MILLWOOD — Animal lovers in the Northern Shenandoah Valley won't have to travel far to take a walk on the wild side.
The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center held the grand opening for its Wildlife Walk over the weekend. The outdoor path enables visitors to observe animals they may encounter in the woods or their backyards, yet which may run or fly away if they get too close.
A few visitors with special invitations already have traversed the trail. But "it's been under construction," said Education and Outreach Program Manager Jennifer Burghoffer.
Saturday was the first time it opened to the general public. Admission is free. Until the COVID-19 pandemic ends, though, visitors must go online to schedule appointments to accommodate social distancing.
Near the village of Millwood in Clarke County, the nonprofit center is the only licensed, full-service wildlife hospital and rehabilitation facility in northern Virginia. Because it gets no state or federal funds, it relies solely on donations to cover its expenses.
The walk features the center's "ambassadors" — animals that can't go back into the wild either because they are too docile or have health problems restricting their ability to defend themselves. Staff uses the animals to educate people about wildlife and nature.
One of the newer ambassadors is Marsi, an opossum whose mother was struck by a car. Her name is short for marsupial, a category of animals with pouches.
According to Executive Director Annie Bradfield, Marsi was brought to the center along with her siblings. After receiving care, they were released. Her brothers and sisters took off immediately, but she needed some encouraging. The next day, she approached one of the center's volunteers, wanting attention.
"She doesn't gravitate toward humans," said Burghoffer, "but she doesn't show the fear of humans that she should" as an animal from the wild.
Unless they're receiving direct care, the animals stay along the trail in large enclosures providing them plenty of room to move around in.
Other ambassadors that visitors will see include Jefferson, a bald eagle with limited flying ability; Scuter, a diamondback terrapin; Rufio, a brown squirrel with a bad eye and some missing teeth due to genetic problems; and Snow, an Arctic fox whose white coat is gradually turning gray now that spring has arrived. She is the center's only animal whose species isn't native to Virginia.
The first section of the Wildlife Walk is an elevated surface constructed of planks. Amid it is a tall, dead tree into which images of an opossum, a raccoon, a woodpecker, a squirrel and an owl have been carved.
Other trail sections are at ground level and covered with gravel or wood shavings.
Another dead tree contains a honeybee hive overhead.
"They'll go over to the pond, take a drink (of water) and fly back" to the hive, Bradfield said of the bees. "It's neat to watch them."
Bees will fly around people gathered near the pond, so be careful. But to staff's knowledge, nobody so far has been stung.
Several donated wooden benches are along the trail for people wanting to take brief rests.
Visitors this weekend will be able to go inside the hospital to see several animals that will remain indoors until the weather warms up a little more. Most of the time, the tour will be solely outside.
By the end of the year, signs with information about the ambassadors and their species will be posted along the trail. Yet volunteer docents will be around to talk with visitors about the animals and make sure everyone stays safe.
Fencing separates the path from the enclosures.
The Wildlife Walk is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and some Saturdays. To schedule a time to visit, go online to https://www.blueridgewildlifectr.org, scroll down to the section about the walk and then click.
A map showing how to get to the center is on the website.