Faster, higher, stronger. The best human athletes in the world, many of them from California, have proven their worthiness of an Olympic medal. But there are other “athletes” all around us – our local native wildlife includes some with amazing feats worthy of a medal, and in fact, one of them already holds a world record. These are among the best of the best we have worked with at the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center:
World record in speed and gold medal in diving – if the “track” is in the sky – goes to the peregrine falcon, which can reach speeds of 200 mph while diving (a special technique called a swoop) for prey. In 2007, one of the local champions was temporarily taken off the “team” due to an injury. The falcon was found with a broken wing in a Gilroy horse arena (though probably not practicing for an equestrian event). After months of recuperation, he was well enough to rejoin his team-when released, he flew high, circled and was suddenly joined by another wild peregrine.
Silver medalists in swimming: The orphaned bobcats and opossums, which have never seen a body of water bigger than a water bowl, swim expertly across swiftly flowing creeks when released. Pound for pound, considering their small size and youth, they would rival Michael Phelps. The swimming prowess of bobcat “Liberty” is immortalized on the bronze statue in front of the Centennial Recreation Center.
Natural born gymnast of the critter world: The all-around medal goes to a lithe and flexible long-tailed weasel, nicknamed “Weezy.” WERC volunteers built a special apparatus in her enclosure, similar to a “habitrail” habitat. PVC pipes were turned into a maze of tunnels and pop-up openings. She maneuvered as gracefully and expertly as Mary Lou, Gabby and Olga.
Strongest: Without a doubt, the gold medal is awarded to golden eagle, “Mercury,” who despite the profound injury to his left wing, which has caused a longer-than-usual recuperation, awes all with his formidable talons and 7-foot wingspan. An eagle in the wild is powerful enough to kill a deer. The silver medal goes to the strong-armed humans who must hold him during his exams and medical treatments.
Marathon silver medal: The longest distance a WERC animal has travelled to be returned to its native habitat was that of a 3-week-old bobcat rescued from under a bridge that had fallen in the Pit River, way up in northeastern California and transported to WERC, specialists in orphaned bobcat kitten care. “Modoc” needed to over-winter at WERC, due to snow storms in her native habitat (she was too young for the winter Olympics), and when she was 11 months old and ready to go home, she was flown up north, past Mounts Shasta and Lassen, and released to run free and wild again.
Marathon gold medalists: Two of WERC’s animals have traveled even further than Modoc, but not to be released. Instead, the permanently injured animals were given a second chance on life as educational animals. Bogie the western screech owl blinded in one eye, was flown to the Sheep Creek Wild Bird Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Orion the golden eagle, who had a metal bar surgically inserted in his broken leg, was flown to the Center for Birds of Prey in South Carolina.
Sailing: In the natural world, an albatross would win the gold medal in sailing, but the turkey vulture might qualify for a bronze, at the least. Its wings, with a 6-foot span, act as sails allowing it to glide across the sky over warm thermals for hours on end at speeds up to 60 mph. Turkey vultures can cover miles and miles without ever needing to flap. WERC is proud to be the sponsor of many vultures that it has cared for and released over the past 30 years.
Track and field: The jackrabbit wins this one paws down with his skill in sprinting, high jump, long jump and hurdles. The hare is born to the “sport” and rarely walks; instead it hops 5 to 10 feet at a time and sprints at speeds of 30-40 mph, bounding over brush and other obstacles in the field, as this one did when released from his carrying box.
Wildlife rehabilitators suffer the agony of defeat when all our endeavors aren’t enough to save an animal; but we also experience the exhilarating thrill of victory when our hard work and countless hours administering TLC allow us to release the animal back to its habitat-running, flying or slithering away healthy, wild and free.
WERC’s 17th annual BBQ-Auction fundraiser is Oct. 20. Go to www.werc-ca.org for more details.