Poisoned possum? Stunned seagull? Crippled 'coon? Who ya gonna call?

The Wildlife Rescuers

by Alice Martinez
t's a tough world out there: speeding automobiles, idiots with guns, poisons, domestic predators. While you yourself may encounter all these hazards on the way to the local fast food stand, think how dangerous it is for local wildlife.
Of course, with San Diego's explosive growth over the past 30 years, there isn't as much wildlife out there. Numerous animals have disappeared from the county. Thankfully, there are a number of hearty species - coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, opossums, skunks, rodents, bats and numerous types of birds - that have failed to take the hint and are still with us.
While we may be able to child-proof our homes, there's no way to wildlife-proof San Diego. The hazards to local wildlife populations are numerous, and injury is unavoidable. Poisoning is a common problem, both for the animal that ingests the poison and for the scavengers that may feed on a poisoned animal. According to Jackie Flesch at Project Wildlife, "Anything the size of a dove or larger is target practice." Autos are a big problem: owls will swoop into the headlights, and cars hit scavengers feeding on road kill. People cut tree limbs containing bird nests. Domestic cats are the single biggest problem. Jackie estimates that 45 percent of the injuries they treat were caused by cats. And, of course, birds fly into glass.

To the rescue

Fortunately, San Diego is blessed with a handful of organizations dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our local wildlife. Every year, they treat and release back into the wild tens of thousands of injured animals. We spoke with representatives of three of these groups: Project Wildlife, Help Our Wildlife (H.O.W.L.) and Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (FFAWRC).
While each organization has its own specialties and capabilities, they all work on a common model. It usually starts with a telephone call: someone finds an injured, sick or orphaned animal and wants to know what to do. The first task is to get the animal into the hands of an expert who can diagnose the problem. If the person can't bring the animal in (e.g., a coyote), a county-wide network of volunteers provides the transportation.
Depending on the situation, diagnosis and treatment may take place at the organization's central facility or the home of a volunteer who specializes in the treatment of that particular species. Serious problems, requiring surgery or X-rays, are generally performed by veterinarians who volunteer their services. The animals are treated, held until they are well enough to be released, and then turned back into the wild. And, of course, animals too badly injured to be rehabilitated must be euthanised.

Dedicated to the ones they love

This sounds simple and straightforward - and it isn't. What makes it extraordinary is that virtually all the work is performed by volunteers (each organization has at most a couple of paid staff). These aren't your usual give-a-couple-of-hours-on-Saturday volunteers; the dedication is incredible. These are volunteers who will drive for 4 hours to pick up an injured raptor; Volunteers who, during baby season, will turn their houses over to 50 baby birds that have to be fed every 45 minutes; Volunteers who give up vacations and weekends - and sleep - to care for their charges; Volunteers who spend years gaining the expertise to handle the needs of a particular species; And volunteers who can deal with the emotional trauma of dealing with injured and suffering animals.
And for all this, their one payoff comes when they are able to release a rehabilitated animal back into its natural habitat. I'm told it makes it all worth while.
The number of active volunteers varies, but is relatively small. For example, Project Wildlife currently has about 30 active volunteers, H.O.W.L. in Ramona has about 40 volunteers and The Fund for Animals has 15 - 20 regular volunteers. Yet with their modest numbers, they still manage to provide the 7-days-a-week, 24-hour coverage the job requires.
According to Jim Carey of H.O.W.L, "We get volunteers from all facets of life - retired seniors, housewives, professionals. We always want good volunteers. Not necessarily with expertise or knowledge - just dedication. You're entrusted with the lives of these animals and need a certain amount of dedication."

Don't do it yourself

The biggest complaint these rescue organization have is when people don't use their services and decide to try and rehabilitate wildlife on their own, or keep them as pets. Besides it being illegal to keep wild animals without proper licenses from the state or federal government, they often are called upon to handle the consequences when it is too late to help.
Imprinting is one of the biggest problems with wild animals maintained in captivity. Imprinting is a natural process by which animals learn to identify their own kind, and it occurs at a different age for every species. If you raise a baby duck with a dog, the duck will imprint the dog as "family," and follow it around as it would the mother duck. For obvious reasons, imprinting on a human can be a death sentence for a wild animal.
Cindy Tracy, director of FFAWRC, cites a typical example: "Everybody thinks baby raccoons are so cute. You wouldn't believe how many people find baby raccoons and wouldn't dare bring them to us; they want to do it themselves. And, of course, they imprint in a heartbeat, and you become mommy, and its one happy family for two years. And then that little raccoon comes into sexual maturity and he bites little Johnny's ear off. So then, we need to find something to do with the raccoon. We can't take it at that point - the damage is done, we can't reverse that much reliance on humans. There are a lot of animals out there in pretty bad circumstances."
Caring for an animal without imprinting is critical - and difficult. "Imprinting owls ... just don't do it. It's pretty much a death sentence for the animal," Cindy explains. "Babies - especially great horned owls - imprint every easily. We have to take great care to be sure that doesn't happen. Don't let them see you and wear gloves. Always raise two or more together so they'll imprint on each other rather than the food person. No kitchy-kooing."
Managing care improperly can be another big problem. "People will keep a baby bird for a few days, and by that time it has metabolic bone disease because they fed it the wrong diet. Then we have to watch it die," she laments. "Get the animal to a wildlife specialist ASAP."

All for one - almost

There is substantial cooperation among the various organizations. For example, a bird with a broken wing must initially be confined in a small cage, then regain flight skills before release. As Chuck Tracy of The Fund for Animals explains, "We often share with Project Wildlife. They have smaller flight cages that we don't have. We have a huge aviary that provides for excellent flight conditioning of these birds. So we share our resources with the result that this time of the year birds get returned to the wild much faster than if each of us dealt with them without sharing our resources."
There are some notable exceptions, however. Each organization has particular rules they follow concerning how long to keep an animal, how they should be managed, when and if an injured animal should be euthanised, etc. No one we spoke with wanted to go on record as saying anything negative about another organization - even with their differences, they have a tremendous amount of respect for each other.

Here come the babies

I initially tried to do the interviews for this article in June and July. Don't bother trying to talk to a wildlife rehabber at that time of year; March through August is the time of year when most of the baby animals are born, and caring for a veritable flood of orphaned baby animals - especially baby birds - is more than a full-time occupation.
"Baby season is just 6 months out of the year," says Cindy Tracy of FFAWRC. "The rest we can work relatively normal hours. We start with baby hummingbirds and baby cottontails ... and baby songbirds will carry us through the end of summer. Coyotes, bobcats and raccoons intersperse in-between."
Many of the baby birds rescues are probably unnecessary. Contrary to popular belief, birds cannot tell if a baby bird has been touched by a human - their sense of smell is actually rather poor. So, placing the baby bird back in the next, or placing a fallen nest back in the tree, will usually allow the parents to continue caring for it.
Similarly, many baby mammals are thought to be abandoned, when in fact the parents are just out foraging for food. The lesson: be patient, and observe first before taking action. The parents may stay out most of the day.

A lighter side

While rehabilitation can be a serious and upsetting endeavor, it's not without some humor. Jim Carey of H.O.W.L related two stories.
"We got a call from a lady with a bird in her attic that was driving her insane. She told a volunteer, 'this bird has been here so long now, that it answers me when I call to it.' The volunteers responded, 'We'll get this bird out somehow - we don't know how, but we'll do it.' She says 'watch,' and she whistles. A few second later, an answering whistle. She whistles again, and 20 seconds or so later, an answering whistle. The volunteer follows the sound ... in case you don't know it, smoke detectors chirp once a minute for 7 days when the battery is low. It was the smoke detector.
"One woman had a problem with coyotes marking territories around her house. She decided to remark the territories herself ... she says now there's one coyote that spends a little extra time around her house."
I guess she saw Dances With Wolves.
He also explains, "We get a lot of calls for eagles, hawks and baby hawks and eagles. When we get there it's a kestrel [smallest of the birds of prey]. The people insist, "It's got to be a baby eagle." This is where education can hopefully take place. Jim has learned, "Wild animals are great, because they grow in people's minds."
The Fund for Animals Center has a huge free-flight cage - about 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 30 feet high - where birds are given final flight training before release. And, of course, they keep their charges well fed. "The [local] birds really like it because they can see the food," Cindy Tracy explains. "Several years ago, some crows and ravens had picked at the netting at the top and there was a very small hole. One day we noticed we had an extra vulture in there. He had gone in through he hole - he had checked in . We let him stay in and eat with us for a couple of days and then shook him loose."
The rehabbers get calls for all types of animals, including field mice and rattlesnakes. "We've rehabed and released rattlesnakes from people's houses. That's not the greatest call in the world," Jim Carey says sardonically.

On the edge

Another major concern of these organizations is: keeping their doors open. Housing, feeding and medicating thousands of animals is an expensive proposition. They receive no public funds, and count on donations of cash and materials from the community.
"Some grocery stores donate fruits and vegetables," explains Jim. "A gentleman [rabbit farmer] in Ramona donates dead rabbits for the birds of prey. The Zoological Society lets us buy at their cost. Mostly, we're funded by donations from people who care. Our education programs also help subsidize our operations; we're accredited by the San Diego City Schools, San Diego County libraries and the Poway School District." H.O.W.L. does about 20 programs a year at local schools and parks. Project Wildlife, with 22 education animals, also do presentations.
Local veterinarians help by providing free services. According to Bill Carey, "We do simple things - medicate, clean wounds. We have vets that donate time and materials for more complex problems. We couldn't survive without them; I don't know how to pin a wing or set a compound fracture of a leg."
Each organization offers memberships. For a modest donation, you will receive a newsletter several times a year and know that your money is helping preserve our wildlife. If you're looking for a holiday gift or a year-end tax-free cause, why not consider making a donation? Or, if you would like to get more involved, call and ask about a volunteer orientation. Even if you're not ready to turn your home over to baby starlings, they can use help with many less demanding tasks. With these organizations, you can make a real difference for local wildlife.

Left: Project Wildlife volunteers prepare two rehabilitated owls for release. Right: A newly arrived duck is checked for broken bones at the Fund For Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

Alice Martinez is a long-time San Diego resident, computer specialist and freelance writer and San Diego Earth Day volunteer.

How you can help our native wildlife

nowing how to respond to a potential wildlife emergency can eliminate a lot of needless worry and suffering. The following points from Bats in your Belfry: Tips on Co-Existing with Urban Wildlife, published by The Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, may help.

Getting started

The dedication of the volunteers of the wildlife rescue organizations is matched by that of the key personnel. I asked three of them how they got started.

Cindy Tracy
Director of Fund For Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

"Chuck [her husband] and I had seen something on TV about the Navy starting to shoot the goats on San Clemente Island. An organization had been successful in rescuing some of them, but was not going to be allowed to continue. It just struck a nerve in Chuck - something wasn't right about that. If this organization could get the animals without any expense to the Navy, why was the Navy so gung ho about killing them all? So, Chuck made a few phone calls - he had some connections - and he was able to stop the navy from shooting the goats and allow the Fund for Animals to continue the rescue operation. In 2 years, we took 4400 goats off the island. That's how we met Cleveland Amory.
"Cleveland Amory is president of our organization. Chuck and I were just doing some volunteer work for the Fund for Animals at that time. We had real lives and regular jobs. We had met Cleveland, and when this property [the Center in Ramona] was donated, someone had to be here immediately because there were already animals here. Cleveland asked Chuck and I if we wanted to give everything up and move out here. Chuck was ready for a change and so was I, so we said "sure." So we moved out here and over the years changed it into strictly a wildlife rehabilitation center."

Jim Carey
Founder of H.O.W.L.

My wife got me into this. I got roped and goaded into this originally. She works at the Wild Animal Park, and is a graduate of Moorepark College in exotic animal management training. When I married her, we got into caring for monkeys. We belonged to one [wildlife] group. If we had an extra cage, we'd donate it to them. Eventually I got involved in some of the internal politics, helped build a cage here, assist with a project there, ... next thing I knew, I was Executive Director and wanted to continue with more education programs."

Jackie Flesch
Facility Manager, Project Wildlife

"I've been doing this for 16 years. My children would bring injured animals home and I'd nurse them back to health - and made a lot of mistakes. When I heard about Project Wildlife and joined, I never dreamed it would be a lifetime adventure. I worked as an assistant for a few years, and have been managing a facility for about 5 years. It grows on you. The longer you work, the more knowledge you get, and it's harder to walk away. Either you walk away the first two years or you're hooked in for life."

Wildlife Rescue: Who to Call

The following organizations specialize in the rescue, treatment and release of orphaned or injured wildlife. Please note: they do not handle domestic animals.
Organization Phone Number
Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Project Wildlife


Wildlife Center

Bob Farner's Wildlife Rescue

Emergency Wildlife Rehab