Wild at Heart: Kelli Burke and her dedication to the Brookhaven Wildlife Center

By Alyssa Melillo

Goats hurry out of the barn in their enclosed pen at the Brookhaven Wildlife Center when they hear the jingle of Kellei Burke’s keys. She laughs when one of the goats props himself up on the wooden fence, his expression clearly asking for attention, or maybe just food. Burke rubs the animal’s head. “Say hi, Snickers,” she coos. Then she scrunches her nose. “You have bad breath.”

Burke says this with no intention of hurting Snickers’ feelings, though—it’s just her way of showing how much she loves him.

Burke is a laborer for the Town of Brookhaven Highway Department. She spends most of her time at the Wildlife Center, an entity within the Brookhaven Ecology Site in Holtsville. It is home to bears, alpacas, mustangs, cougars and many other small creatures that have been harmed physically or mentally, and their impairments prevent them from properly living in the wild. Burke’s rehabilitation license from the Department of Environmental Conservation allows her to take care of those animals and nurse them back to health.

Animals are everything to Burke. For as long as the 42-year old can remember, she has brought all sorts of injured critters home. Squirrels, birds, rabbits, deer, anything with a heartbeat that needed help.

“We call her Dr. Doolittle in the family,” Kathy Honrine, Burke’s sister, says with a laugh.

At an early age, Burke knew she wanted to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. But because she is asthmatic, breathing problems often landed her in the hospital, and doctors and family members told her she couldn’t follow that dream. She took online classes, earned a degree in business instead, and worked in an office for 13 years. After leaving that job and facing six months of unemployment, the regular visitor to the Wildlife Center decided to apply for a position there. She wanted a career that involved her true passion.

“When it’s in ya, it’s in ya,” Burke says. “You have to want to be with animals. To me, it’s something that has to come from within ya.”

Twelve years later, clad in denim from head to toe with her brown hair tied back in a ponytail that trails down her back, she carries an aluminum thermos of hot tea as she goes from cage to cage and pen to pen to check up on the animals. There’s Emily, a binturong, or Asian bearcat, whose former owner purchased on Craigslist and owned illegally. Nellie is a dairy cow who came to the Wildlife Center after a woman found her malnourished as a calf on an Eastern Long Island farm. And Callie and Valor are both mustangs who were branded and domesticated in the Midwest. Burke does everything for the animals from cleaning and feeding them to organizing medical records and just being a friend.

“It’s rewarding that they let me be a part of them,” she says.

But Burke’s job isn’t always a fun and happy one. Her friend Marie Angelone, who used to work in the office at the Ecology Site, recalls one winter when a lot of animals died. Burke always gets emotional when an animal dies, but Angelone remembers that winter being especially hard on her.

And then there’s Simba, who Burke can’t talk about without crying.

The cougar came from a home in Brooklyn, where he was kept in a cage. He was underfed and extremely thin, and during his time at the Wildlife Center Burke formed a bond with him. “He absolutely adored her,” Honrine says.

But one day a blood clot to the spine paralyzed Simba. He couldn’t move anymore. And while he was getting x-rays, he went into cardiac arrest. Honrine says his death devastated her sister.

“He knew she was always there to help him,” she says. “It was a special thing.”

Hurricane Irene last summer also took a toll on the laborer. Fallen trees left many small animals without homes. “The hurricane killed me. So many nightmares,” Burke says. “It was just nerve-wracking.”

Superintendent of Highways John Rouse remembers his favorite story of Burke during that time: after the hurricane, she took in baby squirrels for a few days and fed them with an eyedropper. It just shows her dedication to animal rehabilitation, Rouse says.

While Burke’s love for animals makes up most of her life, it’s not necessarily all of it. Since she’s an employee of the Highway Department, she also performs other jobs such as shoveling snow after a storm. She plays on a competitive beach volleyball team with her husband and gives seminars once a year on wildlife through the DEC. “All around, she’s a great person,” Angelone says. But “it’s about the animals for her.”

When Burke interacts with the cougars, goats, mustangs and other animals, it’s like she’s in another world. She talks to them as if they’re human. She knows their stories, their likes and dislikes, and can tell how they’re feeling just by their behavior. One day Burke cuddles Rascal, a coatimundi who went to the vet for a checkup. Raccoon-like Rascal clings to Burke in his blanket, seeming at ease in the crook of her neck. “You had a busy day,” she says to him soothingly. “But you’re fine now.”

“The animals know she has a sixth sense with them,” Honrine says. “My sister definitely has a gift and a love and it’s really unexplainable.”