Orphaned baby songbirds and poisoned seagulls. Small squirrels snapped up by cats. Skunks caught in bear traps. Wild animals in trouble like these throughout the Peninsula may – if they’re lucky – eventually find their way to one of a handful of wildlife rescue centers around the region.
Facilities like the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA’s Wildlife Care Center in Burlingame and the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley in San José are home to a dedicated team of staffers and volunteers who take on the daunting task of nursing these sick, injured and orphaned animals back to health and releasing them back into the wild.
These centers cumulatively serve thousands of wild animals across dozens of species every year and work to mimic the natural environments these animals are accustomed to. But every year, the organizations also encounter animals that are “over-rescued” by well-meaning residents who mistakenly think they’ve been abandoned.
The Six Fifty recently went behind the scenes of these wildlife centers to learn more about wild animal caretaking and what these organizations wish people knew about how to coexist with their non-human neighbors.
‘We are here for wild animals’
Burlingame’s Wildlife Care Center is housed in a section of the Peninsula Humane Society’s animal shelter that’s off-limits to the public. Nestled behind the rooms where kittens, dogs, bunnies and reptiles are on display for adoption, the Wildlife Care Center is home to a rooftop labyrinth of enclosures containing a wide range of wild creatures, 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 roughly 1,400 wild animals each year, are privately funded, according to Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA communications manager Buffy Martin-Tarbox.
For wildlife technician Charlotte Patterson, this particular role is a dream job because it lets a zoology major like her both provide care to animals and pay the bills, she says.
While songbirds are among the most common residents at the center, other patients include opossums, hawks, owls, squirrels, ducks, skunks and raccoons. The center’s population throughout the year mirrors animals’ life cycles, with the busy season generally lasting through the spring and summer through two birth cycles for squirrels and one for most birds.
Many of the injuries the animals sustain can be cared for with basic support like anti-inflammatory medication, rest and recovery, says Martin-Tarbox.
The center provides time for baby animals that have been abandoned to grow up, stepping in to help feed them and make sure they don’t have any diseases before they are released into the wild.
“We are here for wild animals,” Martin-Tarbox said.
A day in the life of a wildlife technician
Starting out her shift, Patterson expertly navigates the corridors between the animal enclosures, checking in on the worm-eating birds first because they have very fast metabolisms and need to be fed, she explains.
Then she moves on to feeding the squirrels a mix of the more healthy “rodent block” that provides nutrients, and a seed-and-nut mix they favor that’s considered their junk food.
Next she checks in on an owl, which is fed mealworms, and confirms it ate the mouse it was fed the previous evening.
She dons special sanitized boots to move on to the mammal enclosures to prevent any cross-contamination, while another colleague cleans the raccoon enclosure where 11 raccoons have been recuperating.
“It’s definitely a messy job, but it’s a lot of fun,” Patterson says.
There are also three different areas for young ducks, where babies to bigger ducks are separated and roam in swimming areas tailored for their varied sizes.
Facing the approach of a particularly bold duckling in the middle enclosure, Patterson clapped to scare it away. “We just don’t want them to like humans,” she says.
In the third duck enclosure, a young goose sat with some ducks its age, but it was about twice their size and more developed. Unlike in the story of “The Ugly Duckling,” though, these ducks seemed unbothered by the goose’s presence – they were huddling with it for warmth.
The center also has a nursery where the youngest animals – often with the most frequent needs – are kept. Baby songbirds, for instance, sometimes need to be fed as frequently as every half-hour by syringe. Throughout the nursery, baby birds chirp from under heat lamps, ensconced in handmade crochet bowl liners that function as substitute nests.
There are protocols that limit Patterson’s contact with baby animals, however, because the center doesn’t want the animals to become too comfortable around humans in order to improve their chances of survival in the wild.
Each animal has a care plan, and over the years the center has assembled binders of instructions that contain guidance for animal care, including which species can be housed together. A large whiteboard outlines the responsibilities that staffers and volunteers are tasked with and must initial as they complete their assignments.
The center also relies on a supply of donated goods to help the animals, like crocheted nest shapes for the smallest birds, plants to simulate the environment outside of the animals’ enclosures, or tree bark for squirrels to gnaw on. Baby ducks take a particular liking to feather dusters and like to huddle around them as a stand-in for their mothers, Patterson says.
As they work their way toward a full recovery and eventual release, the animals progress from smaller to larger enclosures outside, getting used to conditions that increasingly simulate life in the wild.
For instance, birds of prey like red-tailed hawks go through regular weight checks to ensure they are a healthy weight for their age and ready to hunt, and usually spend two weeks in the center’s aviary before they are released.
Generally, the wildlife center staff members try to return animals exactly where they found them. However, animals like squirrels, which are hard to tell apart once they’ve been put together in a cohort, are often released as a group to sites that are considered safe for them.
Later in Patterson’s shift, someone brings in a squirrel in a box for evaluation.
Alex Elias, lead wildlife technician at the Wildlife Care Center, says they take pride in the severely injured animals they’ve been able to heal and release back into the wild, like a Western screech owl that had come in with a punctured eye. It took administering eye drops three times a day for two months, but eventually the eye healed and the owl went free. “We weren’t going to give up,” she says.
Another time, a seagull came in with paralysis in its legs, likely from eating something that caused paralysis. Staff gave it medication and fed it every two hours and after about a month, it recovered.
And recently, her team worked together to heal a skunk whose paw had gotten caught in a bear trap, she said. (Both wildlife centers document their animal encounters on their respective Instagram accounts.)
Elias and her colleagues have to use whatever context clues they can to piece together what might have happened to the animal.
“I love being able to help animals in the community,” she says. “Everyone here is super dedicated.”
Caring for the Peninsula’s predators
At the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, a small team of staffers and far more volunteers manage to care for upwards of 7,000 animals a year and 170 different species of wildlife, serving the region from roughly Mountain View to San Juan Bautista.
Hospital manager Ashley Kinney began her career with the center as a volunteer about 20 years ago and has been an employee for 16 years.
“One of the really cool things is that there’s always something new,” she says.
The San José rescue center stands out among other rescue agencies because it specializes in supporting predatory species such as coyotes, foxes and bobcats.
“They’re not cheap to raise, but they play a vital role in our ecosystems and we want to give them a good shot at a natural, wild life,” she says.
The bulk of animals they care for are birds, and many come in because they have been displaced due to tree trimming or attacked by cats, she says.
Possums are also common clients, as each female can have 9 to 13 babies at a time. Their center can see up to 1,400 possums a year.
Her favorite parts of the job are seeing animals released and watching volunteers and interns evolve, sometimes choosing to pursue veterinary careers themselves, she says.
“It can be mentally taxing, but not always. For every one that doesn’t make it, at the end of the day, there are so many releases.”
When wild animals are ‘over-rescued’
Both wildlife centers see education as a big part of their missions, teaching people about how they should interact with animals they encounter in the wild that seem like they need help.
Staff at both wildlife centers say that they frequently see animals that are “over-rescued” as one caretaker put it, or “kidnapped” as another described it. These are animals that would be fine on their own but are put in a worse situation when well-meaning people intervene and bring them to the wildlife rescue centers unnecessarily.
One of the most common times this happens is when baby birds are in their fledgling stage. There is a period of a couple of days to a week when baby birds leave their nests and are on the ground before they figure out how to fly. Their parents watch from a distance, but it can look like the babies have been abandoned.
As a result, people sometimes bring in these baby birds, thinking they need to be rescued. This is also the time when young birds are most vulnerable to attacks from other animals, such as cats, and often find themselves captured and injured by neighborhood felines.
But birds aren’t the only animals prone to over-rescuing: Mother deer often leave their babies behind while they go out to forage, which can lead people to think they’ve been abandoned, Elias says.
San Mateo County is unique in that it has mountains, the coast, rural areas and densely populated ones. People may not realize they share their environment with wild animals, and sometimes those wild animals come closer than we’d like, Martin-Tarbox says. For instance, she says, a mama skunk might choose to have her babies in someone’s garage. Part of the service the wildlife center provides is to help people find humane ways to coexist with their wild neighbors, she says.
Instead of calling an exterminator, the resident might call the wildlife hotline, which would probably direct the resident to give the skunks some space and wait for them to move on in a week or two, Martin-Tarbox says.
“Any moment can be an education moment here with the public,” Patterson says.
Tips for being a good wildlife neighbor:
- Call a wildlife center hotline before you act. Most of the time these animals are fine, according to Elias. “Moving the baby animal can be a high-stress experience,” she adds.
- Keep cats indoors when birds are fledglings. “If we could get everyone to keep their cats inside, that’d be amazing,” Elias says. (According to the Audubon Society, fledglings are covered almost entirely in down and feathers and are able to hop.)
- Wait until winter to prune trees. Or at least wait until birds fledge if they are nesting in a tree.
- Avoid using rodenticides. These can cause secondary poisoning in animals further up the food chain.
- Don’t try to keep wild animals as pets. No adopting squirrels, please, Martin-Tarbox says.
- Please don’t call the hotline every time you see a coyote. “Yes, they live here too,” Martin-Tarbox says.
- Recognize that it’s a hard world out there for animals. These wildlife centers do their best, but they can’t raise every vulnerable baby animal. “We try to only care for the truly orphaned, sick and injured animals,” Elias says.
The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA recommends if you see a wild animal you believe 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)
- Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley: 3027 Penitencia Creek Road, San Jose (408-929-9453)
- The Wildlife Rescue Office in Palo Alto is no longer in operation.