I watch as Mary Estes opens a plastic storage bin and pulls out a raccoon kit—she lays it down on top of a pastel blanket on her lap, and proceeds to bottle-feed it while she talks to me.
“This time of year is called the busy season,” she says, “it’s around May to September, and it’s busy because all of our migratory birds are back, and then all the mammals are having babies and all the birds are having babies.”
Estes is the Rehabilitation Director at Chintimini Wildlife Center, and today is no exception to this seasonal trend, so I don’t mind both of us being slightly distracted by the task at hand. I arrived at 10 a.m. that morning, and already three new patients had been admitted to the Center, bringing 2018’s grand total to 1,151. In comparison, 2017 saw 1,766 patients for the whole year, with 51 percent being admitted in the months of May, June, and July.
Soon enough, Estes puts the raccoon back in its bin and moves onto another. When she opens this one, the whole room fills with the sound of hungry Vaux swift fledglings. It seems like there’s at least a dozen of them together, and their calls make it slightly difficult to talk over. I ask if it’s ever so busy during this time of year that patients have to be turned away.
“We’re pretty lucky to have some amazing staff and volunteers, so that we’ve never had [to turn down cases],” Estes tells me, “but there are days where the whole ICU is full, everything’s kind of full, and it’s just like oh my gosh when can I go home and go to sleep, but we make it every day.” She looks both tired and energized as she says this, you can infer a true passion is keeping her at this work.
She is not alone in this—as we tour the rest of the indoor clinic, we pass by a handful of busy volunteers, too enthralled by what they are doing to give much of a glance up. For example, one person in the baby bird room walks a circuit around the room to each cage, feeding the patients inside, taking about 30 minutes to go around just one time. Another might be in the room next door, stationed at the emergency phone hotline, where people who have found injured wildlife call in for instructions. Volunteers, as a whole, cover 3 4-hour shifts every day, including weekends and holidays, allowing the center to remain open the 12 hours between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Harm & Human Impact
The volunteers’ dedication greatly expands what Chintimini Wildlife Center is able to accomplish, including a thoroughness in tracking their patients. In 2017, 29 percent of the patients admitted to CWC were orphaned, 14 percent had been caught by a domestic pet, 13 percent collided with a vehicle, 8 percent fell from a nest, 6 percent collided with a window, 3 percent were diseased, and the remaining patients experienced other trauma. While some of these causes may sound natural by name, all of them involve a level of human impact. For example, falling from a nest may occur not just from a young bird learning to fly, but also due to inadvertent habitat destruction. Estes explains, “say somebody plows down a hay field and there’s ground-nesting raptors there and the person hit them with a mower…and their whole nest area will be destroyed.” Or, for another example, “There’s people clearing out areas or cutting down a tree, and then all of a sudden, there’s babies…a lot of times people don’t know what’s at the top of the tree.”
This unintentional harm that occurs as humans encroach on wildlife habitat is what led CWC’s founder, Jeff Picton, to envision a way to lessen the impact.
“He just realized that there wasn’t really a place locally that rehabbed wildlife. We had a vet school and all these great resources for domestic and exotic animals but there was no rehab facility for injured wildlife,” Estes describes.
In 1989, Picton began humbly out of a single barn on his property, and gradually expanded each year, building more flight and mammal cages. Word got around quick about what he was doing, causing an even greater need for more resources to be devoted to this line of work.
Today, CWC has expanded significantly and is currently housed at its third and permanent location on a 9.5 acre property off of Lewisburg Road, just north of Corvallis. This acreage affords the Center the ability to serve a land area from Corvallis west to the coast, east to the cascade foothills, halfway to Salem, and even south of Eugene, as the next wildlife center in that direction is all the way in Roseburg. The service is especially impressive considering that the center does not receive either state or federal dollars to keep afloat, “It’s all funded by donations,” Estes explains.
Later on, I let Estes devote her focus entirely to the animals, and head out to talk with Sarah Spangler, CWC’s Executive Director, and Erika Seirup, Outreach and Animal Care Assistant. Spangler explains to me that grants also play a role, especially in funding the educational programs the Center offers as part of its official mission to “Provide care for injured and orphaned wildlife, with the goal of returning them to their natural habitat and to foster a connection between people and wildlife through education.”
Fittingly, half of the property is used for rehabilitation, and half for education. On the rehabilitation side of things, there is the clinic Estes showed me. It’s situated in a mobile home that provides space for the ICU, and all the equipment necessary for conducting x-rays, taking bloodwork, and giving intravenous fluids to new patients. Meanwhile, outside is the “outback” where soon-to-be-released patients continue their recovery in a more natural, but enclosed setting. Each enclosure, whether indoor or outdoor, contains species-specific features such as perching branches for birds or stumps for mammals.
Spangler and Seirup walk me around the outback, then over to the educational side of the property. A large yurt provides a space onsite for field trip presentations and day camps. With the help of volunteers, “it was built in two days,” Spangler says, “The first day they put the frame up and the second day they just slipped the cover over it, and it was just built.”
In addition to using the indoor space, students and campers visiting the Center get to “use the full four acres of the education property,” Spangler beams, “It goes from this prairie land into the woods and then there’s a pond out back. So they learn wetlands and pond life and water ecology and soil science way out there. Then in the woods, it’s great because it’s 10-20 degrees cooler in there. They get to see three different ecosystems and all the things going on in them.”
CWC doesn’t just bring children to the property to learn, it also brings wildlife to schools. When an animal rehabilitated at the Center is unable to return to the wild due to permanent injuries, they become a candidate for use in education. Currently 11 birds, ranging from owls to raptors, fit this mold. In 2017, CWC brought these ambassadors out for about 100 presentations to approximately 6,000 people offsite. And this includes more than just young students.
“As fun as it is to give presentations to 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds, it is equally as fun to present to people in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s,” Spangler explains. The Center received a grant from Benton County Cultural Coalition that allows them to present to elderly homes in the area. “Even if you’re that age, people haven’t seen a bald eagle up close and it just sort of helps them understand nature in a new way,” Spangler says.
In the future, this kind of tailored interaction with wildlife may expand at CWC, with more people than students, the elderly, and the occasional journalist like myself getting to tour the property.
Spangler tells me, “The Board of Directors just completed a strategic planning process and it looks like our goals for the next 2 to 3 years will be to expand our volunteer program…to engage with our supporters in new and different ways…and to prepare to open to the public.”
Call & Clarify
In the meantime, the busy season rages on, and everyone I talk to at the Center agrees that if anything is to be emphasized, it is the importance of calling their emergency hotline at (541)745-5324 when coming across potentially injured wildlife.
“A lot of times the animal you think is injured or orphaned isn’t and it’s doing something that’s perfectly normal and natural, so there’s no reason to interfere,” Spangler explains, “We like people to call to clarify.”
Estes also stresses the importance of calling first, but for a different reason: “One of the hardest things to see—I mean obviously we see broken, injured, sad animals, animals that need to be humanely put down—but the worst, personally, is when there is an animal who people found with good intention, and then they kept it for days and they fed it the wrong thing, the wrong way, so now it’s bones are all messed up, it’s feathers are all messed up…and this animal comes in, and it’s just so pathetic and dying, [when] I could have saved it five days ago.”
Calling first is not just the ethical thing to do, it is also required by law. It is illegal to retain an injured wild animal for over 48 hours without having contacted a licensed rehabilitation facility. CWC is both state and federally licensed, and works closely with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to make sure they are following regulations appropriately.
With this long-standing history in mind, “There is no stupid question, you’re not wasting our time,” Spangler stresses, “We’re really here to serve the animals and we do that through serving the people.”
By Ari Blatt