PAWS Magazine

 

Issue 48, Winter 2001

 

He helps animals be wild again

by Lisa Parks

If you were an orphaned bear cub hiding in a tree on someone’s property in Washington, there is a good chance that Kevin Mack might end up taking care of you. Just ask the current resident bruin at the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood. After receiving a call in November from a worried landowner in Ashford, Washington regarding three motherless bear cubs, Mack ventured out to the Mount Rainier area to investigate. By the time he arrived, two of the cubs had fled, and the third was hiding high up a tree.

“The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife turned the bear over to us, and we planned to hibernate him for the winter under our care then release him into a winter den,” explains Mack. But an unexpected skin condition prevented hibernation, and the bear is instead passing the winter in Lynnwood until his impending release in the spring. Not that Mack minds having the extra guest a bit. Asked which animals at the center excite him most, Mack grins and says without hesitation, “The bears. They have such individual personalities.”

Mack is the kind of person you can picture looking after animals—gentle, determined, and intelligent. Tall and capable-looking, with a warm smile, he talks enthusiastically about his work as the Wildlife Department Naturalist at PAWS. His position was created specifically to manage the Release Program at the two PAWS Wildlife centers. The PAWS wildlife rehabilitation operation is one of the foremost in the country, and the largest in the Pacific Northwest.

Kevin Mack

The Wildlife Department treats native Pacific Northwest species such as bears, bobcats, coyotes, eagles, hawks, songbirds, squirrels, raccoons, and even the occasional seal. Between the PAWS centers in Lynnwood and McCleary (near Olympia), PAWS will help almost 7,000 animals this year. Most of the Wildlife Department’s temporary residents are hit-and-run victims of the two biggest perpetrators: cars and cats. “We often take in babies whose mothers were killed. Although sometimes,” Mack adds with disgust, “we get animals who people shot, poisoned, or threw rocks at. It’s unbelievable how cruel some people can be.”

The mission of the Wildlife Department is to care for and prepare these animals for release back into the wild. The wildlife centers do not keep any permanent animals or maintain a display for the public. Animals that have no chance of survival in the wild after rehabilitation are euthanized. Mack is part of a team responsible for evaluating the animals’ fitness and determining when they are ready to fend for themselves in the wild.

On a typical day he spends much of his time poring over maps and records, searching for the perfect habitat in which to release his patients. Although one might wonder if the towns of Lynnwood and McCleary—due to the Wildlife Centers located there—are now overrun with paroled squirrels and raccoons, Mack smiles and assures that “urban” animals such as those are dispersed widely in suitable areas nearby.

Like an adoption agency evaluating prospective parents, Mack does careful research to find suitable homes for the animals. He tries to return them to the same general area, where there is already a known population and their food and shelter requirements can be met. Sometimes private citizens agree to have an animal, such as a squirrel, released on their land. Mack keeps track of all the habitats they’ve used and continues to foster relationships with the parks and citizens.

Until last year, there was not a singular person dedicated to coordinating the releases and ensuring a wide variety of places for the animals to go, according to Kip Parker, Director of the Wildlife Department. Competition results from too many animals trying to populate the same niche, thus reducing their chances for survival. “Kevin’s work is a huge benefit to PAWS,” says Parker.

Kip Parker says Mack’s “excellent sense of humor” is an absolute necessity in his work. Parker has a favorite Dostoevksy quote he uses to describe the work of the Wildlife Center. “It goes: ‘Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.’ We deal with sick and broken animals. Determining the ones we can help, versus those who we can only help by release from suffering (euthanization) is very taxing on all the staff. This is why sense of humor is especially important. It enables Kevin and people working with him to cope with the difficult choices inherent in the job.”

Mack used to spend a lot more one-on-one time with the animals as a Wildlife Center Supervisor, feeding and caring for them daily. As the Naturalist, he observes them when they are nearly recovered to determine their readiness to “fly the coop.” He relishes the release part of his job the most. “When animals come to us they are essentially dead in the wild. They are so severely compromised that they are unable to evade capture by a large predator (in this case, a human). It’s an amazing feeling to see that same animal a few weeks or months later returning to the wild, healthy and fully functional.”

To this end, he observes how competently the animals perform normal behaviors. For predators, this may involve watching them snag a mouse; or for birds, checking the evenness of their wings and strength of their flight.

The Lynnwood Wildlife Center looks like a summer camp for animals, with a main building, and several small outlying “cabins.” Inside the main building are veterinary examination offices, X-ray and surgery rooms, and indoor cages. In back, a sign with “No Diving” printed in large letters prevents confusion over who the pools outside are for: this is the home of aquatic birds and seals. There are also tall aviaries for eagles, owls, and other large birds; and spacious quarters for the bears, where their contact with humans can be kept to an absolute minimum. (Two years ago the Wildlife Center overflowed with 16 bear cubs.)

The McCleary center, known as PAWS Olympic Wildlife Center, provides a somewhat quieter setting for deer, herons, and other noise-sensitive creatures. The noise and smells of people and cars in the relatively urban setting of Lynnwood creates stress for the animals. “Like that bear,” says Mack, pointing over to the completely sealed area. “Even though we keep him as isolated as possible, it’s likely he can still hear and smell everything that happens on site.”

On staff are veterinarians, wildlife specialists and volunteers. The chaotic pace of caring for the clamor of hundreds of hungry bellies during the summer requires as many as 200 volunteers to feed animals and clean cages.

Many animals are referred from local organizations. “The public is often unaware that when people in our area take a wild animal to the Seattle/King County Humane Society or Seattle Animal Control, the animal is actually transported to PAWS,” says Richard Huffman, Director of PAWS Advocacy and Outreach.

Mack’s day may sometimes be (gladly) interrupted by calls from all over Washington, such as, “We’ve got a bear in our yard!” Although many of these distress calls are weeded out by other staff (for instance, during fledgling season, small, wide-eyed birds recently kicked out of the nest while learning to fly are sometimes mistaken for injured or orphaned birds) when the call involves an injured large predator like a coyote or eagle, Mack hops in the truck and cruises out to investigate.

Any job working with the public involves a few irate phone calls, though. Sometimes citizens call to complain about raccoons digging up yards or birds in attics.

Mack laughingly recalls a zany plea from a woman complaining about “birds in her yard.” “She asked us to come get rid of all the birds! She said she owned that land and didn’t want to share it with them.”

This kind of attitude drives him nuts. “Animals don’t understand property lines. You share your space with wildlife,” says Mack philosophically. “The thing you have to understand is that it’s all habitat to them. They don’t know the difference between your front lawn and a park. A hole under your house is the same as a hole in a log.”

He hopes the evolving PAWS Wildlife Solutions Program will aid in easing animal-human relations, since animals generally lose in these conflicts. Mack offers practical advice to callers, such as staking down sod that a raccoon is busily digging up. The program will hopefully be this same advice-sharing, but on a larger scale—like a hotline staff the community can turn to.

Kevin Mack

“A major component of the Wildlife Program involves us: people. Our relationship with animals.” Although Mack sees greater numbers of people getting out into the wilderness more frequently than in the past, urban sprawl and encroachment generate major conflicts over shrinking space. “People don’t understand that when they build on cougar territory, there will be cougars. This is their home.” Mack identifies the disconnection between people and the environment even in the terminology we use, such as “the natural world” versus “the city.” “It’s all natural world. It’s shared space. You share your space with wildlife. We have to learn how to deal with it.”

Wildlife rehabilitation in North America is currently at a crossroads. In the past the work was an avocation. “But now there is different kind of person involved,” says Kip Parker. “People coming into the field now are better-educated, and have more information and support available to them. There is a move toward full professionalism.”

PAWS has a strong mandate to not keep live animals that are unable to be successfully returned to the wild, even for education. It can be a touchy issue, with most rehabilitators falling strongly on one side or the other. “I think the care of the animals and the way they’re presented to the public needs to be of very high quality,” asserts Parker. “PAWS’s message is about respect for living things. We believe we can use other educational resources, like video, to send strong messages.”

“It is very important to educate the public about our wild neighbors,” says Huffman, “but our primary concern is for the welfare of the animal. Besides, the behavior shown by a captive wild animal will not necessarily reflect the behavior of that animal in the wild, rendering the whole educational value moot.”

Wildlife shelters in Washington continuously confront funding difficulties due to the staggering amount of wildlife in the state. “Midwestern states, with fewer wild animals, often provide good government funding,” notes Huffman. “We rely completely on private donations.” Because of this, organizations in the Pacific Northwest must think creatively in order to maintain their programs.

Mack’s passion for animals runs deep. His Iowa childhood was filled with camping trips all over the USA. On a trip to Colorado when he was young, Mack had his illuminating moment. He was stunned by all the wildlife he saw: elk and deer, and mountains teeming with coyotes and foxes. “I just knew that I wanted to do something with animals. If you look at my grades through junior high and high school, there are always straight As in biology and life sciences. I guess you could tell what I was interested in.”

Mack moved on to Iowa State University, where he studied wildlife biology and worked at ISU’s Wildlife Care Clinic. But he had not considered wildlife rehabilitation as a career until his internship at the PAWS facility in Lynnwood where he now works. “After being exposed to PAWS and the organization’s philosophy about wildlife, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

The PAWS experience was responsible for luring him back to Washington State after graduation. He finds the area compelling both for its abundant wildlife and diverse terrain. Most weekends find him outdoors mountain biking, snowboarding, backpacking, and bird-watching.

Mack’s work hasn’t all been roses. He takes his licks in this job, and has a set of toothmark scars on his leg from a disgruntled raccoon to prove it. But the most painful incident to date, Mack will admit with a rueful grin, involve a rescue attempt on a skunk caught in a leg trap under a shed. Mack took a direct hit from the frightened critter, turning his arm yellow and scenting him eau de skunk for a month. “It made it very uncomfortable to be in public. I was too embarrassed to go out, I stunk so badly!”

After five years with PAWS, Mack has seen his role change dramatically in the organization, and expects that it will continue to grow and expand over the years. “There are so many things to be done, it will take a long time.” He has his eye on education, hoping to help people appreciate animals in the way he does. As if on cue, he stops mid-sentence and points out the window. “Look—there’s a hawk flying over. It’s on the chase!”

Mack’s main ambition for the Wildlife Center is to see it become more scientific. He worries about the fate of the animals after release, and wonders how well the Wildlife Center serves them. One goal is to perform post-release studies on more animals to track their progress back in the wild. They have tracked a few bears, but Mack believes smaller animals like songbirds and raccoons merit further study.

Kip Parker agrees. Plans are in the works for tracking small owls this year, and more in the near future. Animals can be followed by radio transmitters, which requires time and staff to go out in a car or plane with devices to track down the animals. Satellite tracking is more efficient but highly expensive. In addition to vying for grant money to buy satellite time for tracking, Parker hopes to partner up with other institutions like the University of Washington in order to expand the post-release program.

To date, bears and cougars in particular have been targeted for radio transmitters to demonstrate that such animals raised in captivity don’t necessarily become nuisances to the public.

Although most of the animals’ survival skills are instinctual, Mack wonders about creatures like baby songbirds, who need to learn certain behavioral traits from their parents. The mating song of the songbird is learned from the mother—without it, the bird may not succeed in attracting a mate and remaining a “viable” (i.e., offspring-producing) member of the population. “When the wildlife center gets babies, they’re deprived of contact with the mother and we don’t know if they are able to learn their song the right way.”

Parker is optimistic about the Wildlife Department’s rehabilitation efforts. “Based on studies, the general picture is that if you provide proper, scientifically-based rehabilitation and care, you can rehabilitate and release an animal that has as good a chance for survival as its wild-raised counterparts.”

As much as he loves his work, Kevin Mack’s dream is to be out of a job. “I would love to not see any more animals come in injured because of people. Ultimately, I’d like to be out of business.”

Most of Mack’s charges remain in the wildlife center approximately one month, but may stay several more if they have severe injuries to overcome. Deaths and departures can be difficult, particularly in his former supervisory role which involved close daily contact with the same animals. With some of the longer-term residents, it is a challenge to not get too attached to the animals.

Because of this, and also to remind the public that these are wild animals, not pets, the animals are never named. And contact is kept to a minimum. “The more isolated you can keep them, the better. As a result, the centers are not set up for public viewing. The bear at the Lynnwood center is in a sealed area where he has little to no contact with humans, and is viewed only by closed circuit television in another room. The cages have blankets on them to prevent the animals seeing people. We want to ensure that they retain their natural fear of humans—it will be their best defense after they are released.”

Mack’s hands-off philosophy toward animals makes the Crocodile Hunter, TV’s Steve Irwin, a target of mild ire. “He stresses the animals out the way he handles them,” protests Mack. “Like when he whips the snakes around. They don’t enjoy that!” Mack contends that if he were to ever do a show (which he does not want to do) he would stay as far away from the animals as possible, and therefore “probably have lousy ratings.”

So one might wonder, what kind of pets does a wildlife naturalist keep? Something exotic? A cougar? A believer in the PAWS philosophy even in his personal life, Mack says he has rescued a few orphaned pet reptiles in the past but does not himself own pets, preferring to view animals in the wild. He takes a disparaging view of pet-seekers who look to wildlife for a home companion animal. “No wild animal should be kept as a pet. You can’t subvert their instincts. A pet is for companionship, not for ‘coolness.’”

A champion of wildlife to the end, Mack says he “tries to talk people out of fad pets whenever possible.” He pauses reflectively a moment. “I just like to see animals out living independently, doing their own thing. Putting a wild animal in a cage destroys one of the most important characteristics that makes them special… their freedom.”

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