As residents of San Juan Island, we hear plenty about the multitude of wildlife conservation efforts that are a huge part of life here – from shore-based whale-watching, to the annual Christmas Bird Count, to keeping a safe distance from our 4,000+ harbor seals. But there are so many people living here who are working every day to make a difference in the lives of our animals, and don’t get a lot of daily attention. Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is sustained by those very people.
Many know of Wolf Hollow, but may not know much about them beyond that they are the place to go if you find an injured animal. In fact, the center cares for about 500 animals every year!
Wolf Hollow was founded in 1983 as a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center, and began life as a vet clinic in Friday Harbor, located where the Best Western is now. Meg Lainson (formerly Jessica Porter) was the vet who established that clinic and helped to found what became Wolf Hollow. In veterinary school she did an internship with wolves and fell in love with the animals, so she named her clinic Wolf Hollow. Interestingly enough, there has never been a single wolf in residence at the center, which spans 40 acres in the middle of the island, about four miles from town.
Many also believe that the center is government-funded, but that is not the case. Wolf Hollow is a 100% non-profit organization and is licensed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), as well as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) to carry out wildlife rehabilitation. All of their funds come in the form of donations from individuals, families and businesses, by grants through foundations, and via fundraising events. To date, they have used these funds to provide care for over 200 different species of animals that recover in over 40 various custom enclosures. Some of the amazing animals helped by Wolf Hollow: California sea lions, Northern flying squirrels, bald eagles, Peregrine falcons, barn swallows, western painted turtles, trumpeter swans, and great horned owls, just to name a few.
Injured or sick animals are either assessed at the scene by a volunteer or brought to the center by a concerned citizen. Once they arrive at Wolf Hollow, they are given the necessary immediate medical care, then carefully monitored during their recovery. Some may stay for months, others for just a few days. During the recovery process, the animals’ interaction with the day-to-day staff is kept as minimal as possible to ensure that the animals are kept wild. This gives them the best possible chance of surviving once released back into the wild, which is always the goal. The animals receive food, adequate housing and exercise, but that’s the extent of their contact with humans.
Shona Aitken is the education coordinator for Wolf Hollow, and Vicki Taylor and Penny Harner are the wildlife rehabilitators. Each of them works full-time at the center, doing whatever is necessary to facilitate the fastest recovery possible for each animal in their care. I sat down with them to learn more about their fascinating work.
Q: Can you tell me about the most memorable/fascinating animal that you’ve seen?
Aitken: Probably a beautiful bird called a Gyrfalcon, an absolutely gorgeous bird – bigger than a peregrine – that came from Skagit County with an injured wing. It is the most regal bird I’ve ever seen. It gave you that look, that “I will allow you to help me” look. It was very calm; just had that look of royalty.
Q: Tell me about a particularly rewarding experience you’ve had with an injured animal.
Taylor: I think for the most part, anytime that we’re able to – whether it’s an orphaned or an injured animal – successfully rehabilitate and release it back….that’s kind of the whole point of what we do.
Harner: There was a juvenile trumpeter swan a few years ago. She came with a badly infected leg. She still had some issues for awhile after being here; needed treatment for sores. This was at the time when they said you can’t rehabilitate and release trumpeter swan juveniles efficiently; it’s not seen that they ever survived after. The WDFW put a band on her neck, and two years later we found her in the Skagit flats.
Aitken: It’s the ones you don’t think are going to make it that give you the most kick!
Q: Why don’t you pick up marine mammals?
Aitken: By law, we can’t pick up marine mammals. The Marine Mammal Stranding Network here on the island is licensed through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to assess whether a marine mammal needs care, but they don’t have the facilities to care for one, so once they determine that it needs care, it comes to us. We have to be very careful not to confuse people; they’ll call us with a seal pup and we won’t be able to help initially.
Q: Why don’t you allow the public to tour your facilities?
Aitken: That’s because it’s against the law. As a wildlife rehab center we work with permits from WDFS and USFW, and they are very clear that animals undergoing rehab cannot be on display to the public for very good reasons: they’re wild, they have to stay wild; human contact stresses them out. We want these animals to have the best chance of survival possible and go back into the wild. You compromise that when they get used to people or they’re stressed out.
Taylor: We try to go against the “Disney-fication” of wildlife. So many people want to come out and see a harbor seal; they don’t understand the difference between this a wild animal that’s going to be released and an animal in a zoo.
Aitken: I think the respect part is also respecting the animal’s wildness. We do everything we do to encourage other people to do the same. When we do education programs, children sometimes ask, “Are they mean or nice?” The answer is neither; they are wild. We want to keep that wildness; it’s an essential part of their survival trait.
Harner: Think of it as an animal hospital. If you’re in the hospital, do you want people coming by your room and staring at you all day? People usually understand that comparison.
Q: How do you maintain public awareness and keep donations coming?
Aitken: We are constantly trying to keep in the public eye and let people know that we’re here. We do a lot of educational outreach, going out to parks in the summertime — partly for visitors, but also for people who live here and have folks coming to visit them. Get articles in newspapers, get stuff on our websites…even the 4th of July parade. Raising funds is a combo of writing grant applications, encouraging individuals to support us, and fundraising events. We let them know whom to call when they find an animal. We let them know we’re here, we’re still providing this service, we still need your help.
Q: Tell us about Artemis and Athena, the two bald eaglets you recently did some fundraising for.
Taylor: The first one came from Henry Island; we’d gotten a call that there was an eaglet that had fallen out of the nest. We told them if mom and dad were still coming down and feeding them they’re fine, but that wasn’t the case. We don’t have a boat, so the caller came to Roche Harbor and boated us over to Henry Island and back with a crate. The eaglet wasn’t injured or anything; just not being cared for. Now he is eating and doing really well.
Aitken: The second one, we presume the female [because there is no way to determine the gender of eagles just by looking at them], was a fledgling that was probably on a practice flight, because it was caught in barbed wire. So we’re raising them both up and getting them fit and then we’re going to release them on the Skagit River during the salmon runs; lots of eagles from this area congregate there, and there isn’t too much aggression because of so many fish available, so it’s great start for young birds.
Wolf Hollow is always accepting donations that keep the center operating. They maintain a wish list that changes with the season. Their Fall 2013 wish list can be found here. If you would like to donate anything, please call the center or email them at email@example.com. You can also help with a monetary donation, or by becoming a member yourself or with your business.
The staff at the center is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you find an injured animal, call them at 378-5000. If it is after hours, the answering machine will give you the pager number for the staff number who is on call that night; may dial the pager number and leave a contact number where you can be reached.
By Libby Baldwin