Orphaned children’s birds and poisoned seagulls. Small squirrels were picked up by cats. Skunks are caught in bear traps. wild animals In trouble like this across the peninsula – if they are lucky – they will eventually find their way to one of the few wildlife rescue centers across the region.
Facilities like the Peninsula Humane Society, SPCA’s Wildlife Care Center in Burlingame, and the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley in San Jose are home to a dedicated team of staff and volunteers who carry out the arduous task of caring for these sick, injured, and orphaned animals back in health and returning them to the wild.
Cumulatively, these centers serve thousands of wildlife across dozens of species each year and mimic the natural environments these animals are accustomed to. But every year, organizations also encounter animals that have been “over-rescued” by well-meaning residents who mistakenly believe they have been abandoned.
The Six Fifty recently went behind the scenes of these wildlife centers to learn more about caring for wild animals and what these organizations wish people knew about how to live with their non-human neighbors.
The Burlingame Wildlife Care Center is located in a section of the Peninsula Humane Society’s animal shelter and is off-limits to the public. The Wildlife Care Center is located behind the rooms where cats, dogs, rabbits and reptiles are offered for adoption, and is home to a rooftop maze of enclosures containing a wide variety of wildlife, all busy recovering or growing and preparing to return to their native habitats throughout the region.
While San Mateo County provides funding for animal rescue, the center’s wildlife operations, which serve nearly 1,400 wild animals each year, are privately funded, according to the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA Communications Director Buffy Martin-Tarbox.
For wildlife technician Charlotte Patterson, this specific role is a dream job because it allows a zoologist like her to provide care for animals and pay the bills, she said.
While songbirds are among the center’s most common population, other patients include opossums, hawks, owls, squirrels, ducks, skunks, and raccoons. The center’s year-round population reflects the life cycles of the animals, with the busy season generally continuing through spring and summer with two birth cycles for squirrels and one for most birds.
Martin Tarbucks said many of the injuries animals suffer can be taken care of with basic support such as anti-inflammatory medications and rest and recovery.
The center provides time for abandoned baby animals to grow, stepping in to help feed them and making sure they don’t catch any diseases before they are released into the wild.
“We’re here for the wild animals,” Martin Tarbucks said.
At the start of her shift, Patterson expertly navigates the aisles between animal enclosures, checking the worm-eating birds first because they have a very fast metabolism and need to be fed, she explains.
She then proceeds to feeding the squirrels a mixture of a healthy “rodent mass” that provides the nutrients, and the mix of seeds and nuts they prefer which is unhealthy food.
Next, she checked on an owl feeding on mealworms, and confirmed that she had eaten the mouse that had been fed the night before.
She wears special sterile shoes to go to the mammal enclosures to prevent any cross-contamination, while another colleague cleans the raccoon enclosure where 11 raccoons are recovering.
“It’s definitely a messy job, but it’s so much fun,” Patterson said.
There are also three different areas for the baby ducks, where the babies are separated from the larger ducks and roam the swimming areas designated for their various sizes.
Faced with the particularly daring approach of the duck in the middle box, Patterson applauded for intimidating him. “We just don’t want them to love humans,” she said.
In the third duck barn, a young goose sat with some ducks of its own age, but it was twice its size and more developed. Unlike the “Ugly Duckling” story, these ducks seemed unfazed by the goose’s presence – they would huddle with it for warmth.
The center also has a nursery where the smallest animals – often with the most common needs – are kept. For example, small songbirds sometimes need to be fed every half hour with a syringe. Throughout the nursery, baby birds tweet from under the heat lamps, covered in handcrafted crochet linings that serve as alternate nests.
However, there are protocols that limit Patterson’s contact with young animals, because the center does not want the animals to become too comfortable around humans in order to improve their chances of surviving in the wild.
Every animal has a care plan, and over the years the center has compiled volumes of instructions containing guidelines for caring for animals, including species that can be housed together. The large whiteboard outlines the responsibilities that staff and volunteers are assigned and must be primary as they complete their assignments.
The center also relies on supplies of donated goods to help the animals, such as crochet nest shapes for the tiniest birds, plants to simulate the environment outside of the animals’ enclosures, or tree bark that squirrels gnaw on. Patterson said ducklings especially like feather dust and like to huddle around them as a substitute for their mothers.
As they work their way toward full recovery and eventual release, the animals progress from smaller to larger enclosures outside, getting used to conditions that increasingly mimic life in the wild.
For example, birds of prey such as red-tailed hawks undergo regular weight checks to ensure they are at a healthy weight appropriate for their age and are ready to hunt, usually spending two weeks in a center bird cage before releasing them.
In general, the staff of the Wildlife Center tries to return the animals exactly to the place where they found them. However, animals such as squirrels, which are difficult to distinguish once they are grouped together, are often released as a group in locations considered safe for them.
Later in Patterson’s bout, someone brought a squirrel into a crate for evaluation.
They are proud of the critically injured animals that were able to be healed and released back into the wild, said Alex Elias, chief wildlife technician at the Wildlife Care Center, like a western roaring owl that came with pierced eyes. It took me giving eye drops three times a day for two months, but eventually the eye healed and the owl came out. “We will not give up,” she said.
Once again, the seagull came with paralysis in its legs, possibly from eating something that caused the paralysis. The staff gave her medication and fed her every two hours and about a month later, she recovered.
Most recently, her team worked together to treat a skunk whose paw had fallen into a bear trap, she said. (Both wildlife centers document their encounters with the animals in their respective cities Instagram accounts.)
Elias and her colleagues have to use whatever context clues they can put together as to what might happen to the animal.
“I love being able to help the animals in the community,” she said. “Everyone here is very dedicated.”
At the Silicon Valley Wildlife Center, a small team of staff and a much larger number of volunteers tend to over 7,000 animals a year and 170 different species of wildlife, serving the area from nearly Mountain View to San Juan Bautista.
Hospital Director Ashley Kinney began her career with the center as a volunteer about 20 years ago and has been a staff member for 16 years.
“One of the really great things is that there’s always something new,” she said.
The San Jose Rescue Center stands out among other rescue agencies because it specializes in supporting predatory species such as coyotes, foxes, and cats.
“Breeding them is not cheap, but they play a vital role in our ecosystems and we want to give them a good chance at the wild natural life,” she said.
The bulk of the animals they take care of are birds, she said, and many come because they have been displaced by tree trimming or have been attacked by cats.
Opossums are also common customers, as each female can give birth to 9 to 13 babies at a time. Their center can see up to 1,400 opossums annually.
She said her favorite parts of her work are seeing animals released and watching volunteers and trainees develop, sometimes choosing to pursue veterinary careers themselves.
“It can be mentally exhausting, but not always. For whoever doesn’t succeed, at the end of the day, there are a lot of versions.”
Both wildlife centers see education as a big part of their mission, teaching people how to interact with animals they encounter in the wild that seem to need help.
Staff at both wildlife centers say they often see animals that are “overly rescued” as one official put it, or “kidnapped” as another described it. These are animals that will be fine on their own but are put in a worse situation when people of good will step in and bring them to wildlife rescue centers unnecessarily.
One of the most common times this happens is when young birds are in their prime. There is a period of between two days and a week when the young birds leave their nests and are on the ground before they figure out how to fly. Their parents watch from a distance, but the children may seem abandoned.
As a result, people sometimes bring these small birds, believing that they need to be rescued. This is the time when young birds are most vulnerable to attacks by other animals, such as cats, and often find themselves captured and injured by live macarons.
But birds aren’t the only animals susceptible to over-rescue: Mother deer often leave their babies behind as they go out foraging, which can lead people to believe they’ve been abandoned, Elias said.
San Mateo County is unique in that it contains mountains, a coastline, rural areas, and densely populated areas. Martin Tarbucks said people may not realize that they share their environment with wild animals, and sometimes those wild animals get closer than we like. For example, she said, a skunk mother might choose to put her children in someone’s garage. She said part of the wildlife center’s service is helping people find humane ways to coexist with their wild neighbors.
Martin Tarbucks said that instead of calling an extermination company, the resident might call the wildlife hotline, which will likely instruct the resident to give the skunks some space and wait until they’re relocated in a week or two.
“Any moment can be a learning moment here with the audience,” Patterson said.
Tips to be a good wildlife neighbor:
• Call the Wildlife Center’s hotline before acting. Most of the time, says Elias, these animals are fine. “Transporting an infant animal can be a high-stress experience,” she added.
• Put cats indoors when birds are birds. “If we could get everyone to keep their cats inside, that would be great,” Elias said. (according to Audubon SocietyYoung chicks are completely covered in fluff and feathers and can jump.)
• Wait until winter to prune trees. Or at least wait for the birds to hatch if they are nesting in a tree.
• Avoid the use of rodenticides. They can cause secondary poisoning to animals at the top of the food chain.
• Do not try to keep wild animals as pets. Please don’t adopt squirrels, said Martin Tarbox.
• Please do not call the hotline every time you see a wolf. “Yes, they live here too,” Martin Tarbucks said.
• Know that it is a difficult world for animals. These wildlife centers do their best, but they can’t raise every vulnerable baby animal. “We are just trying to take care of orphaned, sick and wounded animals,” Elias said.
The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA recommends that if you see a wild animal that you think is in distress, contact one of the following agencies:
• PHS/SPCA Wildlife Care Center: 1450 Rollins Road, Burlingame (650-340-7022).
• Palo Alto Animal Services: 3281 E. Bayshore Road, Palo Alto (650-329-2413).
• Silicon Valley Wildlife Center: 3027 Penitencia Creek Road, San Jose (408-929-9453).
• The Palo Alto Wildlife Rescue Office is no longer operational.
Kate Bradshaw contributes to TheSixFifty.comAnd the A sister post for Palo Alto Online, covering what we eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.