By Isabella Cook
Community brings to mind the image of family, friends and of people hurrying through their day-to-day lives around us.
But, to WildCare, community includes the natural wildlife that shares the dynamic landscapes of Marin County. WildCare, located in San Rafael, strives tirelessly to ensure all species can coexist, not just by treating over 3,500 sick or injured animals a year, but also by offering programs to educate children and adults to foster an understanding and appreciation for local wildlife.
By sharing knowledge and instructions on living peacefully with the animals who cohabit this scenic county alongside humans, and by advocating for better protection of wildlife and the remaining local open spaces, WildCare advocates for the animals of this community and acts as a voice for the creatures that cannot speak up for themselves.
“The two primary sides of our facilities here are the hospital and the educational programs,” said Alison Hermance, director of communications at WildCare. “I love that the programs we offer help people to have a better understanding of the boundaries between wildlife and people. All of the programs work together with that goal in mind.”
Upon entering the WildCare facility, one is immediately greeted by the level stare of a red-tailed hawk, a curious quail named Calli, and the intense scrutiny of Vladimir, the turkey vulture.
“In the summer, we have kids come and make treat-filled toys for Vladimir,” said Hermance. “We tried to release Vlad, and he wanted nothing to do with it or the other turkey vultures.”
Further in the facility, a pool with a pair of pelicans, Baja and Marshall, offers a playful dynamic. The older, brown pelican mostly minds his business, while the young American white pelican causes mischief and nibbles at his companion’s feet when passing by.
Mohave, the desert tortoise, rests in a bath and will soon be indulged in some of his favorite snacks, including dandelions, jícama, rose petals, watermelon and cucumber. Trill, a western screech owl, rests on Dr. Ryane Logsdon’s gloved hand.
Contrary to the name of her species, Trill does not screech so much as let out pleasant coos and trills. She suffered neurological damage that effectively left her blind and unable to survive in the wild. These animals, fondly dubbed “animal ambassadors” by WildCare, are local wildlife that were too injured or domesticated to return to the wild. While healing and rehabilitation are the primary goals of WildCare, they also provide a sanctuary to animals such as these, who would not survive if released back into their natural habitats. Instead, the animal ambassadors live on premises, receive top-of-the-line care, and act as living links to nature, for visitors to stop by and appreciate.
“We do as many reunites, returning animals to their natural homes and families, as we can,” said Hermance. “We had a really great reunite of a baby squirrel to its mother a couple of days ago. She picked him up and carried him right back up the tree and into the nest.”
While the front of WildCare is dedicated to the noble cause of educating and connecting visitors through the animal ambassadors, the back of the premises plays host to an extensive array of sick and injured animals in various stages of healing and recovery. There, they nurse everything from baby squirrels and raccoons to birds, to the occasional coyote, fawn, and, currently, a whole slew of opossums.
“We’re having a bit of an opossum apocalypse—an ‘opocalypse,’ really,” joked Hermance.
WildCare offers assistance to mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians in need, in their wildlife hospital. Alongside the intensive care veterinary unit, led by veterinarian Dr. Juliana Sorem, where they attend to animals in a triage fashion, the back consists of winding hallways that lead to rooms specially designed for the care of the animals inhabiting them. One such room offers hospice to a baby squirrel that is hand-fed formula through the day.
Another room, warmer than the rest, houses countless birds at various stages of development, all of whom are hand-fed mealworms on a structured, quite literally timer-based, schedule by hospital manager in the birdroom, Lucy Stevenot. As her colleague Hermance admits, “I’m a total ‘bird nerd.'”
As WildCare is the only wildlife hospital in Marin County, they accept patients from other Bay Area counties, especially San Francisco, and have never turned away a patient in distress. The people at WildCare use the touching stories of their patients to educate people as to the impact they and their actions have on the local wildlife. Their director of animal care is Melanie Piazza.
“About 90% of the patients we receive come in because of negative interactions with humans,” said Hermance. “They have been orphaned or injured by people or their pets, not by natural causes.”
WildCare was notably featured in a National Geographic article, which served to highlight the number of animals killed annually by domestic house cats. In just one year, 232 animals died, and the bodies were kept as an effort to illustrate just how much damage is done by outdoor cats per year.
“We did a project in 2019 and collected and froze the bodies of every wildlife patient that was killed by a cat—the bodies were saved and photographed,” said Hermance. She provides her own felines with a “catio,” a fully enclosed outdoor extension, which allows her pets to live a full, enriched life, with access to the outdoors and without risking their lives or the lives of the wildlife around them in the process.
“Our message is really getting out,” said Hermance.
Nearly 200 WildCare volunteers give four-plus hours a week of their time, to help the wild animal patients and teach Bay Area schoolchildren and adults how to live well with wildlife through a complete cycle of respectful, practical and humane programs in wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education. Volunteers also provide the majority of the day-to-day care of the injured and orphaned wildlife patients in the wildlife hospital.
“This organization just attracts the most amazing people,” said Hermance. “It’s the best thing in the world because every day is different, every patient is different, and it’s just a fabulous place. I believe so strongly that we do incredible work here and make that boundary between people and wildlife more apparent.”
WildCare’s 2022 budget is $2.75 million. They receive no ongoing support from governmental agencies, but rely on memberships, donations, fundraising and volunteer hours to serve the community.
“I, like many people that moved up to Marin, wanted something to get involved with, and a boyfriend at the time said I should consider working at WildCare,” explained Hermance. “So, I became a part-time volunteer coordinator. I grew up in a place without a wildlife hospital, and the value of having one in the community is incomparable, indescribable, really. The relief I feel, to this day, in knowing an animal will get the best care and be released is incredible. I always loved animals, and the feeling of complete helplessness when you can’t save one was what made me want to contribute to WildCare.”
WildCare is working on plans to build a new facility at their current location in San Rafael, though it will take some time and a lot of planning to take the first steps in that direction.
“WildCare has been a community institute for years and years,” Hermance explained. “The value of this place as a fun and free place to bring kids, plus the animal hospital, makes WildCare a true community fixture. It’s such a huge community that cares about animals and that the relationship between humans and animals is harmonious.”