Caring for partially blind hawks, nursing an injured Peregrine
falcon back to health and looking after orphaned animals are all
part of the job for employees of the Morgan Hill
n By Kelly Savio Staff Writer
In one enclosure, a red-tailed hawk swoops from one perch to another, barely clearing the top of a volunteer’s head as she places dead mice, marinated in vitamins, on a log for the bird’s dining pleasure.
The bird, Wopeka, was hit by a truck and is blind in one eye, making her ineligible for release back into the wild. So, Wopeka has the lofty job of being an educational animal for the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center (WERC), a unique Morgan Hill-based nonprofit that cares for sick, injured and abandoned wild animals.
In another enclosure, Colleen Grzan, WERC’s animal coordinator, refills a water bowl for three orphaned opossums. One of the opossums, feeling threatened, begins to drool uncontrollably, arching its tiny back as though it has dry heaves.
“Just ignore all his drooling,” Grzan said, shaking her head. “It’s all for show. He’s trying to make himself as unattractive to predators as possible. By drooling like that he’s saying, ‘Look at me, I’m a sick animal. You don’t want to eat me. Look how sick I am.'”
Grzan and volunteer Liz Minton move from enclosure to enclosure caring for the animals, which range from injured great horned owls and orphaned robins to an injured Peregrine falcon and an orphaned bobcat.
“We rehabilitate all kinds of species native to this area,” said Sue Howell, executive director and one of the original founders of WERC. “We do many native species of birds, which are all protected, and some mammals and native reptiles. We have all the licenses and permits from the government to do this, so we have some strict standards to meet. But often we go above and beyond those standards. We really care about these animals.”
WERC has been a temporary refuge for injured and orphaned animals for more than 20 years, as well as a permanent home to many animals who cannot be re-released into the wild because of the injuries they’ve suffered. The organization is vital, Howell said, because while the Humane Society and Animal Control can handle domestic animals, very few places can handle wild animals. If WERC didn’t exist, wild animals in need of help would have to travel all the way to San Jose.
The WERC facilities are located on Howell’s property and are not open to the public. Many of the calls the organization receives are from people who have found orphaned or injured animals.
If WERC is equipped to help the animal, the caller is given directions to the facility and the crew prepares for the arrival. Some animals, such as deer and other large creatures, are too big for the facility, so WERC staff directs people to other organizations licensed to help wild animals such as the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley. A complete list of such facilities in the state is available on the California Department of Fish and Game Web site, www.dfg.ca.gov.
Other animals WERC cannot accept include skunks, rattlesnakes, raccoons, squirrels, rats and non-native species of birds, because the facility is not equipped for these creatures.
Part of WERC’s mission, Howell said, is to educate the public about wildlife, including how animals survive in the wild, how their senses differ from ours and why it’s important to peacefully coexist with these animals.
WERC often brings its educational animals, such as Wopeka, to community events like Earth Day and the Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras. The staff also visits South Valley schools to teach children about wild animals.
Sometimes, people who call in thinking they’ve found an animal in need get simple lessons, too.
“A lot of people don’t know when an animal really needs our services or when they’re doing something very natural,” Howell explained. “For example, when a baby bird is hopping around on the ground, it isn’t necessarily in trouble. If it has all its feathers, it’s hopping around strengthening its muscles before it starts to fly. It’s perfectly natural for it to be out of the nest on the ground. People just need to give it room. If a baby bird is on the ground and it doesn’t have any feathers, then there’s something wrong. It isn’t ready to be out of the nest, so people should give us a call.”
Other people call, saying they plan to catch an animal and take it somewhere such as Coe State Park to release it, and they want advice.
“It’s illegal to capture and relocate an animal,” Howell said. “We have to explain to a lot of people that there’s an existing habitat at places like Coe, so if they release an animal there that doesn’t belong there, they’re having a negative impact on the whole area.”
WERC also receives many calls from people who have found baby animals and decided they want to try to raise them themselves.
“A lot of babies are very cute, so people want to keep them,” Howell explained. “But then they find they aren’t equipped to handle the animal as it gets bigger, and they call us. A lot of times the damage has been done. The animal hasn’t been getting a natural diet, and they’re domesticated. It’s very important not to try and raise a wild animal.”
WERC has been a pioneer in bobcat rehabilitation, according to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum based in Walnut Creek, and has developed protocols for the care of injured or orphaned bobcats that are used all over the country.
“We were really laughed at a lot in the beginning,” Howell said. “And some of our techniques do look silly. We put on a special suit, including a mask and special ‘paws’ that resembles a bobcat when we interact with (bobcats) we’re caring for. It’s part of making sure they don’t get domesticated and that we can safely return them to the wild. Now, we’ve received a lot of recognition for our efforts, which is wonderful.”
Whenever WERC staff members go into the bobcat enclosure to feed the animals, they must wear the bobcat suit. They do not speak, and they often take some time to play with the animals to help socialize them.
Whenever the staff members go in without the suit, they make a lot of noise and talk loudly, which intimidates the bobcats, helping them understand that people are “bad” and not to be approached. This lesson is especially valuable to one bobcat resident at the facility who was orphaned and found wandering up to people in search of food, Grzan said.
WERC receives no funding from the government. The organization’s funding comes from private and business donations. The donations go toward food, supplies, medicine, general upkeep required to care for the animals, and toward all the permits WERC is required to retain. Most staff members at WERC are unpaid volunteers who have completed a training course. Veterinarian Laura Bellinghausen, who works out of Los Gatos and San Martin, donates the time she spends treating the animals.
This year, however, donations haven’t been as steady, and Howell said she is concerned about how WERC will stay afloat.
“This has been the worst year ever for us,” she said. “Donations are down, and I’m so worried we’re not going to make it. I’ve been worried about donations before, but never like this. It takes a lot to care for these animals, and we do the best we can with what we have. But, frankly, we’re in desperate need of help.”
As the South Valley grows and infringes on animals’ natural habitats, animals are in closer contact with humans, Howell explained. This means animals are more likely to be hit by cars, find themselves orphaned, or have experience other negative results of being too close to civilization.