Education Ambassadors

Our feathery, furry, and scaly "coworkers!"

Our nonreleasable education ambassador animals are essential and beloved team members at Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary! 

By greeting visitors on scheduled tours or meeting folks out and about in our communities, the Sanctuary ambassadors help people of all ages gain a new appreciation for our wild neighbors.

Want to help us provide compassionate, lifelong care to our ambassador team?  Consider an education ambassador sponsorship! 

Want to help
us provide compassionate, lifelong care to our ambassador team?  Consider an education ambassador sponsorship! 

Meet The Ambassadors

Athar was rehomed at RWS in early 2018 after being confiscated by the Fluvanna County Sheriff’s Office from an animal hoarding situation. Because turtles have extremely specific home territories and we had no idea where Athar’s was, it was not safe to release Athar out into the world. Additionally, Athar was extremely habituated to people. A turtle ready for release will typically hide in their shell when something large and scary looking (like a human) comes along. Athar wants nothing more than to say hello, so he has made a wonderful addition to an ambassador team.

Eastern box turtles get their name from a unique hinge on their plastron (the bottom of their shell). It allows them to entirely seal up their shell from curious predators. While some folks might think that turtles can’t feel their shells, that’s not the case – their shell is very much a part of their skeletal system! Eastern box turtles range in color from bright oranges to dark browns and blacks. They use camouflage to blend into their environments. In the wintertime, box turtles will enter a hibernation-like state called “brumation.” They’ll often burrow deep into the ground and sleep until the spring brings many delicious foods like berries, leaves, bugs, and even small mammals like mice. Yum!


Woodland Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

Woodland Box Turtle

Terrapene carolina carolina

Autumn came to RWS in the spring of 2017 after one of our eagle-eyed volunteers came across her advertisement on Craigslist. Our volunteer wanted to make sure this beautiful creature was given the best of care by rehoming her at RWS. While cornsnakes like Autumn are a native species, it is likely that Autumn was bred domestically and kept as a pet before she joined our education ambassador team.

Cornsnakes are constrictors, meaning they are non-venomous and rely on wrapping tightly around their prey before swallowing them whole. It sounds spooky, but it’s an incredible feat of evolution! Snakes can unhinge their jaws to accommodate larger prey, so a cornsnake with a relatively small head can swallow a whole mouse at once. Autumn is fed just one mouse per month because reptiles are cold-blooded and do not need the calories that warm-blooded animals do to constantly maintain their body temperature. Can you imagine eating just one meal per month?! Despite their reputations in pop culture, snakes are ultimately wonderful assets to our wild ecosystems and our urban landscapes because they help keep our pest populations under control.


Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus)

Corn Snake

Pantherophis guttatus

Phasellus viverra nulla ut metus varius laoreet. Quisque rutrum. Aenean imperdiet. Etiam ultricies nisi vel augue. Curabitur ullamcorper ultricies nisi. Nam eget dui. Etiam rhoncus. Maecenas tempus.

Barney joined the RWS ambassador team in the summer of 2023 as a baby after a predator or littermate left him missing multiple toes on his front and back feet. He only has two remaining toes on his front right right paw, which limits his ability to grab food, climb, and walk normally. He unfortunately would not be able to survive in the wild because of this. Opossums need their dexterous little hands! That being said, Barney is thriving in captivity where he has extra resources provided for him. His enclosure does have some special features to ensure he can navigate comfortably, like extra rungs on his climbing ladder for him to grab onto. Barney’s favorite food is baked sweet potato, and his least favorite food is...any vegetable. He has learned to eat comfortably in front of an audience. You might get lucky enough to see him in action at an educational program near you!

Opossums are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they are not picky eaters. They are evolved to eat most items they come across! Virginia opossums have 50 teeth - the most of any terrestrial mammal in North America - and those teeth vary in shape and size. They have chompers to bite down on just about any texture they encounter. Their snout has also evolved to be long and skinny. Opossums can wedge their nose into tight crevices to investigate enticing smells and pull out food items they find. Their sense of smell is incredibly well developed and is their primary navigation tool! (Those beady little black eyes won't get them far.) Their nose is about four times as sensitive as ours, so they're able to smell a whole world beyond what we could dream of.


Virginia Opossum (Didelphis Virginiana)

Virginia Opossum 

Didelphis virginiana

Davey joined RWS in the spring of 2018 after her previous owner surrendered her to us. She was left on our doorstep and had an eye injury requiring removal - yup, her wink is permanent. Red-eared sliders are also nonnative in Virginia, so she was not releasable. Davey is often the very first RWS ambassador that greets you when you come to our Sanctuary. In the summer months, she enjoys living in a big pool right in front of our facility. 

Red-eared sliders are freshwater turtles that spend most of their lives swimming and eating plants and small animals in rivers and lakes across the southcentral United States. It’s common to see these turtles basking in the sun in large groups on sunny days. Turtles tend to be very long-lived animals, and this is especially true if you’re considering adopting a turtle (from a breeder or humane society – never from the wild!). A red-eared slider can live for over 30 years, and many folks don’t plan on caring for a pet for so long. As a result, so many red-eared sliders have been released by owners that they are now invasive in multiple parts of the United States beyond their natural range. This is dangerous for both the turtles, who many not be equipped to cope with an unfamiliar climate, and for the natural ecosystems they are released into.


Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Red-eared Slider

Trachemys scripta elegans

Jack joined the RWS ambassador team way back in the spring of 2014 after being found as a juvenile missing her right eye. It had likely been pecked out by a predator or by a nestmate - sibling rivalry can be tough out there in nature! Because her depth perception is compromised, she would not be able to successfully hunt in the wild and has lived in captivity since. Jack is a highly habituated bird who enjoys taking baths, tending to her gorgeous feathers, learning new behaviors with our staff trainers, and chowing down on tasty dead mice. Don’t forget the hawk vitamins on top!  

Red-tailed Hawks are one of our most common birds of prey in North America, with populations living year-round across the United States and some migrating up into Canada as well. Hawks play vital ecological roles as skilled predators, keeping prey like cottontail rabbits, native rodents, and snakes in check. These birds typically mate monogamously for long periods of time, sometimes living their entire life with just one mate. Have you seen two Red-tailed Hawks sitting together before? It’s likely a mated pair - the female is usually about 25% larger than the male, as is the case with most birds of prey besides vultures. Lastly, Red-tailed Hawks are Hollywood stars. Their iconic high-pitched call has been used for decades to set the scene in movies and television shows, usually when raptors like eagles or vultures are being shown. Jack is basically a celebrity - as if she didn’t know that already.


Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

Leonard joined the RWS ambassador team in the summer of 2023 as a baby after a predator or littermateleft him missing the majority of his tail. Opossums have prehensile tails, which are extremely important to help them climb and balance. It's essentially a fifth leg! Since their tails are so essential to their way of life, Leonard would not have been able to survive without it in the wild. Leonard is a wonderful ambassador who likes the easy life here at Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary. His favorite pastimes are lounging in his hammock and munching on any snacks our rehabilitators provide (he’s not a picky eater). He's even adapted well to harness training for educational programming! We think he looks pretty smart in red.

Opossums are North America's only marsupial. These pouched mamas might have up to 13 babies to care for at a time. We care for up to 200 orphaned opossum patients every single year, and most of them come to us after their mother was hit by a car. Babies may survive the initial impact in mom's pouch, and good samaritans stop to check pouches on fresh-looking opossums. We are grateful to those who stop their day to look out for native wildlife! That way, orphaned baby opossums get a second chance at living in the wild, where they'll help control pest populations and disperse native seeds. 


Virginia Opossum

Virginia Opossum (Didelphis Virginiana)

Didelphis virginiana

Oxiana was found wandering the streets of Charlottesville, and he was more than likely someone's released pet. Oxiana's rescuer recognized that he wasn’t a native species and brought him to RWS. Non-native species are not releasable, so Oxiana has remained here ever since as an ambassador. He enjoys basking in his enclosure heat lamp and eating fresh veggies!

Russian tortoises are endemic (native) to the high deserts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Russia. These tortoises were initially brought to the USA in the early 1970s as part of the pet trade due to their small size and friendly personalities. Sometimes, however, irresponsible pet owners dump their exotic pets into the wild. This can be devastating not only for the pet, which won’t know how to survive in the wild (like Oxiana), but it can also devastate our native ecosystems. For example, invasive boa constrictors in the Florida Everglades have led to a 90-99% drop in native mammal populations. Oxiana's story is a good reminder that pet ownership is a commitment and a responsibility - to that pet and to our environment.


Russian Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii)

Russian Tortoise

Testudo horsfieldii

Rosie joined the RWS ambassador team in the fall of 2017. He had been found as a fledgling by a private citizen who kept him as a pet, wrongfully imprinting him on humans as a result. Thankfully, Rosie was confiscated by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and brought to RWS, where he was deemed non-releasable due to his extreme habituation to humans. That being said, Rosie is a wonderful ambassador for his species because he is quite the people-person...well, people-vulture. He loves heading out to programs and greeting folks when they come tour the Sanctuary! When he’s not changing public perceptions about vultures, Rosie enjoys going on walks with our staff in our front garden, tearing apart new food toys, and sunning his beautifully iridescent feathers. 

Black vultures are vital players across North American ecosystems because they serve as decomposers within our complex food webs. These social birds of prey feast on dead animals and are frequently seen enjoying roadkill together on the side of the road. Vultures are frequently involved in car collisions themselves as a result, so drive carefully! Black vultures tend to be a bit smaller than their fellow North American vultures, the turkey vulture, and also have a black head while turkey vultures have a pinky-red head. Why do these birds a bald head in the first place? Vultures spend most of their day with their heads deep inside rotting carcasses – not the kind of stuff you’d like to carry around on your head feathers all day! Bald heads and legs help these wonderful birds stay clean while they help our natural environment stay clean as well.


Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

Black Vulture 

Coragyps atratus

Duis arcu tortor, suscipt eget, imperdiet nec.

Teeny Nagini (shout out to the Harry Potter fans!) previously lived at the Augusta County Nature Center Parks and Rec department, but he was rehomed with us when their facility closed in 2019. Despite his name, Teeny is not-so-teeny. He’s about 7 feet long and weighs approximately 1 kilogram. Teeny he enjoys greeting folks from his enclosure in our front lobby.

Eastern rat snakes are the official name for what many folks in Virginia simply call black snakes. Rat snakes use “countershading” camouflage by having white bellies and black backsides. No matter what angle a predator is looking from, a black snake will blend into its surroundings – even from below! These large constrictors are non-venomous and enjoy swallowing mice, rats, eggs, and small birds and mammals. In doing so, they help to control our pest populations. Though these fascinating creatures may look intimidating, snakes are always far more scared of us than we are of them. The best thing to do when encountering any snake is take a few steps back and appreciate these helpful creatures from afar.

Teeny nagini

Eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis)

Eastern Ratsnake

Pantherophis alleghaniensis

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