Wanted: Wildlife Volunteers
Numbers are down at many centers
It’s orphan season – the busiest time of the year at the wildlife rehabilitation center in Morgan Hill and director Sue Howell is down to eight volunteers, the lowest number since she began caring for abandoned birds and four-footed critters at her home in the hills outside the South Santa Clara County city 16 years ago.
We’ve always had a pool of volunteers, but since 1995 there’s been a decline in numbers that I think is linked to the national economy, said Howell, who runs the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center. I’ve contacted colleagues, and it seems that when people don’t have jobs they’re willing to help out, but when they can work, they do.
While not all wildlife rehabilitation experts agree on a correlation between the economy and volunteerism, they harbor no doubts about the value of volunteers. They are the lifeblood of the centers’ services, said Elaine Thrune, president of the 1,800-member National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association.
We couldn’t get along without them. Most rehabilitators are themselves volunteers, receiving no pay and often not even reimbursement for expenses, said Thrune, a member of the Wild Again Wildlife Rehabilitation network in the St Cloud, Minn, area.
Wide range of shelters
Wildlife rehabilitation is as diverse as the orphaned or injured animals taken to shelters, Thrune said. Shelters range from huge urban centers that boast staff veterinarians and a couple of hundred volunteers who treat thousands of animals annually, to a lone Samaritan in a rural area who provides home care for a dozen animals a year. Few wildlife centers are free of worries about funding. Most scrape for donations, pro bono or reduced-price professional services from veterinarians, cut-rate prices on birdseed or cat food, a deal on lumber and wire to build pens, and more than anything else, volunteers.
Wildlife volunteers quickly learn there’s more grunge than glamour involved. For the few who handle exotic or rare species or nurse an animal back to health for release to the wild, there are hundreds who build, clean and maintain pens and cages, transport orphaned or injured animals and prepare food for tiny songbirds that must be fed every 15 to 20 minutes from dawn to dusk. Others volunteers fly to secure funding, generate publicity and educate the public about wildlife.
But apparently there aren’t enough volunteers to go around, especially in the Bay Area. Our volunteer force has declined 80 percent from the peak years of 1991 to 1994 when the economy wasn’t strong, said Howell.
Stephanie Shumsky, director of the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, said she believes the Bay Area’s booming economy has played a major role in reducing the number of volunteers at her San Jose center by 50 percent, to about 100, over the past two to three years.
I’d say 80 percent of the decline is related to the economy, Shumsky said. In this area, people have to work because of the cost of living. Even if they’d like to volunteer, if there are jobs available, they’ll take them. I could use 250 volunteers to make things run smoothly. A lot of projects are on the back burner because I’m the only one in the office.
Meredith Pipestem would be happy to have four more volunteers to help the three currently doing hands-on rehabilitation at the San Benito County wildlife center founded 19 years ago by her late mother, Nan. Additionally, Pipestem needs volunteers to prepare feedings, perform maintenance, do yardwork and raise funds.
Volunteers are scarce. Sometimes it’s easier to get $20 than two hours (of labor) from people, Pipestem said.
Economy’s relevance unclear
Thrune, of the St. Cloud group, doesn’t blame the drop in volunteerism on the economy. I’ve heard that theory, but I think it’s more complicated than that Every area has its own ecosystem. California could be in trouble while other areas are 0K Some people may volunteer when they don’t have a job, but other job-seekers may not volunteer because they need to find work, Thrune said.
Some wildlife centers in the Bay Area aren’t short of volunteers. The Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek has 325 volunteers, most of them active, and this spring 150 people the most ever attended the museum’s 12-hour spring training session, said wildlife rehabilitation director Susan Heckly.
There may be more guilt about the environment, and people want to help, Heckly said. Work at Native Animal Rescue in Santa Cruz County isn’t tied to the economy, either, said board President Rob Stevens.
We’re lucky to have the University of California campus here, Stevens said. But all the same it’s a struggle to find volunteers. Many fall by the wayside when they find that their romantic view of wildlife rehabilitation isn’t realistic that it’s quite a bit of work and some of it’s not pleasant.
Eileen Wicker salvaged a single volunteer out of 80 people who inquired from August to December last year about helping out at Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky in Louisville. Of 40 pelople who actually filled out an application, 20 showed up, but only 10 came back a second time. One is still with her, Wicker said. Many volunteers want to do only the high-profile jobs such as handling large birds, Wicker said.
“Do the dirty work first”
“But we have rules. If you want to handle birds, you have to do the dirty work first,” Wicker said. “But we are getting to the point of having different types of volunteers. It used to be you had to do everything. This was to weed out people who wanted to do presentations but didn’t want to clean cages. Now we’re starting to accept volunteers who may have another area of expertise, such as secretarial, fundraising, or artistic”.
Michael Cox, director of the Vermont raptor Center in Woodstock, which has a fairly steady force of volunteers, suggests that societal changes may account for the number of volunteers.
“The number of volunteers is cyclic”, Cox said, “but I’d guess that the fluctuation is independent of employment. We are seeing more short-term volunteers, though, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we’re a more mobile society.”
HOW TO HELP
People interested in volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center may contact any of the following agencies:
Wildlife Rescue of Palo Alto, (650)494-7417.
Native Animal Rescue (Santa Cruz)(408) 462-0726.
Monterey County SPCA: from Monterey (408) 373-2631, extension 223, or from Salinas (408)422-4721 extension 223.
Lindsay Wildlife Museum (Walnut Creek), (510)935-1978.
Peninsula Humane Society (San Mateo County), (650) 340-7022.
Ohlone Humane Society (Fremont, temporarily closed), (510) 797-9449.
Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley (San Jose), (408) 283-0744
Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center (Morgan Hill), (408) 779-9372.
Nan Pipestem Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (Hollister) (408) 628-3400.
Sulphur Creek Nature Center Hayward, (510)881-6747.
Source: Mercury News article dated June 30, 1998 by Dale Rodebaugh