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Second Chances

The North Coast's only wildlife rehabilitation center needs a hand up

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It seems to happen almost every fall, Humboldt Wildlife Care Center co-director Monte Merrick says. Fledging western grebes, small, white-throated sea birds widespread on the Pacific Coast, move from protected marshlands and sloughs to the open ocean just as a storm is moving in, only to find the waters too rough to navigate and wash up on the beach by the scores.

The thing is, this fall, it's also an apt metaphor for the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, itself. The only wildlife rehabilitation facility between Santa Rosa and Oregon, the center — operating on a thin budget with a skeletal staff that includes just two full-time employees — relocated from its humble Bayside campus to a new property in Manila in April, just before the wildlife baby boom season that typically sees scores of orphaned critters entering its care in need of help to find an elusive second chance at living a wild life. And, for whatever reason, this year's baby boom was an onslaught, arriving in a relentless flow as center staff worked to transform its new property from a run-down residential lot into a functional rehabilitation hospital with the variety of enclosures needed to house everything from raccoons to raptors to sea birds.

By the time August rolled around, the center had admitted more than 750 animals — patients, it calls them — into its care at the new center, including some 200 opossum babies and dozens of motherless racoons, not to mention fawns, chipmunks, squirrels and dozens of mallards.

"Showing up and setting up while you're admitting animals — it's not ideal but it's something I'm used to," says Merrick, who was drawn to wildlife rehabilitation through oil spill response.

But the commotion of the summer months left little time for fundraising — the lifeblood of the community-based nonprofit, which operates on an annual budget of about $225,000, with about $30,000 coming from grants and the balance from mostly small donations. Additionally, one of the center's largest single fundraising events — the North Coast Co-Op's Seeds for Change roundup, which usually raises about $10,000 over the course of a month — had been moved from its customary June to later in the year. So in mid-August, Merrick found the nonprofit with just about $500 in the bank with bills coming due, unsure how he'd be able to pay off the center's last shipment of fish in order to get its next, per its ongoing agreement with Pacific Choice Seafood.

Merrick, whose nonprofit Bird Ally X merged with the Wildlife Care Center in 2014, first posted an urgent fundraising plea to the nonprofit's website, but says it got little traction with limited reach through the center's Facebook page. He then tried a direct email to supporters with the subject line "Code Red!!!"

"About a month ago our resources to get through the summer began to dwindle, getting dangerously low," Merrick wrote. "Ordinarily the support we receive each day, each week, each month, gets us through — it's a shoestring existence, and hand to mouth, but we get it done. ... This year is another story. ... We cannot go on like this. Please help."

Merrick says the email went out at 8:30 a.m. and by that afternoon the center had received about $2,000 in donations, enough to pay some bills and continue operations. But with seabird stranding season upon us, the workload is unlikely to ease. Patients will keep showing up in need of care, Merrick says, as the center continues to work to build out its new facilities, with eyes on finishing a raccoon enclosure, expanding one for fawns and adding a trio of sea bird pools.

Under a brilliant blue sky wisped with clouds on a recent Friday morning, Merrick is giving the Journal a tour of the property, which currently consists of a garage that's been converted into an exam/office/care facility, with a cluster of out-structures temporarily housing various animals.

"I'm not a fundraiser by nature," Merrick says. "I'm much more of a show up in the middle of nowhere, build a hospital and rehabilitate some birds and go home kind of person."

Standing in front of two large dry erase boards that list the center's current patients, the one on the right listing adults, the one on the left with babies, describes how the center operates and his passion for the work seeps through. The center hasn't always had a good reputation, he says, noting that it was derided as a bunch of "bunny huggers" when he arrived, which is the antithesis of the work it does now.

"No, actually, we don't hug bunnies because it would habituate them to us and ruin their lives," he says.

Merrick says the center's sole goal is to rehabilitate wildlife to be released back into the wild, to give animals that have been injured or orphaned a second chance at life. To do that, staff need to nurse the animals back to health while being careful to keep them wild, not habituating them to human care. It's a delicate balance that takes many forms.

For the raccoons, for example, it means keeping them in an enclosure that mimics their habitat, with a small stream running through, some short trees and tall brush. When it's feeding time, the kits aren't just given a bowl of chow. Instead, staff place fish in the stream, bugs in the grasses and fruit in the trees in an attempt to teach the omnivores to forage for themselves.

As Merrick talks, Lucinda Adamson — the center's only other full-time employee — walks through the office space and reports that the pelican found near Smith River ate its breakfast, to which Merrick replies with an even-keeled, "Yay."

An ideal doctor-patient relationship is built on open communication, Merrick says, noting that even vets can communicate with their patients' owners, getting a rundown of the animal's symptoms and backstory.

"We don't have that," he says. "We don't even have their consent."

Sometimes, he says, staff can guess what happened to lead an animal into their care. For example, a robin found dazed on the ground next to a house likely flew into a window, he says, while it can be surmised one found in a similar state next to the road was hit by a car. But those are just guesses.

"We never actually know," he says. "Maybe it was dropped by a hawk."

And this is the space in which the rehabilitation center's staff work, with limited information about their patient, without consent and with an urgent need to keep the animals at arms' length. Navigating such a space ethically takes intention, he says.

"First, you need to remember why you're doing it," he says. "This is a second chance and without it, [the animal] will die. I'm going to assume they want that second chance."

Second, he says, it's incumbent on rehabilitators to get "good and fast" at their tasks to reduce the stress on the animal. But ultimately, he says, there are generally only two ways animals leave the center's care: "back to freedom or euthanasia."

About half the center's patients are euthanized on admission, having come in so injured or sick the staff's only ethical choice is giving them as quick and painless a death as possible. Of those that make it through the admission process, Merrick says about 60 to 70 percent are rehabilitated and released into the wild in a place staff think they can thrive. For raccoons, that's generally a remote location about 5 miles inland, while mallards are generally released into the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.

Looking at the dry erase board, Merrick notes that many of the center's patients arrive at its doors due to some kind of human intervention. He points to a baby western pond turtle whose original condition is listed as "kidnapped." Someone, he says, found a turtle egg being eaten by a snake and decided to take the egg out of the snake's mouth and bring it to the center.

"I mean, I think the snake gets to have dinner," he says, shaking his head before explaining that he never scolds people, who, no matter how ill-informed, try to save wildlife, saying education is always the center's approach. "Beating people up for making a compassionate mistake in the world we live in seems like a bad use of energy. Compassion is to be rewarded."

As Merrick talks, Adamson and a couple of the center's interns prepare to make a house call for the Humane Solutions program. That program, he says, has its own white board, pointing to a small rectangular board with two notes scrawled on it. The first notes a woman on the peninsula called asking what to do about the den of skunks — a mother and her kits — that have taken up residence in her yard, noting she didn't want "to shoot them."

Through Humane Solutions, Merrick says the center works to help area residents navigate wildlife-related problems in a way that works for everyone. In the case of skunks — a frequent issue this time of year — Merrick says that means helping residents understand that this is a temporary situation, that the only time skunks hunker down close to someone's home is when they are raising their kits. When the little ones are strong enough to move on, they will, which usually only takes a couple of months. Then, he says, center staff talked about tiered options.

For example, imagine a mother raccoon has chosen to bring her babies under your house to raise them in the void behind your bathtub, Merrick says. First off, he says, "hats off to mother racoon."

"It's a safe place," he says, noting it provides protection against predators and shelter. "It's a brilliant move but there are lots of reasons somebody doesn't want a raccoon on the other side of their bathtub."

The ideal solution, he says, is convincing the resident to just wait it out, that if they're hearing the animals, it probably means the kits are growing and likely only have a month or so before they'll be ready to move on. Once they do, Merrick says center staff will work with the resident to shore up their house to make sure no other critters look to make it a home, temporary or otherwise. But if the residents aren't comfortable with that, Merrick says staff will work to "convince mom the gig is up." Sometimes that's as easy as poking a head into the attic and making eye contact, Merrick says, though sometimes it requires more extreme measures. One method, he notes with a chuckle, is blasting talk radio and shining lights into the area the animals are inhabiting for a couple of days.

In addition to day-to-day operations, the wildlife center is a key component of the North Coast's oil-spill response apparatus. Tamar Danufsky, the facility coordinator emeritus of Cal Poly Humboldt's Marine Wildlife Care Center, says in the event of a spill impacting birds, Humboldt Wildlife Care Center staff would help wash oiled birds, after which they would be rehabilitated at the center.

Additionally, Danufsky says the Oiled Wildlife Care Network requires that any volunteers doing this type of work have rehabilitation experience, noting the wildlife care center is the "portal" to give students and community members this type of experience. Danufsky says many of the university's students have participated in the center's internship program, noting that Merrick and his wife Laura "brought extensive experience in wildlife rehabilitation and raised the level of care provided to professional standards" when they took over the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center.

Karen Recinos hopes to one day be a part of that internship program. A wildlife conservation management student at Cal Poly Humboldt, Recinos is from Southern California and says she had no experience caring for wildlife, so she signed up to volunteer at the center. She says it's been great, noting that while she thought she'd likely just be cleaning enclosures and washing dishes, she's gotten to help manage patients' care, watched a procedure done on a great heron, assisted with tube feedings and taking "poop samples." She'd even gotten to help release some opossums and a skunk.

"Volunteering there has helped me realize this is something I want to do for my career, for my life," Recinos says.

And that's huge, Merrick says, as this isn't glamorous work and people aren't lining up to do it.

"The field is aging out," he says. "It doesn't pay well and it requires a level of dedication that you don't learn in college. You do it because it matters to you."

Merrick says he's also heartened that it's work that matters to the local community, noting it's those small donations — some made monthly, some annually and some simply by customers rounding up at the grocery store — that make up the vast majority of the center's budget. And it's that community support, he says, that prompted the Arcata Economic Development Corporation to deem the nonprofit "scrappy" and agree to help finance the purchase of the new property, with local donations providing the 20-percent down payment.

Looking around the Manila property, Merrick says he didn't want to move the center and had hoped it would work to keep it in Bayside, noting he told the center's previous landlord, "I spent my 50s building this place. I don't want to spend my 60s building it again." But now, he says he's just focused on the future and the opportunity ahead.

"We get to develop it how we want and try to make something sustainable," he says, noting he's excited about the planned new enclosures and the quality of care they'll allow the center to give its patients.

But ultimately, how much the center is able to do and for how long is up to the community, a concept Merrick says he's fine with.

"I like that I have to explain that to my neighbors," he says.

As Merrick is talking, a first-time volunteer shows up and is directed to sign in. Meanwhile, Adamson and her crew have returned from the Humane Solutions skunk call. Merrick asks how it went.

"She loves the idea that they were eating the grubs that are killing her lawn and the mice," Adamson says. "And suddenly, skunks were cool."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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