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Volunteers to the rescue: aiding injured wildlife is rewarding but hard work.

Volunteers to the rescue

Run-ins between man and animal are on the rise, and sometimes injured or orphaned creatures are the result. Increasingly, aid is coming from nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation outfits--supported by an army of volunteers--which help rescue and return many animals to the wild.

If you care about animals and don't mind hard work, you might want to join one of these groups; they deal with everything from songbirds and raptors to large mammals such as elephant seals and deer. Spring is the busiest season, as infant animals try to make it on their own. Fittingly, March 18 through 24 is National Wildlife Week.

Most of the wildlife rescue work at these centers is fairly new, prompted by increased concern for wildlife. And changes in rules now allow some qualified centers to handle wildlife under permits granted by state fish and wildlife (or game) departments. Californa licenses many of these centers; other Western states have given permits to a few centers, mostly ones that rescue raptors. (Note: it is illegal to keep or care for wildlife without state and federal permits.)

The issue isn't without controversy: some say volunteers aren't sufficiently qualified to handle wildlife. Undeniably, though, many centers are very professionally run, serving not only wildlife but adding to scientific knowledge about the nutrition and habits of some species.

Here, we describe what wildlife-care volunteers do and how you can contribute, including some rules of thumb on what to do if you spot an injured or lost animal. We also list some of the leading wildlife centers open for tours.

Becoming a wildlife-care volunteer

First, decide if you have the time and desire for this kind of work. As one volunteer says: "It's rewarding work, also heartbreaking, discouraging, and exhausting.' Sadly, not all animals recover; a 50-percent survival rate is average. Yet the payoff can be priceless. "When you watch a sick animal come back to life, it's the greatest feeling,' says Peigin Barrett, director of the California Marine Mammal Center, based in Marin County.

Usually, volunteers must be at least 18 years old, pay a small membership fee, and take a training class (most average around 16 hours). Then you may sign up for a specific job or work time each month, usually 2 to 4 hours a week.

Beforehand, find out what animals the facility is permitted to accept; most deal with small birds and mammals such as opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and rabbits. Some specialize in raptors, others in sea birds (gulls, cormorants, murres, pelicans). A few deal with marine mammals. What you'll do depends on your skills and training: building or cleaning cages or shelters, feeding animals, cleaning up wildlife injured by oil spills, perhaps assisting a veterinarian in caring for a sick or wounded animal. There are other jobs to be done: office work, fund-raising, finding release sites.

One common task is the "foster-parenting' of orphaned birds: you're given a box, food, instructions, and a chirping, featherless nestling to take home. It takes diligence: at first, babies must be fed every 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset.

Centers caution volunteers not to become attached to their "patients' or to treat them as pets, since they must stay wild in order to survive when released.

With some species, surprisingly little is known about diet, behavior, effects of strees and handling, so research and education play a big part at these centers. Volunteers may monitor behavior or condition and record observations.

Budgets are often small and facilities limited (some centers operate out of private homes). If you can't give your time, you can still help by donating items such as aquariums, cages, blankets, and buckets; call to check.

What to do if you find an abandoned or injured wild animal

If you spot an "orphan,' first make sure it's really abandoned; the parent may just be off finding food (wild creatures often hide their young while foraging). Cheek it after an hour; if it's still there, call an animal center or state wildlife agency for advice. If the animal is injured or sick, call immediately.

Do not touch the animal: even small mammals can be dangerous and could be infected with disease. Do not attempt to feed, medicate, or give the animal anything to drink, or you might aggravate the injury. Keep family pets away.

You might want to place a ventilated box or large basket over the animal to keep it quiet and contained while awaiting transport to a center. Songbirds can be placed in a ventilated shoe box lined with tissues.

Finding a center; some offer tours

In the West, over 150 centers deal with wildlife rescue and rehabilitation; all of them need volunteers. You can find them through state fish and wildlife offices, or send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, Box 3007, Walnut Creek, Calif. 94598. For a Washington list, write to Washington State Wildlife Council, Box 5574, Lynwood 98046, or call (206) 743-1884.

For the safety of the animals, most centers are closed to public tours; here are some larger centers which have special facilities and staff to handle visitors without harm to the wildlife.


California Marine Mammal Center, Marin Headlands, Fort Cronkhite; (415) 331-SEAL. Sprawling facilities include a "hospital' and outdoor pens, which in spring quarter elephant seals, sea lions, others. Open 10 to 4 daily; educational programs for students and adults (for reservations, call 415/331-0161).

Marin Wildlife Center, 76 Albert Park Lane, San Rafael. Outdoor aviary, large sea bird pool; rooms with one-way viewports for observing animals. Exhibit room open 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Saturdays, clinic 8 to 5 daily; call (415) 454-6961.

Alexander Lindsay Junior Museum, 1901 First Avenue, Walnut Creek; (415) 935-1978. Aids songbirds, small mammals; live animal exhibits, marsh life ecology display, insect zoo; open 1 to 5 Wednesdays through Fridays, noon to 4 weekends.

Facility for Animal Care and Treatment (FACT), California State University, 9001 Stockdale Highway, Bakersfield; (805) 833-3167. On the 40-acre Environmental Studies area; open for guided tours of classroom-laboratory and wildlife habitats. Visitors can watch students exercising and caring for animals such as hawks, bobcats, foxes. Call ahead to visit.

Living Desert Reserve, 47900 Portola Avenue, Palm Desert; (619) 346-5694. Exhibits include nocturnal animals, enclosures for endangered species such as desert bighorn sheep, walk-through aviaries. Open 9 to 5 daily; admission fee is $2.50, under 17 free with an adult.


The Nature Center of Pueblo, 5200 W. 11th Street, Pueblo; (303) 545-9114. On 26-acre site along the Arkansas River, the center rehabilitates raptors; facilities include hiking trails, picnic areas. Open 9 to 5 daily; free.


Washington Park Zoo, Washington Park, Portland; (503) 226-1561. Noted for owl recovery program; you can view deer, badgers in animal nursey. Some cases referred to Audubon wildlife center, (503) 292-0304 (no tours). Zoo open 9:30 to 5 daily; admission $2, $1 ages 5 to 11.

Photo: Wounded sea lion is warily rounded up with blankets on Monterey Bay beach by volunteer working with game officer and wildlife specialist. Kept immobile in transport basket, it goes to Marin Mammal Center (right) for long-term care

Photo: Marsh hawk is released back to wild after its wing mended in Pueblo, Colorado, nature center

Photo: Brown pelican's beak and wings are firmly restrained by volunteer while specialist injects bird with antibiotics. Found hungry, exhausted, and prey to disease, this pelican was released well from Monterey Wildlife Center

Photo: Bobcat kittens are weighed at Palo Alto center to monitor growth. One lived to reach release weight of 17 pounds

Photo: Safe in the hands of a volunteer trainer, baby gull gobbles smelt dinner

Photo: Orphaned fawn guzzles formula held by docent at Washington Park Zoo, Portland
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Date:Mar 1, 1984
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