It’s not always easy to share our living spaces with wildlife.
Seeing a doe and her fawn grazing on a grassy hillside or an egret standing like a silent sentinel in a creek bed can make us realize how really fortunate we are to live in the North Bay; but on the negative side, hungry deer get into the backyard and consume our prized roses, or raccoons come through the cat door and rampage around our kitchen.
It’s not always a picnic from the animal’s point of view, either—and don’t forget, they were here first. In Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties, we inhabit a borderland that overlaps our territory with theirs. And we humans continue to move in on land and sea that once belonged to the animals.
During the past 30-plus years, numerous dedicated nonprofit organizations have cropped up in response to the frictions that arise when different populations try to share the same space. In many ways, these organizations are alike: Their mission is rescue, rehabilitation and release, with an overlay of public education. By law, private individuals aren’t allowed to interact with wildlife, unless they’re trained volunteers associated with a recognized wildlife rescue organization—and all these organizations rely heavily on dedicated volunteers to accomplish their work.
These organizations also all depend on the public for donations and would be unable to continue without them. Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (SCWR) is running on a deficit right now that puts its continued work into the busy spring season in jeopardy.
In other ways, the groups are different. Over the years, these organizations have had differing amounts of success in establishing a home base for their rescue work. The Marine Mammal Center (MMC) has constructed a beautiful and functional building in the Marin Headlands near Sausalito that makes it more efficient and lets the public get a better understanding of what it’s doing. In downtown San Rafael, WildCare’s current location is very crowded, so the organization is about to launch a campaign to build a new, larger center off Smith Ranch Road. SCWR, after moving from one facility to another, now has its main location in west Sonoma County and recently dedicated a new Raptor Recovery Center. Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County (WRCNC) has no actual facility but relies on a local animal hospital and community volunteers to care for its patients.
Can urban life and wildlife mix?
WildCare, which calls itself an urban wildlife hospital and nature education center, is a good example of how these nonprofits operate.According to Communications Manager Alison Hermance, WildCare now treats about 4,000 animals annually and reaches 40,000 to 50,000 people per year with its environmental education programs. In the spring and summer, the organization rehabilitates hundreds of baby birds and mammals with the help of 300 to 350 volunteers.
Like all such organizations, WildCare’s multiple functions include rescue, rehabilitation and release of animals as well as educating humans on the value of coexisting peacefully with animals and how best to do so (its slogan is “Live well with wildlife”). Entering the gate at WildCare, a visitor first sees several enclosures, inhabited by birds and mammals that, for various reasons, can’t be released into the wild. “We call them ‘Wildlife Ambassadors,’” says Hermance. “Each one has a story.”
An example is Baja, a playful Brown Pelican that picks blades of grass with its large beak and tosses them through the fence at visitors. Baja suffered a wing injury and can fly short distances but is unable to dive for fish and would therefore starve if released. Baja shares an enclosed pool with a cormorant and two types of gulls.
Volunteers who work with the animals destined to be released take care not to let them become habituated to humans, which would be dangerous to them after release—but that’s not a factor for the ambassadors, so they’re trained to make handling them easier. Oakley, a squirrel that fell out of a tree and suffered brain damage that prevents him from being able to forage for food, is being trained to expect feeding when he hears a whistle, which will facilitate his appearances to the public and in classrooms. The public can come and view the wildlife ambassadors every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and scheduled feeding times are listed on the WildCare website.
There’s a small wildlife museum inside the building, which is also used as a classroom. The educational portion of WildCare’s activities also includes a field trip program for school children, hikes for families and summer and winter camps, with scholarships for many youngsters and specific outreach to the Hispanic community.
WildCare’s building (originally a church parish hall) also houses the wildlife hospital, where sick and injured animals are treated. Specialized equipment must be provided to treat the approximately 200 different species that are brought in, requiring such things as different sizes and shapes of masks for administering anesthesia. About 90 percent of the patients were injured through interactions with humans or things that humans left in their environment. Some examples are animals that have been hit by cars, caught by pet cats or dogs, tangled in fishing line or inadvertently poisoned, but there are countless ways an animal can become impaired and in need of aid.
WildCare’s staff and volunteers have a great deal of combined expertise. “Our director of animal care has more than 15 years’ experience,” says Hermance. “You don’t need a veterinary degree to work with wild animals, but we work with a number of local vets. One has 29 years’ experience with us.” WildCare has developed protocols for every type of animal it treats and shares them with other wildlife rescue organizations throughout the world.
In spring, the building is usually crowded with orphaned baby birds and the volunteers tasked with feeding them. “Baby birds are fed every 45 minutes. The last shift ends at 9 p.m., and the volunteers start at 7 a.m.,” says Hermance. In the kitchen, meals are prepared for each patient, using a special menu book and a food chart for each animal.
To help residents coexist with wildlife, WildCare has a busy, 24-hour “Living with Wildlife” hotline staffed by people, not machines. Calls come in from people with problems such as skunks in their home’s crawl space as well as from those who’ve found an injured animal and don’t know what to do. The calls come from all over the country and the world, including a call in 2005 from some soldiers serving in Iraq who had found a baby owl and were assisted in reuniting it with its parents. A few months ago, WildCare fielded a call from an American living in Egypt, who’d found an injured crow that needed help; she'd lived in San Francisco and knew about WildCare, so she called the organization from Cairo for guidance.
Callers in Marin County who report injured animals but aren’t able to transport them to WildCare are usually advised to call the Humane Society, which is contracted to transport injured Marin wildlife to WildCare. Those who report “nuisance animal problems” at their home or business may be referred to the WildCare Solutions Program. For a small fee, a WildCare solutions specialist will come and inspect the building, make sure the animals get out and aren’t trapped inside, and then make necessary repairs to close the opening through which they entered.
Assessing our ocean environment
The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) is located on a former missile site in the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and “It’s still about coastal defense,” says Executive Director Dr. Jeff Boehm.
TMMC’s mission comprises rescue, rehabilitation, release and public education—plus one more: expanding knowledge through scientific research. “We not only investigate how to help each individual animal, we learn from every patient in our care,” Boehm says. “Our findings and research teach us about what's happening to the health of each species and to the health of their ocean habitat. This can have implications for human health, because we rely on healthy oceans, too.” For example, he says, they’ve found that almost 20 percent of adult sea lions that die while under care at TMMC, regardless of their presenting ailment, have cancer that can be correlated with man-made chemicals that accumulate in their blubber, probably as a result of their all-fish diet. Boehm notes that, like the canary in the coalmine, this indication of the state of the oceans has implications for all of us.
When it began nearly 40 years ago, the center’s facilities were scattered among several small buildings at Fort Cronkhite, and operations were based out of some shipping containers on the current site. Animals were kept in children’s kiddie pools. But after a big fund-raising push, in 2009, TMMC cut the ribbon on a building that matches the professional status of its research and personnel.
TMMC helps about 600 animals per year, including California sea lions, northern elephant seals and harbor seals, as well as sea otters, whales, dolphins, porpoises and even the occasional sea turtle. The animals now recuperate in a system of small, built-in pools, shaded by photovoltaic panels that also produce 20 percent of the buildings’ energy. Marin County water, with added salt, is disinfected with ozone in a former Nike missile silo and circulated through the pools.
“We envisioned a working hospital and a robust scientific component visible to visitors,” says Boehm. “Our architects found a way to make these functions visibly accessible and open to interpretation by volunteers and docents.” Completing the building was a $32 million project, all but $2 million privately funded and the remaining $2 million from a federal appropriation, he says.
TMMC oversees the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals discovered over 600 miles of California coastline, from Mendocino County through San Luis Obispo County. If, while on the coast, you spot a sea lion or other marine mammal that appears to be in distress, leave it alone and call TMMC. Seal pups may just be waiting for their mothers to return from fishing. Trying to deal with an abandoned or injured animal yourself could put both you and the animal at risk. “We have 1,100 volunteers trained to assess animals. They have nets, carriers, equipment and vehicles,” says Boehm.
Passionate, dedicated staff and volunteers
Staff and volunteers at these organizations find their work highly rewarding. TMMC’s Boehm is an example. “I grew up in Marin and always wanted to be a veterinarian,” he says. “I thought I’d have a practice taking care of dogs and cats.” But after some volunteer experience at TMMC with an elephant seal rescue on the Sonoma Coast before veterinary school, he changed his plans. After veterinary school at UC Davis, he worked at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and then ended up back here. His enthusiasm is clearly visible; and he says it’s the same with the organization’s volunteers, some of whom have been with the center since its beginning. These volunteers are passionate about its mission and work from early morning to late at night.
TMMC’s busy season starts in February, when elephant seals have their pups. Starting at 85 pounds, the babies quickly grow to about 250 pounds when they are weaned and their mothers leave them to their own devices. “This can be a time of dramatic weather,” Boehm says, and with all their combined stresses, some of the pups inevitably become ill. Next come the harbor seal pups in March and April. Then in June, yearling California sea lions start to run into difficulties. Their mothers wean them between nine and 12 months, just before they give birth to their next pups. “If yearling sea lions are having problems surviving on their own, that’s when we'll start to see them strand because of malnutrition and other related problems,” says Boehm.
Nearly 15 percent of TMMC’s patients have problems caused by humans. They may have become tangled in fishing nets, been hit by a boat or illegally picked up, harassed or even shot. Others suffer from malnutrition or diseases, shark bites, cancer or toxins.
An average of 50 percent of the animals taken to TMMC recover and are released back into the sea. Post-mortem exams called “necropsies” are performed on those that don’t make it, so researchers can learn more about the species and how to care for them as well as learn more about their ocean home. Everything that happens in the building is visible to the public—even the necropsies. Tissues from these animals are kept frozen in a tissue bank. Through myriad collaborations and studies, TMMC has become one of the top resources to which researchers and scientists turn for answers about marine mammal care, medicine and health data.
It’s no secret these times can be tough for organizations that rely on donations to survive. Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (SCWR) in Petaluma rescues about 2,000 animals per year and releases 70 percent of its patients back into the wild. But the organization is suffering financially to the point where it may not be able to continue its mission. “We rely solely on donors, we’re not funded by the county,” says Executive Director Doris Duncan. “It takes $343,000 per year to run our programs, and we now have a $143,000 deficit.”
Started in 1981, SCWR has built and occupied centers at three different locations over the years. Its current home includes a small hospital for injured animals and two barns in which raptors (hawks, owls and other birds of prey) are housed. Orphaned babies go to foster homes before release back into the wild. SCWR recently held a grand opening for a new Raptor Recovery Center, which will provide an environment in which injured birds have the space to recover their flying strength.
SCWR has custom-crafted pools in which it can shelter aquatic mammals such as river otters, and it recently took in two beavers, one four months old and the other a year and a half, says Duncan.
Like WildCare, SCWR has enclosures with non-releasable ambassadors that help educate the public and can be viewed every Saturday at 2 p.m. The organization has five full-time staff, two part-time and “about 60 reliable and hardworking volunteers,” says Duncan. The organization’s many services include rescue work, a 12-hour hotline, an emergency response hotline and help to law enforcement when dealing with wildlife situations. It also has an education outreach program and an exclusion service that helps home and business owners use humane solutions in dealing with nuisance wildlife. Staff and volunteers are even trained to treat distressed wildlife in response to oil spills along the Sonoma Coast.
But funding is needed to keep it all going.
“The only way we can keep our doors open is through community support. It’s very scary. I’m not sure we can take in animals this year unless we get the funding we need,” says Duncan.
The Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County (WRCNC) also depends on donations and dedicated volunteers to rescue a wide variety of birds and mammals, including hawks, songbirds, owls, woodpeckers, quail, crows, falcons, water fowl, bats, squirrels, jackrabbits, deer, fox, raccoons and opossums. Sometimes it also receives coyotes and bobcats.
WRCNC doesn’t have its own physical location, so it’s also seeking land, hopefully with usable buildings, for a permanent center—whether a lease, purchase or gift of property. Currently, its process starts when birds or mammals are brought to the Silverado Veterinary Hospital in Napa. Trained WRCNC volunteers regularly check the hospital for animals and transport them to a properly trained rehabilitator.
“WRCNC works closely with animal agencies, county and state park systems, and law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Fish and Game in Napa County and the greater Bay Area. We also network with other rehabilitation centers, exchanging information pertaining to wildlife care. Our organization is dedicated and committed to the animals in our community by continually expanding our education to improve the care given,” says its website.
TMMC’s budget includes $6 million in annual operating expense, according to Boehm. It funds 80 to 85 percent through individual, foundation and corporate donors and the rest through retail sales in its gift shop and fee-based education programs.
WildCare has an annual budget of $2.2 million, which is almost totally funded through individual donations, says Hermance. Since it needs more space for the ambassadors, the hospital, and the animal and bird rehabilitation enclosures, it’s gearing up for a capital campaign for a new building.
“We have to budget carefully to provide the myriad things our patients and programs require,” says Hermance. “We recycle, we’re careful with our resources, and we rely on volunteers plus a small staff. Yet we’re always available to the public for any interaction with wildlife. Whether a raccoon gets into your house, you find an injured baby animal, or you just want to learn more about local wildlife, think of WildCare.”
Think of all these organizations whenever you interact with wildlife. Without their help, our coexistence with wild birds and animals would be much more difficult for all.
North Bay Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centers
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