Wally, a northern pygmy owl, is one of a dozen non-releasable animals currently living at WERC.
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Few sights stir people into action as much as an animal in distress. The human instinct to care for an injured, helpless creature is natural, and in the case of the Wildlife Educational and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill, that’s its purpose.
“We do it because it’s a necessity, but it’s also a labor of love,” said Sue Howell, WERC founder and executive director.
But that purpose takes a lot of dedicated, well-trained volunteers and money to make it happen.
Every October, WERC holds its largest event—the Wildlife Fest BBQ and Auction—to help raise funds for the organization. This year, the San Martin Lions Club is sponsoring the 20th Annual Wildlife Fest BBQ and Auction from noon to 3 p.m. Oct. 17 at Morgan Hill Buddhist Community Center.
Besides barbecue, special nature crafts and games will be available for kids along with live and silent auctions featuring about 60 items, according to Joy Joyner, president of the WERC board of directors.
 “We like to highlight things donated by local artists and items from local businesses,” she said.
Howell and a few volunteers founded WERC in 1990, as an off-shoot of Youth Science Institute in San Jose, to take over the rehabilitation services the institute once provided.
“We formed the center because (the Youth Science Institute) knew how important it was to care for wildlife,” Howell said. As someone who wasn’t raised to appreciate wildlife while living in San Francisco, Howell gradually changed her mind when she attended field trips with her children. Mostly self taught, Howell now often lectures at state and national conferences on wildlife rehabilitation.
The center, located on Howell’s private property near Morgan Hill and not open to the public, mostly handles birds, owls, hawks and small animals, such as opossums, and even snakes. But WERC’s real speciality is bobcats, and it pioneered the technique on how to safely rehab the animal without turning it into a pet.
Howell constructed a small 100-square-foot clinic with 17 different enclosures onsite. Currently, 24-volunteers work there with each undergoing extensive training to properly and safely work with the animals. WERC has rehabbed thousands of animals through the years. The non-profit’s annual budget is about $84,000 with an additional $50,000 or more from in-kind donations, including veterinary support from Dr. Suzanne Colbert of Princevalle Pet Hospital in Gilroy.
Once rehabbed, animals are returned to the wild, such as Modoc, a female Bobcat named after the county in which she was found. All releasable animals are named for the location they came from, so they don’t get pet names. When Modoc was rescued in 2008 and transferred to WERC to receive proper care, she was only 3 weeks old. After her treatment, several pilots flew her back to Modoc County—more than 400-miles at their expense—to be released.
For animals classified non-releasable due to permanent injury or imprinting by humans, they  either stay at WERC or go to another licensed rehabilitation center. Among the dozen non-releasable animals living at WERC now is Barnadette, a female barn owl found three years ago in Gilroy. Barnadette’s wings had been clipped, so she couldn’t fly, and she was starving and depressed. But with a lot of TLC, she perked up and is now one of WERC’s “Educational Ambassadors” and a foster mom to young birds.
“These animals visit schools, libraries and public events to educate children and adults about the animals’ natural history and behavior,” said Anna Venneman, educational outreach coordinator. Thanks to a contract with Open Space Authority, WERC’s Educational Ambassadors visit schools in Santa Clara County and Salinas. Some of the other ambassadors include a Merlin falcon, a gopher snake and an acorn woodpecker.
With all the countless animals WERC has rescued over the years, Howell remembers a special rescue from years ago. It was not an animal at all, but a butterfly with a broken wing.
A young girl tried to bandage it as her mother called local sources asking for help, but people just laughed at her, Howell said. Then, the mom contacted WERC. Howell confessed that she couldn’t do anything for the butterfly either, but promised to ensure the butterfly didn’t suffer. Both the child and mother cried tears of thanks.
“The butterfly didn’t survive, but that story stays with me,” Howell said. “It’s why I do what I do.”
And it’s why the small crew of volunteers and paid staff at WERC plan the Wildlife Fest every year and why 150 people usually attend.
“It’s a great way to thank people and relax and enjoy our accomplishments,” Joyner said.
2015 Wildlife Fest BBQ and Auction
benefitting Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center
Noon to 3 p.m. Oct. 17
Morgan Hill Buddhist Community Center, 16450 Murphy Ave.
Tickets: $45 adults; $10 children ages 5-10. No charge for children under 5.
For tickets go to werc-ca.org

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