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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
- Rabbits and deer do not abandon their young, but are often away from
"home base" from dawn to dusk. If a fawn or baby rabbit is injured
or if you know for sure that the mother is dead, bring it to a wildlife
rehabber. Otherwise, leave the nest site alone as mother will not return
if she senses that you are too close.
- If you find a bird nest on the ground with babies or eggs in it, tie
it back into a nearby tree. The nest can be laced in a little box or margarine
tub (with drainage holes) to make it easier to secure. Don't use any container
with sharp edges that would make it too difficult for the parent bird to
perch and feed the babies.
- Nestling baby birds (those completely naked or with just pin feathers)
often flop out or are kicked out of the nest. Locate the nest and gently
place the baby in the nest. Watch from a distance to confirm that the parent
bird returns. This may take several hours, so be patient.
- Fledgling birds have some feathers but don't fly well. They mostly
hop and can jump to low branches. This is normal and part of the bird's
development. Keep your dogs and cats indoors while the fledglings are learning
to fly and observe from a distance to make sure the parents are feeding
them. If you don't see parents or if the bird is injured, get it to your
nearest wildlife rehabber.
- Most baby bird injuries are caused by domestic pets. If you have nests
on your property, monitor your dogs and cats, especially during spring and
- Avoid using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. You may kill the
targeted animal and several other animals (dogs, cats, hawks, owls) who
may feed on the dead or dying animal.
- Build barn owl boxes and kestrel houses in your area to encourage
a natural form of rodent and insect control.
- Nocturnal animals (skunks, opossums, raccoons) should not be out in
the daytime. If you see such an animal in the daytime, it may be ill or
injured. Contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center.
- If you find a truly orphaned or injured wild animal or bird, contain
it, keep it warm, dark and quiet until you can get it to a wildlife center.
- If an animal or bird is injured, it is probably also in shock; minimize
human contact to prevent deeper shock and death.
- Never attempt to give cow's milk to an orphaned wild mammal or bird.
This will cause severe diarrhea and often death. Your local wildlife center
has all the proper diets and is better trained to care for wildlife.
- Never put liquids into an injured animal's mouth. This could cause
aspiration pneumonia and death.
- Whenever possible, remove road kills off the road. Many animals are
killed or injured while feeding on these carcasses.
- If you see a dead possum, check to see if it is a female and if she
has living babies in her pouch. If she does, bring the dead opossum and
her babies to the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center. Do not attempt
to remove the babies yourself.
- Do not attempt to keep wild animals or birds as pets. It is illegal
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
"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.
Director of Fund For Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
"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
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
Founder of H.O.W.L.
"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."
Facility Manager, Project Wildlife
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
Organization Phone Number
- Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
Bob Farner's Wildlife Rescue
Emergency Wildlife Rehab