Eagles, deer or other wild animals can suffer from a wide range of injuries, from being struck by cars or gunfire to tangling with electrical wires or barbed wire fences.
But more often than not, serious medical help is likely to be at least 100 miles away.
Strict state laws prevent the public from taking in and treating wild animals without a permit or earning money from providing care. That leaves the state Department of Fish and Wildlife with its limited resources no choice but to ask knowledgeable animal lovers to take on a massive commitment that in recent years fewer seem willing undertake, especially in this part of the state.
“We have a need for wildlife rehabilitators in the state,” said the department’s wildlife program director, Eric Gardner. “That need is not just from the public’s point of view, which is very real, but also from the agency’s point of view, because rehabbers really help us with a lot of things that take up the agency’s time.”
In Yakima County, birds — from small songbirds to hawks and eagles — are the most common wild animals in need of help.
The birds typically suffer broken bones and wings from gunshots, being struck by cars and other actions caused by people, said Michele Caron, a licensed rehabilitator for Blue Mountain Wildlife east of Benton City.
Caron and her volunteer staff raise ducklings and abandoned baby barn owls, along with treating minor injuries for all kinds of birds, rabbits and squirrels delivered by a volunteer network stretching from the Tri-Cities to Yakima to Quincy and Othello. Other mammals left injured or orphaned go to Washington State University in Pullman. Birds needing surgery or other serious care go to Blue Mountain’s main facility in Pendleton, Ore., which treated more than 1,000 birds last year.
Not long ago, the Yakima Valley held one of the region’s most prominent rehabilitation facilities for birds of prey.
Marsha Dalan ran Selah’s Raptor House Rehabilitation Center for 22 years, caring for birds and some small mammals while also providing education programs regarding their care.
But Dalan said the countless hours of labor wore her down, especially as the business she runs with her husband began to take off and they welcomed a third child. She closed Raptor House in 2015, leaving Yakima County as the state’s biggest metro area without a licensed rehabilitator.
“When I was getting ready to close it down, I was hoping that maybe another young person was going to have the same love of animals and want to run with it,” said Dalan, who still runs a falconry school to teach about bird care. “It was impossible to find somebody that was willing to take over at that point.”
Other facilities across the state have also closed. An ongoing dispute over new regulations introduced in 2013 led to the shutdown of several facilities, including two north of Spokane. Among the new regulations were stricter rules covering animal housing and what types of animals can be kept off-site by volunteers without a full state permit.
Dalan said the regulations played no role in her decision to give up her permit. In fact, she provided suggestions for 2013 amendments which she emphasized were critical to minimize the spread of diseases and other issues.
“My big issue was people who did not follow rules,” Dalan said. “They’re there for a reason, and that is for the benefit of the wildlife, but also the benefit of the people.”
The state’s wildlife rehabilitation manager, Patricia Thompson, acknowledges the new standards are stricter, but she said they’re necessary to ensure responsible care. Thompson said research of other states’ systems left her confident that Washington’s standards aren’t out of the ordinary. Oregon, she said, has some stricter guidelines.
Speaking at a meeting of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in December, several rehabilitators said the Wildlife Department lacks their trust after a Nov. 9 raid by the agency resulted in three fawns and a young elk being euthanized at For Heaven’s Sake in Rochester, southwest of Olympia. The Wildlife Department said improper handling tamed the animals, a claim disputed by the facility’s owners and supporters.
Dr. Jan White, a longtime veterinarian and director of Puget Sound Wildcare in Kent, told the commission the Wildlife Department needs to change its regulations to take a more cooperative approach and develop “desperately needed facilities.” She joined others in lamenting a trend of closures.
Only seven of 21 counties east of the Cascades now have permitted facilities.
No easy solutions
Recruiting won’t be easy since wildlife rehabilitation requires a massive commitment with little financial reward.
Wildlife officials estimate wildlife care can take about 70 hours of work per week, but rehabilitators like Tompkins, Dalan and Cooper all say that number’s probably too low. Additionally, operators must find time to raise money, something Dalan said she always struggled to do for Raptor House.
Thompson proudly noted Washington offers the country’s only wildlife rehabilitation grant program, which was allocated $150,000 in the 2017-19 budget. That money comes from a portion of personalized license fees, but Dalan said it’s not nearly enough considering high costs for food, facilities and medical care.
“A dollar here and a dollar there doesn’t pay a $3,000-a-month quail bill or a $5,000-a-month mouse bill that pays for food for those animals,” Dalan said. “We’re not even getting into the big costs.”
Veterinarians can often help by offering aid like Pendleton Veterinary Clinic does for Blue Mountain, or some vets even run their own facility on the side. They also have the advantage of not needing to meet certain requirements for permits, including having to pass an exam and undertake six months or 1,000 hours of apprenticeship with a wildlife rehabilitator.
Thompson said that creates a Catch-22 in areas such as Yakima, where there’s nowhere for an aspiring rehabilitator to learn. Plenty of volunteers are also needed for animal care at most places, and Tompkins welcomes interns from all over the country.
Many concerns could be addressed by a new advisory group appointed by the Wildlife Department director and comprised of up to eight licensed rehabilitators and four other citizens, as well as department staff. They’re expected to meet for the first time in March, and Thompson said changing rules on transferring animals between facilities would be a primary focus.
“We would like to have amendments completed by the end of the summer,” Thompson said. “But it’s a long process and we have promised our advisory committee that they hopefully will not have to go longer than three months.”
She’s eager to find ways to make permitting easier, but not if it’s going to come at the cost of safety for animals or the public. One change already made offers a license specifically for raptors, allowing most falconers to skip the more time-intensive qualifications.
Dalan began working in wildlife rehabilitation at 19 years old, and Thompson said wildlife care seems to be taking off in many veterinary schools. But Dalan knows from experience with all the challenges she faced in Yakima, the most important requirement will always be an absolute love for the animals in need of care.