle Scout project.

Patient Update:

This month we admitted 13 new patients into care representing 11 different bird species.

Sponsor Thank You:

A big Thank You to the following people who answered the call to sponsor our rehab patients through Sponsorship Sunday this month.

  • Jeff Leathers
  • Lisa O’Connor
  • Jordan Gatlin
  • Christy Milbourne
  • Jackie Williams
  • Erika Hastings
  • Theresa Hissong

Your gift is life-giving for these animals. Keep an eye out for upcoming Sponsorship Sunday opportunities.

Program update:

MWR started the month participating in the Cub Scout Spring Fest at Camp Currier. Scouts got to meet education ambassadors Mochni, Hulk and Hazelnut, hear their stories and learn simple ways they can help our native wildlife. MWR loves to support our local scout programs.

At Part 1 of our Backyard Wildlife Habitat series, a capacity crowd learned how to provide shelter as one io the essential elements of turning their own yard into a healthy natural habitat for native wildlife. Each participant was able to build a beautiful cedar blue bird house to take home. Part 2 of this series is coming April 20.

MWR was a fan favorite at TupeloCon where we were able to share our mission and vision with so many enthusiastic people. Everyone especially enjoyed meeting our animal ambassadors and having their photos taken with them. Keep an eye out for MWR at future festivals and events.

Looking Ahead:

Summer is rapidly approaching, and we still have room in our Wildlife (June 24-28) and Nature Art (July 8-12) summer camps and we have REDUCED THE PRICE for each camp to $200. Plus, there is still time to apply for one of the Valery E smith memorial camp scholarships that will cover the full cost of the camp. Learn more at:

Part 2 of our Backyard Habitat Workshop series is Saturday April 20 at 10am. Learn how to provide food for native wildlife using native plants. We are excited to have Camp Creek Natives plant nursery sponsoring this workshop. Each registered participant will take home a custom native seed pack and select native seedlings to plant in your own garden. You can register for this workshop at:

You can also visit MWR April 20th from 9a-1p at the Desoto County Earth Day Festival located at the historic Desoto County Courthouse square in Hernando.

MWR is partnering with Jill Morris of Stars in Motion and offering a 3-week Yoga at the ARK program in the peaceful forest setting at our ARK Trails. This program starts on Friday April 26 at 8:30am. To register or learn more visit:

Other upcoming programs include:

Nature Photography Workshop with Melissa Gilbert, May 26.


The first annual MWR Golf Tournament, June 07. For team registration and sponsorship opportunities, go here.