FRIDAY HARBOR — It’s like a dramatic scene from the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy”: A patient is rushed inside for an examination of their trauma.

Except in this case the patients are small enough to be ushered into the clinic in a small cardboard box and their attendants are as quiet as possible to avoid spooking the tiny beings, since they’re not accustomed to human interaction.

Two such patients were transported Wednesday, March 25, from Mount Vernon to Friday Harbor, traveling from a local veterinary clinic to the Anacortes ferry terminal and then across the waters of the Salish Sea to San Juan Island.

The day’s new intake for Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center were two baby squirrels. One had been orphaned, the other attacked by a cat.

The smaller of the two fit in the palm of staff rehabilitator Penny Harner. It suffered injuries visible on its belly from the cat attack, and the caretakers suspected internal impacts.

Harner treated the injuries with an anesthetic ointment shortly after the animal’s arrival, and gave it antibiotics and pain medication through a small syringe, almost like a child’s medication applicator. The tiny squirrel clung to the tube like an infant grasping a bottle during feeding.

Usually the wildlife center starts receiving young animals in April; Executive Director Julie Duke calls it “baby season.” It kicks off the busy time of the year, which lasts through summer.

With the mild winter this year, however, the center has received its first little ones early.

Baby squirrels started coming in March. In addition to the two from Mount Vernon, another two recently came from Anacortes.

Staff said they are responding well to treatment — gaining weight rapidly and opening their eyes last week.

The center is also caring for a trumpeter swan from San Juan Island and a bald eagle from Whidbey Island.

The 22-pound male swan came to the center with an injured wing and underwent a small amputation.

The staff rehabilitators removed his stitches last week after carefully approaching the huge, hissing bird. But because it will never fly well enough to survive, it will be sent to a captive breeding program.

In general, such captive placements are rare. Only two of 482 animals the wildlife center cared for last year were sent to another facility. Nearly 44 percent were released into their wild habitat after recovery.

More than half of the patients don’t make it, whether they are dead on arrival, euthanized because of critical conditions or fail to recover from injuries or illness.

“It’s never fun when you lose an animal,” staff rehabilitator Vicki Taylor said.

Each successful release, however, feels like a major victory.

“That’s the part we do all the effort for, is to get them back out in the wild,” Education Coordinator Shona Aitken said. “It’s like the kids graduate from school or something. It’s like, ‘Yes! They did it! We did our job!’”

Duke and Aitken say rehabilitating and releasing orphaned otter kits Riot and Rowdy last year was a big success.

“They went into the water and started swimming over each other,” Duke said, swirling her hands one over the other while recalling the moment. “It was the biggest pool they had ever seen. They were so excited.”

Wolf Hollow staff hope to release the eagle in their care soon. She came to them about a month ago with an abrasion on her head, as well as foot and wing injuries.

“She was literally bald,” Duke said.

The bird has been healing well and practicing her flight patterns in an L-shaped cage, called a flight.

“We’re just glad she’s flying so well because when she came in and we saw the end of her wing, we weren’t sure,” Aitken said.

Aitken works regularly with two long-term residents of Wolf Hollow whose injuries hindered their ability to survive on their own.

They are now the center’s educational birds; Madrona and Aspen. Duke said while they’ve both been in the center’s care for many years, they are still wild birds.

“We consider them ambassadors for their species,” she said.

Aspen, a rough-legged hawk, came to the center after hitting power lines on Orcas Island 20 years ago. His broken wrists healed, but not well enough to survive in the wild, Aitken said.

Madrona is a female red-tailed hawk from the Skagit Valley. She was hit by a car on Highway 20 in the Skagit Flats 17 years ago. She will never fly well enough to hunt on her own.

Like Madrona and the squirrels admitted to Wolf Hollow last week, more than half of the animals cared for at the center come from Skagit County.

The majority of wildlife brought to the center are birds — from hummingbirds to songbirds and large birds of prey. The mammals most commonly seen at the center are rabbits, primarily cottontails.

Part of what drives the high number is the fact that a single rabbit nest can have five or six babies in it, Duke said.

Last year, the center cared for 82 rabbits between April and October. Squirrels came in second with 36 animal patients documented.

They also get a variety of critters on a less common basis, like seals, frogs, bats and foxes.

The center has 40 acres with specialized cages for a variety of animals. The different amenities are spread out on the center’s property, connected with a trail system and strategically placed to keep certain species farthest from human activity.

Most cases transported to Wolf Hollow start with members of the public who find and report injured or orphaned animals.

“When we get calls from the public you never know what you’re going to get,” Taylor said.

Last year the center’s staff were surprised to receive a Sora, a type of waterbird rarely spotted.

“People don’t commonly see them because they hide in marshy areas,” Taylor said.

Wolf Hollow staff come from a variety of backgrounds, including ecology, conservation, biology, zoology and even psychology. Many start in the center’s intensive summer internship program before getting hired on.

Eight-year rehabilitator Harner has a degree in zoology with an emphasis in marine biology.

“I was one of those kids who thought I wanted to be a dolphin trainer all my life,” she said.

But when she got an internship doing just that, she was disappointed by the exploitation of the animals, Harner said.

She remembers wondering what she was going to do next. That was when she went out on a limb and accepted a wildlife rehabilitation internship in Texas, and loved it.

“It can be tough some days and it can warm your heart some days,” she said of her work with the animals.

Aside from four full-time and two part-time positions, the center relies on volunteers to get animals to the remote location from all over the Puget Sound region.

Aitken has been there the longest, 25 years. She started as an intern, became a staff rehabilitator and then took on her role doing education and outreach activities.

“I’m just a real wildlife enthusiast. Anything that has to do with wildlife, I love it,” Aitken said. “Also, feeling like you’re doing something good to mitigate human impacts.”

Public awareness is a tough hurdle for the center to overcome.

When people spot young animals, it can be difficult for them to separate the concept of domesticated pets from wildlife, Aitken said. It’s imperative that wildlife be untainted by human involvement, unless at the hands of professionals.

Duke said it’s also tough to get people to endure wildlife conflicts — like deer eating ornamental shrubs or racoons taking up residence in an attic — and to see the animals as more than a nuisance.

“The animals were here first and we have to work around them,” she said. “(There are) peaceful ways to solve the problems.”

Aitken agreed.

“Ten years ago your house wasn’t there, but the deer were there and living in the forest,” she said. “It’s tough for the animals to find anywhere to live.”

Another challenge for the center is funding. As a nonprofit, the center relies on grants and donations. But with or without significant funding, the animals are sure to come, Aitken said.

Staff are typically at the center during daylight hours. But often their duties don’t stop when they head home.

Young animals requiring regular feeding, or animals in critical condition may go home with staffers. They also carry pagers in case of emergency calls — much like surgeons on popular television shows.

They have to handle wildlife carefully to protect themselves and the animals. Different sets of gloves line the walls for different uses, like thinner ones for working with mammals or thick ones for working with predatory birds armed with talons and beaks.

Wounds and life stage are considered in determining how to proceed with the animal’s care. How much and how often to feed them depends on their size and general health, for example, whether they are dehydrated upon arrival, Harner said.

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(1) comment

hummingbird1

Nice article, very informative. I wish more people would watch out for our wildlife.

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