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volunteering at a wildlife center.

November 3, 2013

The wildlife center where I worked and the staff who have and still work there abide by strict Department of Fish and Game regulations. It is illegal in the state of California to take home any wildlife without special permits and paperwork. I’m glad I was at a well-regulated place. Unfortunately, the center receives no money from the government, and is dependent on donations and private grants.

My last shift at a wildlife rehabilitation center in California was December 1st, 2010. Just over a week later, I moved to a different state. I’ve not found a similar rehabilitation center where I live, even though there is much wildlife here. Were I still in California, I’d still be volunteering at the wildlife center.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the animals I worked with, and so decided to write a post about them for those readers who have just recently subscribed to my blog.

At the center where I worked, we only had enough staff to help animals that were brought to us. We had no people to go out and rescue animals. People would call, and say they found a wounded hawk or a baby sparrow or rabbit, for example, and we would tell them to bring the animal to the center. Most animals were brought to us by people who wanted to help. Sometimes animal control or fish and game officers would bring animals to us as well.

Fish and game and animal control people tended to bring in the more dangerous animals, the ones most likely to bite, such as foxes and raccoons. But, sometimes those and other potentially dangerous animals were brought in by regular folks. Also, occasionally a woman who ran a smaller shelter up in the foothills would need to transfer one of the animals under her care to our place, since we had more room.

How I got started..

I became aware of the wildlife center a few years before I started volunteering there. For some time, my brother and his wife lived out in the country, in the midst of many almond orchards. My brother and I would go walking in the orchards once in awhile. On one such walk, my brother spotted an injured red tail hawk. It was lying on its back, and appeared to be stunned. My brother’s little sister-in-law was with us, and he had her go grab a box and some towels. I would have gone to get the stuff, but I didn’t know where it was.The sister-in-law came back with a good sturdy box and some old towels.

My brother is brave, just a tad reckless, and very very fast. The hawk lay on its back with its talons raised towards us and extended. Somehow, my brother was able sweep his hands under the talons, and grab the bird’s legs, moving almost faster than I could see. He successfully got hold of the hawk, put it into the box, closed the box, and only got nicked just a tiny bit on one finger. He wasn’t even wearing gloves. I was impressed.

He’d taken animals into the center before, but I had never been with him when he went. This time, I was able to ride along. We went into the lobby. In the lobby were two bird cages.. one holding a tame crow, and the other holding a (not-tame) albino scrub jay. There was a very large cage containing a cute, small Acorn wood pecker, and two tanks, each containing a snake.

A woman met us at the counter. She put on thick leather gloves and removed the hawk. Then she did something incredible. She sat the hawk on her glove. It perched there as if it were tame. It looked quite relaxed. Some people have an almost supernatural way with animals. I was truly surprised.

Some years passed, and for awhile I forgot about the wildlife center. I don’t know what caused me to remember the place, but I did remember, and went down to sign up to volunteer.

The first animal I looked at once I got to the grounds of the center was a Barn Owl. I had what I guess I would call a spiritual experience. The owl was in a small enclosure outside the main gates of the compound. I went over to look at him.

He moved from his perch, and hung on the wire covering the front of his cage, which he could do without injury. He looked right at me for awhile, without blinking. He hissed a little, but I didn’t feel it was a mean-sounding or warning hiss. I felt somehow accepted by this creature.

The barn owl I am writing of is the one you see in the picture at the top of this blog. Here is the full picture.

curley head turned_3

I filled out an application, went to an orientation meeting, and was then put to work.

My first assignment, which I did for at least two months, was scrub out dirty, small cages that were inside the main building. I was not allowed to handle any animals for several months. I just cleaned.

I kept showing up, kept cleaning and doing a good job, and often expressed interest in working more directly with the animals.

After two months, I was allowed to go into the songbird enclosures, outside the main building. All the enclosures I cleaned had birds in them as I cleaned. The songbird enclosures were large enough for the birds to fly around. I had to be very careful not to let the birds out. We had chicken wire covering the hallways between the enclosures, but sometimes the birds could sneak through the wires. It was important to keep the doors closed.

I cleaned and fed the songbirds in their enclosures, but really really wanted to work with the raptors.. the hawks, falcons, and owls. After about 4 or 5 months, I joined the raptor team.

As time passed, I was not only on the raptor team, but on the songbird team, officially. I also prepared food for many other animals.

The animals we treated, and our facilities..

We received and treated a variety of animals. Most of the animals brought to us were birds. Many were songbirds, such as sparrows, finches, robins, kingbirds, doves, pigeons (which are a type of dove, called “rock dove”) and various kinds of blackbirds. Blackbirds, such as redwing blackbirds, are smaller than crows, and considered song birds. Corvids were also common.. mostly crows, but we also were brought jays and on rare occasions, ravens. Ravens were rare in the general area in which the center was located, so we did not get many ravens.

Besides the songbirds and corvids, we also were brought owls, mostly Great Horn Owls and Barn owls, but also, on occasion, Burrowing Owls and Screech Owls.

We took in other raptors as well. Red Tail Hawks and Red Shoulder Hawks were the most common. But, we also were brought Swainson Hawks, Sharpshin Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and very very rarely, Northern Harriers (also called Marsh Hawks) Kites, Ospreys, and, maybe once a year, a Golden Eagle.

Falcon species were also uncommon. The kind of falcon we were most likely to get were American Kestrels, the smallest of the North American Falcon species. We also had a Merlin (slightly larger than a Kestrel), a Prairie Falcon, and a Peregrine, during the two years and approximately two months I was at the center.

The main building of the wildlife rehab center is a converted house. It contains a lobby where we had a desk and a computer. This was where we received animals. This was our intake room.

We had a room equipped with incubators for baby songbirds, a room full of bird cages for juvenile songbirds that still had to be fed by hand. These birds were not ready to eat on their own, and occupy the large enclosures in which they could fly around.

There was a small area with a scale to weigh the animals. In this area, we also kept plastic bands to temporarily put around the legs of the birds, a kitchen to prepare food for the animals, storage areas for cleaning and other supplies, a treatment room with lots of veterinary supplies,

(this is the treatment room),


an examining/work table, and a few small cages, a critical care room with small cages.. cages too small for animals to move around much. Animals that were injured, such as birds that had a broken wing, needed to be in small cages that don’t allow much movement, so the wing or other injured part could heal.

Mostly, the animals we cared for survived, but sometimes their injuries were too severe, and they died. Some animals had to be put down. We got used to death.

The critical care room tended to be an interesting place though, not a sad one. When I would get in each day, I never knew what would be in the cages of the critical care room. Some animals might have died, some might have been moved to larger quarters, and there would be animals that had been brought in since I was last at the center. I tended to volunteer twice a week, and in the days between, other animals would be brought in. Some animals in the critical care room survived and got better. They were then moved to outdoor enclosures in which they could move around some.

Because there was not much in the budget, the enclosures look (and are) rather run down. At the time I left, we only had one large flight cage for hawks, and one for owls. The rest of the enclosure rooms for the raptors were the size of medium-to-large bedrooms.. not enough room for the larger birds to fly, but at least some room for them to stretch out their wings. Sometimes raptors in the smaller enclosures eventually got moved to the flight cages, and sometimes not.

Hawk Flight Cage, containing Red Tail, Red Shoulder, and Swainson Hawks.


Owl Flight Cage: If you look closely, you can see some Great Horned Owls in the picture.


Songbirds, being much smaller than raptors, did not need as much room. An enclosure the size of the average master bedroom of a house was plenty big to comfortably contain many songbirds.

I’m standing pretty far into this cage. Can’t really tell from the picture how big it is. We kept the doves in this one, as you can see.


Corvid Enclosures:



Besides songbirds, corvids, and raptors, we were also brought water birds.. different kinds of ducks and geese, as well as various species of herons, and the occasional crane or egret.

We also had space for mammals. Small mammals, such as squirrels, skunks, and opossums


didn’t need much room. Raccoons (we got a lot of raccoons)


had two rooms in the outdoor enclosure area, plus an extra play room that was more exposed to the elements than the other two rooms. We had to have a sliding door between the two main raccoon rooms. Raccoons, in groups, can be dangerous, even deadly. We would put food in the empty room, then slide up the door, and the raccoons would all go into that room to get their food. After they were all in, we would close the door, and clean up the horribly messy room the raccoons had just vacated.

Besides having space for raccoons (the young ones lived in smaller cages until they were large enough to be put in with the adults), we had two rooms for foxes.


We didn’t receive many foxes, and almost always got small grey foxes. Red foxes tended to be bigger than the greys, but I hardly ever saw red foxes.

Here is a picture of the back end of the enclosures section. The flight cages are off to the left. The supply room containing many empty cages and other equipment is in the foreground. Many of the cages were removed and sitting outside the supply shed at the time I took this picture. I think someone on staff must have been cleaning out the shed.


We also had a coyote run, (pen)


which was on a different part of the property. The coyotes lived in a big kennel, which had two sections. They had enough room to run around. We tended to have 4-6 coyotes in the coyote run at any given time. Coyotes are not generally dangerous, but still, we made sure to get the coyotes moved to one section of the pen before cleaning it, and shut the gate dividing the two sections so we could clean out the mess while the coyotes were in the other side.

Besides the main building, the two wings of enclosures, and misc. pens and cages, we had a single-wide trailer that was used as an office and a break room for the staff, and a display building in which some of our permanent residents lived. More on them later.

Raptor Team.

Mostly, I was on the raptor team. I would go into the various enclosures (while the birds were in there, yes this could be dangerous), pick up castings (what raptors spit up.. stuff they can’t digest, like feathers and bone) with tongs, gather up feathers, remove half-eaten dead mice or dead ducklings (the feeder animals arrived at the center pre-killed), and spray out the poop. Lastly, I would dump out the large rubber bowls of water, spray and sometimes scrub out the bowls, and put fresh water in the bowls.

Once I got the cages clean, I would go into the main building, and determine how many dead critters would be put into each cage. We had a board on a wall outside the kitchen that had very detailed feeding info for all the animals. I would then pile the dead feeder animals into large, sturdy pie pins, bring a clean pair of tongs, and visit the various cages, depositing the correct number of dead animals into each cage. Depending on how many raptors we had, this process of cleaning and feeding could take three or four hours.

The hawks in the smaller enclosures would get quite restless, because they didn’t have enough room to fly. Sometimes these birds were irritable, and didn’t like it when staff would come in and clean the cages. Quite often, Red Tail Hawks (large birds) would fly at me, and I would not always have a chance to duck. These birds were not intent on hurting me though, just scaring me. They would fly at me, then land on my head, but with talons tucked in, so they wouldn’t hurt me. I had to wave them off with the hose I carried, or my arms. I tended to wear long sleeve shirts, even in the summer, and also always wore a thick knit cap to protect my bald head.

I got really tired of getting scared by the hawks, so for a summer I signed up for the songbird team. I needed a change.

Songbird team

I worked with juvenile songbirds during the summer of 2010. The juvenile room had many many small cages, the kind found in pet stores. At times there were over 70 birds in various cages, and I was very busy. I would feed the little birds with plastic syringes, in which I would put a squishy substance full of nutrients. I would drip out the liquid for some birds, and squirt it right into other birds’ mouths.

Feeding juvenile birds:


The juvenile birds were very very cute, but made an incredible amount of noise come feeding time. After they ate, they were much quieter.

Sometimes I was fortunate to have a crow in the juvenile songbird room. Crows and jays, being larger than the songbirds, lived in playpens, the kind parents buy for their small children. Playpens gave the young corvids room to walk around some.

Young crows were great. Usually, I just had one crow at a time. The crow would perch on the top railing of the play pen, and watch me closely. Occasionally the crow would make a little noise.. basically a sound showing it was interested. Crows are very smart birds, and curious about humans.

Once while I was busy in one corner of the room, the crow I was looking after at the time flew over to me and landed on my shoulder. The bird wanted to be friendly. Although this was a surprising and enjoyable experience, it was also a bad sign. We did not want any of the birds to take a liking to us.

If birds or other animals really started to like human company, they could not be released into the wild. Once in a rare while a bird or mammal would really like people, becoming unintentionally tame, and could not be released. This almost never happened at the wildlife center though. Some senior staff members often took birds and other animals home if the animals needed special care. Sometimes, while at the homes of the staff, the birds or other animals would really start to like the staff, and become too tame to release. This was not good, but was an occupational hazard.

Getting back to songbirds.. the juvenile ones, after they reached a certain age, got to be put into the spacious enclosures outside the main building. After they were kept there and observed for a few weeks, they were released.


Although we were brought lots of mammals, I did not get any hands-on experience with them. This was because in order to do so, I first would have had to get a series of preventative rabies shots.. not shots to the belly given to people who were bit, but shots in the arm. This series of shots cost over $600.00 and I didn’t have the money for that, so I missed out on hands on experience with most mammals.

The only mammals I was able to hold were a dozen very young wood rats that needed to be hand fed with a very small syringe with a rubber tip, which contained warm milk. I was allowed to take the wood rats home, and feed them twice a day for two weeks, before it was time to bring them back to the center.



I was told that, contrary to public opinion, rats don’t carry rabies.

During the time I volunteered, I was told a few things that turned out to be false, and other things that I needed to know, I was not told at all, so who knows if the young wood rats were a health risk.

Permanent residents..

A rare thing happened from time to time.. some injured animals would be brought in, and nursed back to health, but not entirely. For example, an injured owl or hawk might be successfully treated for a broken wing, but would have slight damage to one eye. This animal could not legally be released into the wild, because of the eye injury. We had to either keep and tame these animals, or send them off to zoos or other wildlife centers where animals were on display.

We were legally allowed to keep and tame a few of these non-releasable animals. They became our permanent residents. Three of the owls we were allowed to keep became surrogate parents to baby owls that were brought in. Other owls, a hawk, and a small falcon were tamed, as well as a raven, crow, a California King Snake, and a de-scented skunk.

The tame animals were our animal ambassadors. They were taken by one woman and her husband to schools and various other places. The couple would do presentations for both children and adults.

Twice a year, there would be a large fundraiser event at the center, and several of the staff, including me, would carry around the tame animals, and talk to the public about them. No one except for trained staff was allowed to handle the animals. Besides the fundraisers, the animals were also taken to events such as Earth Day in the Park, and a festival in another park. I was able to hold several animals and show them to the public at these events.

Here are some of the permanent residents:

Great Horned Owl. The flash from the camera makes one of his eyes look weird.


Burrowing Owl,


American Kestrel.




(I held him on one hand, and the camera in the other for this picture).

My favorite was the Barn Owl.

Working with tame birds..

Mostly, I spent time with the tame owls, especially the barn owl.


Our tame Great Horned Owl lived with another Great Horn, and they were surrogate parents for any Great Horned owlets that were brought in. We did not hold that tame owl much. He tended to get stressed out by being held.

Barn owls are my favorite animals, not just my favorite birds. They are so beautiful.  I would go into the main building, grab a very thick leather glove.. we had some that were weaved with kevlar (what is used to make bulletproof vests) for extra strength and safety. Then, I would go into the treatment room, and dig in a drawer until I had a leash and swivel.

After that, I would put the glove on my left hand, and go into the barn owl’s enclosure. He was used to me, and it didn’t usually take long at all to get him to hop on my gloved hand. Sometimes though, he found it very amusing to hop on my head. Good thing I wore a thick cap. Usually he’d hop on my head while I was cleaning his cage, and not when I was trying to get him on my glove.

The barn owl, like some of our other tame birds, was already wearing anklets and jesses.. the straps attached to the anklets. The next part was tricky. I would hold the jesses with my left hand, the same hand the bird was perching on, and with my right hand, I would push the swivel through the holes in both jesses. I then would loop the leash through the swivel, and wrap the leash securely around my left hand several times. Usually the barn owl was patient while I did this. I would then take him out of his cage.

I would have him out for at least a half hour. Sometimes he would get uptight and flap his wings, wanting to fly away. Sometimes he was more calm. I would walk around the grounds with him, show him to other staff members, so he got used to seeing other people, and sometimes I would sit at a picnic table with him and talk to him. It was important to keep him tame.

I also regularly took out the small burrowing owl. He was very calm most of the time, and liked to look around.


For some reason I don’t know, the raven did not have jesses permanently attached to his anklets. The jesses he wore, he could easily remove. In order to put the jesses on, he had to be tricked, usually by two people. I almost never held the raven. I didn’t usually hold the tame animals ’til the end of my shift, and often by then, I was the only person at the center. I couldn’t get the jesses on the raven by myself. Also, he preferred female staff members, and didn’t like men much.

Instead of trying to hold the raven, I would just visit him in his enclosure to provide some company. I’d talk to him for awhile, pet him if he let me, and bring him two dead mice as a treat.

Close calls..

As I mentioned earlier, the hawks mostly liked to scare me, not actually hurt me. The largest Red Tail hawk we ever had at the center really surprised me one day. I was in the flight cage, and she was perched above my head, fairly close to where I was standing. Suddenly she swooped down at me. I had no time or room to dodge. She slammed into me, hitting me in the face, right between her head and her wing. Bam. I went down. I wasn’t injured though, just put off balance and a bit stunned.

There was another close call in the flight cage. A similar thing happened with a slightly smaller hawk, a Red Shoulder Hawk. This one wanted to hurt me. That one came at me with talons out. I ducked just in time, and mashed my face against the marble feeding platform on which we put the dead mice. Luckily, it wasn’t that dirty.

In the hawk flight cage, even when we had 14 hawks, the conditions were not generally dangerous. As long as staff stuck to the sides of the cage as we walked back and forth, and kept an eye on the birds, we were generally fine.

Sometimes walking down the middle of the cage could not be entirely avoided. There was always debris to clean, and sometimes it was in the middle of the cage. Once I was walking down the middle, and a Red Shoulder hawk flew at me. It didn’t yet have its talons out, but did have its feet lowered, which meant it was almost ready to stretch out its talons. It swooped down pretty close to me. I reached up with one hand, and tapped its feet with the tongs I was carrying. I didn’t hurt it at all, just gave it a tap to let it know I was paying attention to it.

Eye contact was important. As I moved through the large flight cage, especially when the cage had over ten predatory birds in it, I would make sure to make eye contact for a little while with all the birds. I never read about this technique, it was just something I figured out. Eye contact projected confidence. The birds knew I was eye-balling them, and were less likely therefore to attack.

The hawks in the small enclosures never attacked me, except for the “tame” hawk which was a permanent resident. That hawk should have been put down. She had gotten West Nile virus, and was cooped up in a cage too small to fly in. She eventually went somewhat mad. The last few months of my time at the center, that hawk became too dangerous for me to deal with. She tried to attack me once, and that was enough to keep me out of the cage.

Most of the staff are and were volunteers, but there are and were a few paid staff. One of the people on paid staff had to go into that cage. She wasn’t ever injured, but almost. One good thing about being a volunteer.. I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do.

My two injuries..

I was only hurt twice.

The Great Horned Owls in the owl flight cage were dangerous. They were not like the hawks in the hawk flight cage. The hawks almost never flew at us with the intent to harm. If an owl flew at us, that owl meant to hurt us. Each time I walked into the Great Horn room, I could feel the hostility. The owls would look intently at me, and loudly click their beaks. This was scary.

We didn’t have any safety gear that was of much use. There was a cheap plastic helmet, but it was too small to fit me. The face shields were too old and blurry to be able to see through. So, I usually wore my long sleeve shirts, jeans, jackets when the weather was cold enough, and my knit cap. I also often wore thick, wide sport sunglasses.

I was warned about the Great Horns. Several of the staff had been attacked. No one was seriously hurt, at least.

Once, while I was in there, and not very far into the cage, I knelt down to clean off the feeding slab, where I put the mice, and an owl from almost right above me pounced on me.

It didn’t hurt much, but I sure was scared.

The owl got through my cap, and scratched my head a little with the talons of one foot. One of the talons of the owl’s other foot cut me slightly just above my left eye.. right above the area that the goggles/sunglasses I was wearing. Only a nick.. could have been a LOT worse.

The scariest injury I got was done to me not by a raptor, but a seagull. Almost all raptors do not bite. They kill and injure with the talons on their feet. Seagulls and some other birds bite.

We rarely were brought seagulls, and I had never handled one before. The main job in the critical care room was to move each animal from a soiled cage to a clean one, and clean the dirty cage. Even when I was on the raptor or songbird team, I would still clean out the critical care room during some shifts.

Grabbing the injured, and sometimes VERY irritable birds that occupied the small cages was not easy. I only had to hold them for a few seconds, and put them into clean cages, but this part was tough. Even mallard ducks could be challenging to hold for the very short time it took to put them into a clean cage.

The seagull I grabbed.. wow.. I had no idea seagulls could stretch their necks so far! No one told me.. some of the paid staff were very negligent. They should have let me know that seagulls could be quite dangerous.

I grabbed the bird the way I was taught, and held it facing away from me. The seagull bent its head around and snapped at my face. The bird almost took out my right eye. I am incredibly fortunate it did not. I was able to move fast enough to not lose my eye. Working directly with potentially dangerous birds quickens one’s reflexes.

Even though I could move fast, and avoided losing an eye, I could not avoid the bird’s second lunge. It bit me right on the nose. That hurt, and even drew blood.

Photo 378

I had a nice beak-shaped cut on my nose that took weeks to heal.

I was very displeased about not being warned about seagulls, and spoke with one of my supervisors afterward. She had very little to say.. something like.. “oh yeah.. seagulls are like that.”

I’m glad I did not get hurt any worse than I did.

During the time I was there at the center, no one got seriously hurt by any animals, which is somewhat surprising.


100_1638_2 2

(picture taken moments before I released the hawk).

Part of the job was releasing animals back into the wild. Something wonderful to do.

I mostly released raptors, especially hawks. I and other staff used large cardboard pet carrying crates to store the birds. We’d put several towels in the crates, then capture the hawks with a net, grab them with two gloved hands, put them carefully and quickly into the cardboard crates, and close the crates.

Then, we would drive the birds out to the country, and let them go. Some people who brought birds in requested that the birds be released where they had been found. Sometimes staff were short on time, and some locations were rather far away, so we did not always release the animals in the same fields, orchards, or other habitats where they had been found. We did our best.

I had a small car at the time, a ’98 Mustang. One late afternoon, I packed the largest Red Tail Hawk, the one that had slammed into me earlier, and two other large hawks (in their boxes) into my tiny car. Even before I drove off, the biggest hawk, in the front seat, was starting to bust through the box. Good thing I hadn’t started driving. I always carried spare towels when I did releases, and packed the box with more towels, then I set off. The hawk fortunately did not break through the box while I was driving.

I chose several orchards for the different birds. I released them in different orchards because I didn’t want the hawks to compete with each other for food in the same orchard.

I did not keep an exact count of how many animals I released during those two years. Most days I did not do any releases. Some people on staff only released birds and other animals. I mostly worked at the center, and didn’t release a great many birds.

I am guessing I released something like 11 hawks, 5 owls, and one rabbit.

What I liked best..

Being around the animals and seeing animals up close that previously I had either only seen at a distance, or not seen at all before.. that was one of the best parts.

The other best parts were providing care to these wonderful animals, holding owls for at least a half hour at a time, presenting the animals to the public at various events, and releasing the animals.

The job was often terribly dirty, messy, and not for those with weak stomachs. The stench was often incredible. Nothing like cleaning up the waste of a dozen raccoons, or removing half-eaten dead mice that had been lying around in 100 degree heat. Yeah, it was filthy and messy, but..

Overall.. it was wonderful.

I really miss working with the animals at the wildlife rehabilitation center.

If you’d like to see videos of some of the wildlife I have written about, as well as videos of other animals, please visit my youtube channel: I have many videos on that channel which do not feature animals, so if you want to see the vids with animals, just click on “videos” and scroll down. You’ll need to hit the “load more” button several times to see all the animal videos.

I hope now you have some understanding of what it is like to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center. If you like animals, and there is a wildlife rehab center near you, I encourage you to volunteer or donate money. Many wildlife rehab centers and shelters receive no government money, and depend on donations to keep their doors open and continue to help animals. Please consider doing something so that more wildlife may be helped.  Thanks for reading.

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