It’s Wednesday morning. Inside an industrial kitchen on a farm in southern Edmonton, Roxanne Nalesnik makes lunch.
Today’s menu: peanuts, blueberries and mackerel, with a side of live mealworm and ground meat, all on a silver bowl. Her patients squawk with excitement as she approaches their outdoor enclosure and serves their meal. The patients — two crows and a magpie — dig right in.
It’s not how most people would spend their time off, but Nalesnik loves it. A trained conservation biologist who lives in Morinville, this volunteer gig at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton’s shelter lets her get up close with wounded animals to give them a second chance at life.
It’s great to know that she can help these birds fly free, she says. “Humans are what caused them to be here in the first place. Might as well help them get back out there.”
One wild place
You get all sorts of patients here at the shelter, which is located on a farm just off Anthony Henday Drive — chattering chipmunks, gabby geese and more. “We had baby beavers last year which were so cute,” says Cheryl Feldstein, the shelter’s executive director. All have two things in common: they’re ridiculously cute and in serious trouble.
Birds flop in with concussions, broken wings or lead poisoning. Baby bunnies huddle in corners, their parents nowhere to be found. Most have serious injuries and would not survive without help.
This is the only wildlife rehabilitation centre in Edmonton, Feldstein says, and the only one licensed to care for birds and small mammals north of Red Deer. They’ve bottle-fed beavers, shampooed oily ducks, flown a trumpeter swan to B.C. and built baby owls a new home. “There’s never a dull moment.”
About 1,000 animals from 115 different species arrive at the shelter every year, Feldstein says, so they have to be ready for anything. That makes for one weird kitchen. “You don’t really want to look at our refrigerator,” she laughs, unless you like the sight of live worms, raw meat and dead mice.
With those patients come volunteers from across the region, such as St. Albert’s Telle Day. A bird lover, she says she came to the centre to help animals and the environment. “I feel ethically responsible,” she says, noting she’s accidentally hit birds with her car in the past. It’s also given her a chance to see bald eagles up close — an amazing yet intimidating experience.
Taking the calls
Day spends much of her time manning the shelter’s hotline. It’s her job to tell people what to do when they find wounded animals.
Usually, the answer is simple: leave them alone. “Right now there’s a lot of baby jackrabbits and, coming up soon, fawns that people assume are abandoned,” she says. Baby rabbits don’t have a scent, she explains, but their mothers do. To keep predators away, mom stashes the kids in a safe place during the day and comes back to feed them at dusk and dawn. If you “rescue” these babies, you’re actually kidnapping them.
The same goes for baby squirrels and birds, says Stephanie May, the society’s animal care manager. Squirrels often move their kids between nests while birds leave their mangled-looking fledglings to hobble about while they gather food. “Wild animals have a lot to learn from their parents,” she notes, so it’s vital to keep them together. It’s best to put any babies back where you found them unless you’re certain their parents are dead.
Sometimes the animal really is in trouble and has to be brought in. For most species, May says, it’s best to handle them with thick gloves and towels and transport them in a padded box with small air holes.
Doctor on call
Nalesnik and May lay a three-year-old male great grey owl wrapped in a towel onto a wood-finished counter. It kicks and flaps a bit, but eventually settles down. May takes two hair-thin vials of blood from its wing and puts them in a centrifuge. Balancing the owl on her arm, she lifts the towel from its head just long enough to drip some medicine into its beak. Then, it’s back to the quiet of its cage.
This patient has a ruptured tendon in its wing and an injured eye, May says, and will likely need reconstructive surgery. “It’ll probably lose the eye.” It was likely struck by a car as it chased a mouse onto a road.
May and Nalesnik barely speak above a whisper around the owl and are careful not to make eye contact. Unlike in a domestic animal shelter, there’s no chatting or coddling with the animals here. “You don’t want them to be comfortable with humans,” Nalesnik says. “You want to let them be wild.”
The two big killers of captive wildlife are sight and sound, Feldstein explains. Wild animals fear humans and the stress of close contact can kill them. “We look at them and see them as cute,” she says. “They look at us and think, oh my God, they’re going to eat us.”
Staffers aim to get their patients in and out as quickly as possible. Shelter rooms are quiet and isolated, often covered by towels except for a window to the outside. The patients have numbers, not names, and are cloaked during moves between rooms. “We try to keep them as wild as possible,” Feldstein says.
Only about one-third of the animals will make it back to the wild alive, May says. Some are so far gone that they die from their injuries. Others have to be euthanized.
Two bald eagles died of lead poisoning earlier this month, Feldstein says. “It’s devastating,” she says, but they were very sick.
Human harm, human help
“It’s so sad,” she continues. “Ninety-five per cent of the patients that come in through our doors are here because of human activity.”
In the case of raptors like eagles, the birds are poisoned through lead shot or weights eaten by fish. The toxins build up in their fat and knock them flat during migration when they tap those reserves for energy.
Litter is another killer. Animals get sick from eating it. Babies get stuck together when parents use it in their nests. Mice eat it on roadsides, luring owls into the paths of automobiles. If you want to protect wildlife, the society tells students, don’t litter.
Some animals do recover from their injuries. Like the crows, magpie and Swainson’s hawk outside, these animals are moved to large, open-air shelters to ease them back into the wild life.
After being bottle-fed by staff, babies are usually fostered out to new parents. Sometimes, as was the case earlier this month with some baby owls in Edmonton, they’ll build a new nest for them as well.
Animals are usually released in the same area that they were found, Feldstein says, often with the help of the people who found them. “It’s important for that person to have closure as well.” She helped return a car-struck red fox to St. Albert last summer, she says. “It was so happy,” she recalls, although she did have to shoo it out of its carrier a bit.
Releases are the best part of this job, May says. Her first was a bald eagle that came to her wobbling from lead poisoning. “It was really sad to see such a large, majestic bird that weak.”
Four months of care later, she was standing with it on her arm at Heritage Lake before a crowd of photographers. After a short countdown, she launched it into the air, where it soared into the distance and landed on a tree. “It felt amazing to see him fly and be released back into the wild.”
There’s nothing like releasing an animal back into the wild, Feldstein says. “You know you’ve made a huge difference for that animal and the species as a whole.”
If you find an injured wild animal, call the shelter’s hotline at 780-914-4118.