Making a return to the wild

Using the weighted Tigger stuffed animal, WERC volunteers Craig

MORGAN HILL
– On a chilly, grey Saturday morning deep in the foothills of
the Santa Cruz mountains outside of Morgan Hill, the fog rolled
down on the one-acre home of the Wildlife Education and
Rehabilition Center.
MORGAN HILL – On a chilly, grey Saturday morning deep in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains outside of Morgan Hill, the fog rolled down on the one-acre home of the Wildlife Education and Rehabilition Center.

The center is the home to many different wild animals over the course of the year, but this was a big day for volunteers of the center because two of its visitors – a bobcat and a red-tailed hawk – would be released back into the wild.

“It’s been a long time and a lot of care, but this is what it’s all about – letting them go,” said Sue Howell, WERC executive director.

The bobcat was found in a chicken coop near Walnut Creek. Old, frail and weak, it had not attacked any of the chickens but appeared to be hunting. However, when discovered, the cat put up such a little fight that land owners were able to pick it up and carry it to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek.

“It was skin and bones,” Howell said. “They think it had possibly been hit by a car.”

The cat had developed internal parasites, had lost a lot of fur and broken teeth and a scratched face. After receiving intial care at Lindsay, the bobcat was transferred to the WERC in early November weighing just 12 pounds.

A few months later, and at times eating up to 4 pounds a day of rodents, the cat weight nearly 30 pounds and had regained its strength. It was ready to return to the wild, but the law states that it must be released within three miles of where it was found. And getting it from its rehabilitation cage into a carrier to take back to the site was not going to be an easy task.

The WERC is the state’s leading bobcat rehabilitation center, and houses anywhere from one to four injured bobcats per year.

“It’s pretty much agreed with all the rehab centers that we are the best site for bobcats in California,” said Charlie Snyder, WERC operations coordinator and a certified wildlife biologist. “California Fish and Game actually calls us when they have a question.”

The Morgan Hill branch of WERC was given worldwide recognition in 1995 for its work with raising orphaned bobcats.

“We pioneered the techniques for bobcats. It’s quite an honor to be recognized as experts.” Howell said. “It all started in 1994 with our first bobcat, and it’s grown from there.”

In part of its ongoing efforts to educate and to develop better strategies for working with bobcats, WERC Bobcat Supervisor Evelyn Davis held a training session for four of the center’s 25 volunteers before taking one of them in to assist her with the capture the real one.

“The first thing we think about is your safety,” Davis told her group of four young volunteers. “The bobcat’s safety is next.

“He’s been in a few scrapes before,” she added. “He won’t be afraid to fight.”

To catch the bobcat, who was living in a large enclosure, Davis demonstrated how to correctly use a catchpole – a 6- to 8-foot pole with an adjustable loop – to gain control of the cat and how to safely get it into a kennel for release. For a practice bobcat to catch, Davis used a stuffed animal Tigger loaded with rocks to simulate the weight of the cat.

“If it looks like he’s going to pounce, that’s a good time to catch him,” Davis warned. The bobcat easily could do damage with its quick claws and sharp teeth. According the the Humane Society of the United States, bobcats are powerful enough to kill even a full-size deer.

“You kind of lose your train of thought when you’re in there,” Davis said just after successfully capturing the cat. “I could tell he was a little disturbed so I didn’t get him by the leg.”

After being weighed in, the bobcat was ready for a nightime release back in Walnut Creek.

As the thick fog began to secede from the area, WERC members decided the conditions also were good enough to release a red-tailed hawk that had been under thier supervision for several months.

“She was found in San Jose in the middle of the road,” Howell said.

The young hawk was missing its secondary feathers, making it nearly impossible to fly. WERC volunteers placed the bird into the education program, not knowing if it would ever fly again. However, the young bird, less than a year old, was cared for by another red-tailed hawk in the education program and the secondary feathers began to grow in.

“We’ve had this bird for a long time,” Snyder said.

After a final checkup, the WERC Snyder brought the large bird up for release. The hawk quickly took to the air and flew to a nearby tree, where it began to look around and get its bearings. However, almost instantly the hawk was found by some unhappy visitors.

A flock of crows appeared out of nowhere and began to buzz the confused red-tailed hawk, who had no home territory and no place to go.

“This is what goes on in nature, and she needs to deal with it to survive,” Howell said.

However, as the crows continued to attack the shell-shocked hawk, Snyder decided to bring in a little help. He went to the education center and brought out Arial, a merlin falcon. Arial had an injured wing that made it impossible to fly, but her call quickly made the crows disapear because the crows knew, as did Snyder, that a merlin falcon is about as dangerous a bird as there is. The falcon, although small, is a predator that mainly feasts on other birds. It ability to fly like an acrobat and reach speeds nearing 200 mph give it the ability to out manouvre almost any bird. And its long claws are used to stab other birds in the spine, instantly paralyzing them and dropping from the air.

The crows left, but later returned with much larger numbers. However, a few more calls from Arial helped to clear up the skies.

“Obviously, today she did a little of, well, what she does naturally,” Snyder said.

Arial also gave the red-tailed hawk a chance to get accustomed to freedom.

“We will feed her for a while if she stays. We want her to be able to make it.” Howell said. “She’ll stay around for a while, and she’ll get adjusted.”

However, the WERC volunteers have to be careful about habituation, meaning they don’t want the animals to depend on humans or associate them as friendly.

“You can’t release a tame animal,” Howell said. “We have to keep the wild in these animals. It’s a balance of nature.”

WERC is not a state-funded program and depends on donations to stay afloat. Howell said that it has been difficult for the center as money for funding has dropped as the economy slips.

“Donations are down and it’s very hard,” she said. “We want to keep this going.”

To donate money to WERC call 779-9372. FOr more information or to become a volunteer visit www.werc-ca.org.

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