My first solo rescue call was an injured bald eagle spotted on the ground near the Stillaguamish River. The bird’s broken wing prevented any flight risk. But eagles are tough and he made for good chase. By the time he exhausted himself evading capture, he paused just long enough for me to toss the sheet over him, and I’m sure my heart was pumping as hard as his. The adrenaline felt electric.
Running my hands lightly over his body to orient the eagle under the thin layer of cotton and eyeballing the sheet to ensure his head would remain safely covered, I wrapped my arms around him like a surprise hug from behind. With his wings restricted, my fingers worked down his legs and into position holding his feet firmly under control. Rising up and pulling the eagle into to my chest, we stood tall together with his head merely inches from mine.
As I walked back to the truck where I’d left a crate prepped for the eagle, the caller saw the leather gloves still tucked in my pocket and asked, “Weren’t you supposed to wear those?”
Blew that safety protocol––I forgot. We both survived but the experience hooked me.
That was over 20 years ago, when my days revolved around the care and feeding of injured, sick or displaced wildlife. Beginning as a “baby season volunteer” at a wildlife recovery center, my time there evolved into an internship focused on raptor care. The center’s intern program provided the training and experience needed back then to safely respond to wildlife rescue emergencies and initiate supportive treatment measures, in the field and in the clinic, while participating in raptor educational outreach programs during the slower pace of fall and winter.
Wildlife rehab is not glamorous. Much of the work is daily maintenance ––scrubbing cages, disinfecting perches and dealing with “endless stinky poo.”
The attributes of a good wildlife rehab volunteer include the ability to handle rats and mice, dead or alive. I would have flunked that challenge in the beginning, but learned to let it go. Raptors love rodents like candy bars.
The baby season arrived all at once something like this: A solemn man walked in holding a shoe box. His three young daughters trailing behind like ducklings. He opened his mouth to explain but the girls beat him to it, bursting out at once: “Daddy ran over these baby bunnies with his lawnmower.” The tearful father held the box out to me and said, “Please, tell me you can save them.”
Opening the box revealed four baby cottontail bunnies, roughly half the size of my fist, minus the tops of their ears. “We’ll do everything we can, sir.” And we did.
People deliver orphaned animals in cardboard boxes, mixing bowls, stocking caps, coffee tins, paper sacks and carriers. Tiny robin siblings arrive neatly, still tucked in their fallen nests. Orphaned Douglas squirrels with their eyes still closed, chipmunks discovered after the chainsaw stopped, baby raccoons found underneath a wooden deck. There are even folks who stop to check the pouches of roadkill mama opossum. Otter pups, coyote pups, and even seal pups crossed the threshold of the wildlife center.
As entertaining as the sight of four fluffy baby barn owls perched in a row could be, cocking their heads in unison at sounds or movement, we took precautions to avoid ruining them with our attention. Young birds easily imprint on human faces, a risk to be conscientiously avoided for the sake of the owl.
Hunters volunteered by delivering wild game to feed the carnivores. Combinations of commercial and tribal fisheries support wildlife rehabilitation efforts as well.
My time working directly with wildlife delivered a world filled with wonders I never could have experienced otherwise. To appreciate the incredible lightness of being in osprey in comparison to solid eagles; to have seen the beautiful red lining of cedar waxwing nestlings opening their dainty mouths wide to be fed. To have felt an inexplicably powerful connection with an injured and rehabilitated great horned owl.
The initial inspiration for all volunteer work is always the same: I want to help. But almost as important is experiencing the camaraderie and fellowship of humans gathering to accomplish goals beyond self-interest. We can overcome obstacles and do together what we could never achieve alone.
We face a changing world with extraordinary new challenges. The thing I learned most from wildlife rehabilitation is how remarkably well adapted these creatures are, each with a special niche, the importance of which we may not recognize until they aren’t here anymore.