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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Going Native: A visit to one of the North Bay's wildlife centers offers the opportunity to observe animals and learn about their habitats and habits. Shown: Safari West.

Wild and Wooly

Whether you desire casual observation or hands-on contact, numerous opportunities exist in the North Bay to hang out with the animal world

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Just inside the pleasantly noisy courtyard at WildCare in San Rafael--which encompasses a wild animal rehabilitation center and the Terwilliger Nature Education Center--a worker, hose in hand and a pail at her feet, is attempting to feed fish to some of the resident birds in the outdoor bird pond. These once-wild, fish-craving characters include a pair of crotchety pelicans named Fred and Scoma, a quartet of cormorants, and three gulls, all of which have damaged wings and are unable to fly or survive in the great wide open.

A number of freeloading herons and gulls, nonresidents all, are waiting on the rooftops and fence posts for the opportunity to swoop in and snatch a fish from Fred and Scoma and the other not-so-speedy seabirds. These outsiders (you know they don't belong here if they can actually fly) are kept at bay with judiciously aimed squirts of water from the hose.

All around the courtyard are pens and cages containing other unreleasables, known around here as "animal ambassadors": Azor the kestrel (missing a wing after being shot with a BB gun), Vlad the turkey vulture, Kali the red-tailed hawk, Aurora the bald eagle, Leonard and Eullalie the ravens, Sage the opossum, and Willow the wood duck. These are the unlucky ones (if being loved and adored and hand-fed fish can be called unlucky), because, though fully recovered and completely free of pain, their injuries have rendered them incapable of feeding or defending themselves the way most of the other patients here, upon their release back into the wild, are able to do.

"We look at them as ambassadors for their species," says Melanie Piazza, director of animal care for WildCare, which encompasses a multiroom clinic and a large educational classroom. "Thousands of children come through here for our camps and school visits, and hundreds of walk-in adults and families, and they see these beautiful animals they wouldn't get to see up-close anyplace else. Hopefully, those children will gain an appreciation for these animals, so when they see them in the wild, they won't be tempted to shoot them or catch them or do anything bad to them."

That said, for the majority of the wounded and orphaned animals brought in to WildCare, the goal is always to release them again, back to whatever lake, pond, forest, hill, or marshy field they came from. It's a goal that is successfully met thousands of times a year.

"If they are native and they are wild, they come here," says Justine MacLean, volunteer manager for WildCare. "We get foxes, bobcats, opossums, songbirds, pelicans, cormorants, raptors, hawks, woodpeckers, squirrels, and bats," she says, reciting only a fraction of the total, adding, "Actually, we're due for a bucket of bats coming to us from the Humane Society any minute now."

As if on cue, the bats--hidden from view in a small carrying container--are hustled in through the front gate, across the courtyard, and into the hospital area,where a team of staff and volunteers are waiting to examine the newcomers. According to MacLean, WildCare is 95 percent volunteer-run and presently operates with the help of around 400 active volunteers, between 70 and 125 of whom work with the animals in the hospital. Many of these are foster-team members, who take home the clinic's many assorted creatures and give them whatever care is needed until they are ready for release.

With so many sacrificing their sleep time to play host to baby beasts and wounded birds, it's clear that people are getting something out of this relationship. On WildCare's volunteer application, candidates are asked why they wish to become a volunteer. According to MacLean, the top answer is "I love animals."

WildCare is one of many institutions in the North Bay where regular folks are given the opportunity to come into contact with animals they'd normally only see from a distance and would rarely ever get to know personally. Many organizations have been established to preserve, study, rescue, and/or rehabilitate
a wide range of animals, and most of these institutions offer the public special opportunities to meet and greet some of the beautiful beasts.

For those who feel drawn to do more than just look, there are plenty of opportunities for volunteers to take their affinity for animals to a deeper, more mutually rewarding level. The Marine Mammal Center, in the Marin Headlands, rescues and treats injured and orphaned marine animals--seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, and sea otters--and runs an educational program that brings in over 60,000 school kids a year.

As for other animal-rescue and adoption programs, there are an abundance of such groups in the North Bay, including of course, the Humane Society and other animal shelters, along with independently operated groups such as the Sonoma County Bird Rescue Center, Forgotten Felines, Reptile Rescue, Turtle Rescue, and Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue. In Petaluma, teenagers care for dozens of onsite animals at the Petaluma High School Wildlife Museum (the largest student-run museum in the United States) and work up to their elbows with fish at Casa Grande High School's on-campus salmon hatchery.

All of these organizations depend on animal-loving sponsors and volunteers. Without exception, the volunteers and regular staff workers claim their hours spent with the animals are fascinating, rejuvenating, joyous, and inspirational--words one might expect to hear from someone describing a spiritual practice.

"The feeling of working with animals--of working for the animals--is incredibly satisfying," says Susan Holzer, volunteer coordinator of the Santa Rosa Humane Society, which boasts 180 active volunteers. "Our people often say they get more out of their contact with these animals than they put into it. It simply feels good to be around animals."

"Hey honey, how ya doin'?"

With a few affectionate words of greeting, naturalist Bud Higgins cuts the motor on Safari West's massive 1952 Dodge power wagon, glances into the back seat to see that his passengers are aware of what's about to happen, and warmly addresses the very large, very imposing adult ostrich now rising up and trotting over to check us all out.

"Hi honey, what's up?" Higgins says.

The ostrich, frighteningly tall, pokes her head in among the outstretched hands of the sightseers, nibbling curiously as she works her way from person to person, all around the vehicle.

Being bitten by an ostrich is not so bad as one might think. And there's something undeniably exciting and wondrous about staring face to face with a creature so alien, so dinosaur-like. At any rate, Higgins informs us, it's the feet we should be wary of, not the beak. "An ostrich's feet are built to defend it," he says. "If it wanted to, an ostrich could disembowel a lion--or you or me--with one good swipe of its talons."

At Safari West, located on 400 acres in the hills of Santa Rosa, visitors have a rare opportunity to observe animals that would normally not be seen outside their native land of Africa. Roaming the interior portion of the preserve are groups of zebras, elands, Watusi cattle, springboks, Thomson's gazelles, wildebeests, Cape buffalo, and others. Elsewhere on site, one can make the acquaintance of giraffes, lemurs, cheetahs, warthogs, African crested porcupines, fennecs, and five dozen separate bird species, including the African spoonbill, the sacred ibis, the golden pheasant, and more.

"Safari West is not a zoo," says Higgins, one of Safari West's team of naturalists and backcountry tour guides, starting up the truck again and heading deeper into the hills. "We are a living, breathing, working, functioning wildlife preserve," he says, "with emphasis--and I mean strong emphasis--on the word "preserve." We work with a lot of endangered species. We also work with a lot of animals that are actually extinct in the wild, and we're helping to bring their numbers up in North America."

There is one herd of creatures visitors are not likely to pay attention to on their tour of Safari West: the herd of volunteers. These people work behind the scenes, cutting fish and mice into bite-sized pieces in the bird kitchen, trimming hoofs of giraffes, hauling feed from one end of the preserve to the other, helping deliver babies, and generally assisting the veterinarians in their care of the birds and the beasts.

Safari West--and its nonprofit research and educational organization, Friends of Safari West--is also host to numerous research projects being conducted by students and staff from UC Davis and Sonoma State university. Currently, there is an ongoing study exploring the behavior of the Cape buffalo. To encourage such scientific exploration, Safari West has developed a thriving internship program for high school and college students, giving participants a chance to test-drive a possible career in the veterinary sciences or animal care. Many of Safari West's older interns and volunteers do make career switches, jumping into animal-related fields after finding something meaningful and powerful during their time among the ring-tailed lemurs and Watusi cattle.

"Being around animals is a special privilege," says Peter Lang, owner of Safari West, originally started as a private preserve and research facility before Lang opened it up to the public about 10 years ago. It is the only location of its kind to exclusively feature African animals, many of which came to Safari West after time spent in zoos and amusement parks (such as Los Angeles' long extinct Lion Country Safari drive-through attraction).

"Not many people get to experience that closeness to these kinds of animals," says Lang. "Some people see them only once in their lifetime. We see these animals every day. We are all really very lucky."

"It's very special," agrees Peter's wife, Nancy Lang, who served 20 years curating the aviary at the San Francisco Zoo. "We live here, and the thrill of seeing these wild creatures doesn't ever go away. The passion remains. Every day is different out here. Every day is a challenge."

The only wild animals one is likely to encounter at Slide Ranch, out on the Marin coast, are the squealing packs of untamed school kids out on a field trip or perhaps the local mountain lion who's been making off with the ranch's resident chickens and ducks. Part of the Golden Gate National Park system, the 33-year-old Slide Ranch is, as executive director Ross Herbertson eloquently describes it, "a spectacular location on the edge of the continent, the ocean waves chewing away at the foot of the coastal bluffs, with the animals grazing upon the rolling hillsides."

The nonprofit educational center is a working farm, sustaining a small team of teachers-in-residence, that fosters a respect for animals, plants, the earth--and the food chain. In so doing, visitors are given the opportunity to work the farm. "Virtually every program participant gets to milk one of the goats, work in the garden, feed the chickens," says Herbertson.

While a pen full of buff Orpingtons might not seem as glamorous as a dazzle of zebras ("Not a herd," Bud Higgins will tell you, "a dazzle"), there is no doubt that chickens and goats, when you are given the opportunity to touch them and care for them, can be every bit as exciting and eye-opening.

"Particularly for the children," says David Haskell, who runs the volunteer program at Slide Ranch. "Some of the power of this place is the connection to what some animals actually do for us. They provide us with food." Food, according to the Slide Ranch credo, is how all things connect to the earth. "Not just the fowl," Haskell says, "but the ruminants--the sheep and the goats--which are bred and raised, sheared for their wool, and occasionally slaughtered for food. That's the cycle of life on a farm."

What Slide Ranch is all about, according to Haskell, is connecting people to the earth. The ranch does that with its children's programs, and its energetic volunteer program gives adults the opportunity to spend time on the premises and have some of that connection too.

"That's very important to us," says Haskell, who's been building the volunteer corps since moving from New Zealand to Muir Beach about a year ago. There's always plenty to do on a ranch. Particularly important to Haskell are the sheep- and goat-breeding programs (talk about close contact), where, for instance, more hands are always needed to transport a ewe that's in heat to the ram who's ready to pass on his genes.

In the near future, Haskell hopes to develop a butterfly program. "I'd like to get a group of volunteers interested in planting a butterfly garden," he says, standing at the edge of the ranch's magical-looking garden area on the hillside overlooking the ocean. "Perhaps when we know those chrysalis will be pupating and metamorphosing in April or May, maybe we can have a butterfly celebration where we all gather to watch the butterflies emerge from their cocoons. Butterflies are wonderful pollinators."

Since 1970, 145,000 people have come out to Slide Ranch, which last year alone saw 7,000 visitors walk through the gate. While those numbers can't be substantially increased--the Golden Gate National Park system has set rigid limits on how many bodies the land can accommodate at a given time--a long-planned, multimillion dollar expansion and "renewal" of Slide Ranch is about to begin, intended to increase the quality of the ranch's experience and enhance visitors' sense of connection to animals and the earth.

"That sense of connection is a healing thing," Haskell says. "When I come out of nature, I feel renewed. That's what people take away with them after a day out here on the farm with the animals."

The underlying philosophies that guide and motivate each of these organizations are as varied as the volunteers and workers and caregivers who sacrifice their spare time to experience all of this day-to-day contact with animals. Whether patching up animals to return to the wild, keeping animals in captivity to protect them from extinction and to educate the public, or even celebrating certain animals as food, what these institutions have in common is an appreciation for the importance of the earth's many birds, bugs, and colorful creatures.

Another thing they hold in common is an awareness that working with animals is not all magic and awe. Sometimes such contact can bring heartbreak and sadness. For one thing, these critters can hurt you. To work with animals, all volunteers must get tetanus shots and, in some cases, are required to have rabies shots as well. Occasionally, though most of these organizations exist to preserve the lives of their animals, tragedy occurs and animals are lost. At WildCare, which deals with so many wounded and orphaned beasts and birds, death is far from uncommon.

Safari West has seen problems, too. In 1995, while the Langs were transporting a number of animals from Southern California to Safari West, two lechwes (a kind of antelope) died--one from dehydration and one after being gored by another animal--and Safari West was subsequently charged and fined $1,500 by the USDA, which oversees the animal care at such facilities.

Though such incidents are rare, and though caregivers make every effort to avoiding injury to themselves, they are part of the experience. "Working with wild animals is a far cry from working with domestic animals, like cows or cats," says Safari West's media rep Aphrodite Caserta. "Although they share many medical problems with domestic animals, wild animals also have an entirely different range of diseases and problems. Added to that, they are unpredictable and, well, simply wild."

She points out that, like all other conscientious live-animal parks, preserves, and caregiving institutions, Safari West has stringent policies and procedures in place to train its people in proper handling techniques. This helps minimize the risk to both the staff and volunteers, and to the animals under their care. As a member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, Safari West also provides professional development and training to all onsite staff in order to reduce such occurrences.

"There are good days and bad days," says Lang. "There is life, but sometimes there is death, and we all take it hard when it happens, but we try to learn from it. This kind of work can be painful--literally. We all get bitten and scratched, dragged and kicked, pecked and stepped on, and sometimes we have to deal with the death of an animal. Still, the victories outshine the difficulties."

Back at WildCare, Justine MacLean is trying to explain what it is about the animals that draws people to visit or become volunteers. "Most people realize that the only contact wild animals have with humanity is negative for the wild animal," she says. "What people who come here are trying to do, many times, is to address that in their own lives. They are trying to make compensation for the damage we do by having cars, by cutting down habitats, by wreaking the kind of general destruction that human beings inflict on nature, intentionally or not.

"There is some part of humanity that is lost when you are not in contact with animals," MacLean continues. Can that lost part be found in coming face to face with an opossum or a red-winged blackbird . . . or a bat? "Absolutely," she says. "When you are working face to face with a bat, you start to see things that are absolutely amazing. For some people, there's something in those animals--not just bats, but all animals--that reminds them of what's human in themselves, while for others it's just the opposite. They see that there's absolutely nothing human about these animals."

While WildCare works to acclimatize its animal ambassadors to the presence of people, the rest of the facility's clients are deliberately left as untamed as possible. It is not uncommon for a foster caregiver to come rushing in, delighted, and when someone asks what's up, she'll reply, "My opossum bit me!"

"That's a good sign," says MacLean. "That's what we like to see. She's foster-caring an opossum, and it bit her. In other words, it hates her guts. That's beautiful, because when it comes time for the release and we open that box to set him free, he's not going to sit around blinking at you; he's not become so unafraid of humans that he'll turn around and be caught by someone or hit by a car--he's going to run. It's natural for a wild animal to have an aversion to humanity, and we try to do nothing to cure them of that aversion."

Looking up, Piazza and MacLean see a Humane Society animal-control officer walking in with another closed container. "Oh my God," they both exclaim, with just a hint of a laugh. "More bats!"


Want to talk to the animals? Volunteer positions are almost always available at the Bay Area's numerous animal promoting institutions. To learn more about the volunteer program at WildCare in San Rafael, call 415.453.1000, ext. 21, to register for an orientation. Safari West holds volunteer interviews the third Sunday of each month at 4pm. For further information send an e-mail to volunteer@safariwest.com or call 707.579.2551. To learn more about volunteer opportunities with the Humane Society of Sonoma County, contact Susan Holzer at sholzer@sonomahumane.org or call 707.542.0882, ext. 218. Slide Ranch at Muir Beach in Marin County has a range of volunteer positions and is open to suggestions for volunteer-force projects at the ranch. Call David Haskell at 415.381.6155 or visit the website at www.slideranch.org.

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From the November 27-December 3, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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