PAWS Magazine


Issue 49, Summer 2001


20 Wild Years

by Manny Frishberg

When wild animals and birds are found suffering in Washington State, clearly the place to take them is a PAWS Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. With centers in Lynnwood and McCleary, PAWS fields a dedicated staff of as many as 400 volunteers and professionals to care for upwards of 6,500 animals in need every year. More than 50 percent of all animals rehabilitated in Washington State are cared for by PAWS.

“The bulk of our work runs from April through September or October, which is when young animals are born or hatched.” said Kip Parker, the director of PAWS Wildlife Department. “That is our busiest time for volume, and we put on extra staff at both centers.” During that time, he said, they are likely to treat more than 170 species of wild birds and mammals, from common animals like squirrels, raccoons and a variety of songbirds and waterfowl to raptors and other large birds of prey, deer, elk, bear, and even the occasional cougar.

“We are very labor intensive in the summer,” he said. “At both centers we have shifts working from 7 in the morning to 10 at night. We have two staff shifts per day and three volunteer shifts a day, seven days a week.” Supervising the medical care are Dr. Darlene DeGhetto DVM and Dr. John Huckabee DVM.

Parker, who has been caring for animals either in rehabilitation centers or zoos for almost 30 years, including four years as a board member for the National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association, is the third director in the Wildlife Center’s history. He oversees a full-time year-round staff of 20, with another nine staff added for the summer months. Up to 20 volunteers a day come in to work in the centers, most of them in the Lynnwood facility.

PAWS’s Wildlife Centers have become a professional model for similar efforts to support wild animals throughout the country in the face of ever increasing contacts with humans, helping to establish a standard of care for free-living animals when they are in need of aid.

But that has not always been the case. Twenty years ago there really was no place like the PAWS Wildlife Center equipped to handle their care, and very few people who had any idea of even what to do. Curtis Clumpner, the founder of the Wildlife Center, was working as PAWS’ shelter manager at the time.

Curt said he felt like he was not making enough of a difference for the animals at the shelter alone and wanted to start a wildlife rehabilitation center.

“We would get calls about injured wildlife,” Curt recalled. “When people saw injured animals, they would think about PAWS.” At the time, he said, the best help for sick or injured wildlife was the Seattle Wild Bird Clinic, a solo operation run by an older woman out of her home. “She did her best,” Curt said, but there was not much that she was able to do.

Back in those early days of the movement to protect wildlife, Kip Parker said, no one had really developed the kind of expertise that the PAWS Wildlife Center has now. Like the Seattle Wild Bird Clinic, most of the work was falling to the few dedicated individuals who took it upon themselves to try to do something, usually from their homes.

At the time, PAWS was still a fairly small organization operating more or less on a shoestring budget. When Curt proposed converting the garage on the campus (which had served as the original companion animal shelter a decade earlier) to create a space dedicated to wildlife care, the PAWS board asked him to stay at the shelter half time in return for the building and a small amount of money for the new effort. So, in 1981, the PAWS Wildlife Center was born. (It was also known as HOWL—short for Help Our WildLife).

“The aim was to give the animals the best care that we could and to constantly be improving that care and to bring in veterinarians,” Curt said. In those first days, Curt was the entire wildlife center staff, along with help from long time volunteer, Debbie Johnson, and Mitchell Fox, who began working at PAWS around that time, primarily doing advocacy and outreach for the organization.

“When he first came to town, [Mitchell’s] very first task was helping me gut the garage and making it usable for wildlife,” Curt said. “Basically we took it down to the studs and cleaned it out as much as possible, then, without a whole lot of resources, put in some drywall and build some cages, and things like that.”

Professional assistance came from a couple of local vets, who would take time out from their regular practices to treat the animals that Curt or Debbie brought in to their offices. The first one to lend a hand was Dr. Larry Remick, at the Edmonds Veterinary Hospital. Later, Dr. Douglas Yearout, from the Lake Stevens area, was also recruited to help treat animals in need. In their first year, Curt and Debbie took care of 600 animals at the Wildlife Center, putting in as many volunteer hours as paid.

PAWS’ second paid staff member at the Wildlife Center was Jeanne Wasserman. Jeanne, an environmental writer for the alternative newspaper Northwest Passage, had spent some time working with animals in Los Angeles before moving back to the Seattle area. She said she knew she wanted to do more for the wildlife that was getting hurt by their contact with human populations, but until she met up with Curt, she did not know where that would be.

“I had been living in Los Angeles and working in a place called the Wildlife Way-station—it was more of a sanctuary for people’s exotic pets that were abandoned, like lions and tigers and things like that. But they also did a bit of rehab on the side. I had learned a bit about handling and raising some animals, although they didn’t necessarily do it like we did.”

Two or three years after the center officially opened its doors, on April 1, 1981, Jeanne came aboard. She started out as a volunteer, but in fairly short order managed to become so central to the efforts that they had to find a way to add her to the staff.

“We couldn’t really get money from PAWS for her, so the deal we made with the board was that she would somehow raise her own salary, and if she could somehow do that, that would be okay,” Curt recalled. “I’m not the sort of person who’s very good at going out and asking people for money, but Jeanne was very good at it.” Being in a band at the time herself, Jeanne knew the local music scene well enough to produce a series of benefits at the Rainbow Tavern and other local venues. She also had buttons made up that said “Howl Wildlife” which she would sell at the Folklife Festival, street fairs and the like.

“I had moved to Seattle and I was writing an environmental column,” Jeanne said. I heard about the PAWS Wildlife Center when I was interviewing somebody for an article—it was called HOWL back then. I just went up there and said, ‘Do you need any volunteer help?’”

Jeanne remembers that they learned a lot of things by trial-and-error, discovering what not to do as much as what would work out. But, even though they were working an extraordinary number of hours helping animals, they were stilly studying everything that could get their hands on to help them help the animals more effectively.

“I know Curt didn’t know much when he first started,” said Jeanne, “but he just got what information was out there and available. He went out of his way to contact other people to find out how do you raise raccoons, and how do you raise mergansers and how do you raise a baby beaver and what kind of caging do Great Horned Owls need? We went every year and we learned from those other people, as well as trying things ourselves,” she said.

“Then, we also had to learn about the natural histories of the animals so we were doing proper releases of the animals—what kind of habitat they needed and what time of year, what kind of diet while they were in captivity, what kind of caging was going to make them more comfortable so we could minimize the stress.”

Two national groups were formed by people involved with these efforts. In California there was the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, which was later joined by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, based in Illinois. Curt began collecting information and brochures from the other wildlife rehabilitation workers and attending the national meetings where they could share ideas and exchange information on what they had learned.

“Now, we’re one of the leaders in our field,” Jeanne said recently. “We feel an obligation to educate others and share our information. Today there’s so much more known about it than was known when we were first starting, but there’s still very little known about wildlife medicine and care, compared to what is known about domestic animals. So it still requires a bit of creativity and thinking out new ways of doing things.”

Along with his energy and commitment to the animals themselves, Jeanne said, one of the things that impressed her about Curt from the very start was his sense of professionalism. If PAWS was going to be involved in this kind of a mission, he was determined that they were going to do it right. When she first arrived on the scene, ready to lend a helping hand, Jeanne said, despite how overburdened and shorthanded they were at the time, there was a process to go through before she could start.

“Curt interviewed me and I don’t even know why he bothered,” she recalled. “But there was this level of professionalism right from the very beginning. He was so desperate,” she recalled, “I’m sure he wanted to put me to work right away. He had no volunteers but he’d take the time to interview me to see if he wanted me to volunteer there.

“We’ve always tried to be really professional about our approach,” she said. “Even before we had the resources that we needed, we did whatever we could to make that happen, and I think we did a really good job of it. We didn’t release animals that were habituated to people.”

Jeanne can still describe what the days were like in those first years in the converted garage.

“You would go in and the place was filled with the sounds of all the baby birds chirping and calling out, all of the crows calling out (they have an echo-ey call) and you’d get the raccoons crying and chirring. It was quite a cacophony of sounds, especially when you first got there in the morning and they were all just wanting to be fed.

“When I first started volunteering there,” Jeanne recalled, “it was very small, just two rooms—a small office room and the other room where we kept all the animals. It was really hellish to try to provide for all those animals. We would get there about 7 o’clock and I don’t even know when we would leave, it would be very late at night. In the summer months we probably wouldn’t leave until 8 or 9 at night, and then we would bring a bunch of animals home, and we would get up during the night to feed the ones that had to be fed during the night. Any time they needed vet care we loaded them up into a car and drove then to a vet,” she said.

“Then we’d also go out on calls as well, so we weren’t just taking care of the animals there,” she said. “I remember getting beavers that were caught in leghold traps and getting coyotes out of leghold traps. Every year there were baby ducks in the fountains at the Seattle Center and we’d have to go in there with our nets and get into the fountains and get the baby ducks out. It was ducks in the fountains downtown and animals that were hit by cars.”

Jeanne said most of the animals they were called upon to go and bring back in were either too dangerous for people bring in safely themselves, like an eagle that was down in their yard, or animals caught in some kind of predicament and had to be removed.

“One time I had to get a raccoon who’s paw was wedged in the junction of two branches of a tree,” she said. Every year from the time they opened their doors, the numbers of animals that needed care seemed to grow, but the space did not. “There were times back then when we would have well over 100 animals back in the very early days. Before we moved to the new building, we had well over 200 animals.

“The biggest challenge was not having enough time to care for all of those animals. One thing about the PAWS Wildlife Center was, no matter what our facilities were, or our lack of staff, we always did what we could to keep the animals wild and not have unnecessary contacts with them.”

Even feeding the larger animals was a challenge, according to Jeanne. “We had to find creative ways to give the animals enough food,” she said. “If they didn’t have all the grass they needed to graze on, we would go get a lot of blackberry branches and things like that. I think we did a really good job considering the circumstances. Looking back on it now, I really don’t know how we did it until we got through to a time when we had adequate staffing.

“We started recruiting volunteers and started to get them to come in and help out. That’s really made all the difference,” she said. “Now we have so many staff members and so many volunteers per animal, it’s really a different situation. We have volunteers working three different shifts. We also had the idea to start a student intern program, and that’s been really successful, too. We started out with just one person one year and now we have about 12 or 15 of them come every year.”

Nothing is ever as easy as it seems and sometimes success can become its own sort of burden. By the late 1980s, the Wildlife Center was caring for so many animals that they literally did not have the space necessary to accommodate all of the volunteers needed. Clearly, it had come time to try to move the facility to bigger quarters, but there were no buildings available on the site that would do. That was where Jeanne Wasserman’s talents as a fundraiser came in handy once again.

“We knew we couldn’t do the job we needed to do in that facility,” said Jeanne, “so we were also raising money at the same time. We were having a campaign at the same time. Mitchell Fox, who was working in the Advocacy Department, Curt and I were raising money to build a new center, while at the same time working with the animals.” They had a plan, she said, but like so many of their early efforts, it was a far cry from the kind of well organized capital campaigns that the organization is capable of mounting these days. The three produced a homemade videotape to show potential donors what they had accomplished and the handicaps they faced due to their limitations.

Their first success came in the form of a check from a single angel, which really got the campaign off the ground. From there they went out and approached the corporate community. Both the Boeing Company and Weyerhauser were major corporate donors to the project, and before too long, they had raised well over two-thirds of the $300,000 it would finally cost to build the present day wildlife care facility on the Lynnwood campus. By 1991, thanks to the courage of the board in taking out a mortgage to finish the job, they were well on their way to having the new, specially designed facility moving from the drawing boards to reality.

“After we got the new building it all fell into place,” said Jeanne. “We got a veterinarian on staff [named Florina Tseng] who had worked in private practice for a number of years on the East Coast and then had done a one-year internship at a wildlife center in Virginia. We hired her fresh from her internship. Suddenly we had some room and everything was clean, and there was room for the volunteers, as well.

“Our growth was pretty slow up until then, except for the animals,” Jeane noted. “Those numbers grew every year, but our support services and our ability to help them was pretty slow going until we got the new facility. Then we could take donors in and take in volunteers and interns and show them what a nice place it was to work. From that point on, I wouldn’t say it was smooth sailing, but it was certainly a lot easier to do the job we wanted to do. Particularly the larger mammals that we’ve been called on to care for more and more, like the bears, cougars, deer and elk, that require a lot more space and isolation from people than we can provide at that Lynnwood site.”

At the same time, other events were happening in the world that would have a major impact on the future of the PAWS Wildlife Center.

When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska, Curt was called upon by International Bird Rescue to come up and help organize the emergency treatment for the thousands of marine birds caught in the catastrophe. At the same time, he said, the job of running the growing center in Lynnwood was becoming more of a management position, leaving him less time to do the hands-on work with the animals which had drawn him in the first place. In 1991, Curt left the job as center director, passing the torch to Jeanne Wasserman, who remained there full-time until 1999.

“Jeanne sort of traded me in for a veterinarian,” Curt joked, “which was a good deal all around.” Jeanne stopped working full-time for PAWS in 2000, helping to recruit her replacement, Kip Parker. Jeanne currently works with Kip to help with long-term planning for the Wildlife Department.

In 1991, there was another oil spill, this one in Puget Sound, and the PAWS Center became the central waystation for oil-soaked birds from that disaster. Jeanne recalled that they had to empty out their basement level to make room for the emergency care.

One effect was that PAWS received a lot of media attention. One person who saw them on the news donated $20,000, with no strings attached. Jeanne used that money to hire Leslie McCracken as a part-time volunteer coordinator and to buy an x-ray machine for the center.

“Having somebody who’s job it was to recruit and train and retain volunteers was the turn-around point for the volunteer force.” With someone to design and oversee the volunteer program as her primary responsibility, the process became much more regular and people coming in could truly get what they needed to feel that they were making a real difference. Volunteers were assigned regular shifts, had specific duties and received specific training, at least once they started volunteering. “Once that happened,” Jeanne said, “volunteers also began to stay on longer because they felt that they were doing a better job.”

The commitment of the center staff to the volunteers has continued to be one of the hallmarks of the PAWS Wildlife Center and one of the reasons for its phenomenal success.

Sandra Garcia-Pelayo is one of the center’s most recent volunteers, having just started in April. While she has been an animal volunteer elsewhere before, she said she appreciates PAWS giving her the chance to do real hands-on work with the birds and other animals. “You basically get to do a little bit of everything and really see how the place is run and what they do. They’re really open about teaching you things and letting you ask questions,” Sandra said. It is an attitude echoed by veteran volunteer Berta Nicol-Blades of Seattle.

“The training is fabulous. Anything you want to do there, as long as you’re willing to pay your dues, so to speak,” Berta said. “My favorite part of the wildlife care is from 7 to 8 in the morning. That’s where you really get to work with the animals, to do medication rounds, weighing them—drawing up tubes and feeding them through the tubes.”

In addition to training and working with their volunteers, part of PAWS Wildlife Center’s education role is fulfilled through their internship program, bringing in veterinary and wildlife biology students to spend a summer working in wildlife rehabilitation. The process has helped not only to save wild creatures locally, but spurred the process throughout the country and had a positive impact on the whole world of wildlife care.

“There’s a whole crew of people who have gone out in the world that have spent time with us, and we’ve heard that it has made a large impact in their lives,” Jeanne pointed out with evident pride. “They’ll go out and teach other people as well. So a lot more wildlife is going to be helped all around the country and other parts of the world just because they’ve spent the summer with us.”

In 1999 PAWS Wildlife Department took over operations of Olympic Wildlife Rescue, a wildlife center west of Olympia in the town of McCleary. Olympic Wildlife Rescue, founded in 1986, had cared for about 15,000 animals from the South Puget Sound region. But by the late nineties the center was struggling to maintain an appropriate level of funding. The board of Olympic Wildlife Rescue asked for PAWS’s help, and shortly thereafter the center became PAWS Olympic Wildlife Center.

Though McCleary would seem like a remote location, perfect for reduced proximity to the sights, sounds, and smells of humans, it is actually adjacent to a busy state highway. PAWS is currently exploring the option of building a true remote facility, to care for sensitive species like bears, raptors, and deer in a stress-free environment.

Education is one of the priorities for not just PAWS, but for the field of wildlife rehabilitation as a whole, according to current director Kip Parker. “Rehabilitation is as much about education as it is about fixing the sick and injured animals,” said Kip. Whether the problems are a result of lead shot in the forests and water from hunters, or pesticide run-off from lawn and agriculture, he said, “most of the [problems] are symptoms of human-animal interactions,” he said.

“If we care for them and just let them go,” he said of the injured creatures, “then we’re just treating the symptoms.” Kip said people need to learn that a hands-off approach to wildlife is usually the best for all concerned. That is why PAWS is devoted not just to caring for the wild animals that are brought into the center, but getting the word out that feeding stations in the suburbs, which attract predators as well as songbirds and squirrels, and even letting house cats out to roam freely through the neighborhoods, are among the more serious problems facing the wild creatures that live close to human society.

To help with its commitment to wildlife education, PAWS has had a full-time wildlife advocate on staff since the mid-nineties. Stephanie Hillman, current Wildlife Advocate, was a strong leader in last year’s successful initiative to ban cruel traps, as well as a leader in the efforts to provide humane alternatives to USDA plans to kill Canada Geese in Seattle parks.

As for continuing the primary mission of helping as many animals as possible to heal and return to the wild, the Lynnwood center has once again outgrown its current site. Even with what Kip describes as “ a constant state of building,” adding outdoor enclosures for more birds and small mammals, and plans for four 4,500 gallon above-ground swimming pools for seals, otters and waterfowl, “we need to move all the people out and just devote this building to the animals.” One option PAWS is exploring is moving the Companion Animal Shelter and administration offices to a new location and making the entire Lynnwood campus a rehabilitation center for urban wildlife.

Regardless of how PAWS moves forward in the process, Kip Parker embodies the commitment PAWS made more than two decades ago to bridging the gap between humans and wildlife, and making the connection a safer one for the animals that we care about.

“I feel very passionately about wildlife rehabilitation,” he said. It is one area where everyone from hunters and fishers to animal rights activists and Fish and Wildlife professionals can reach common ground and begin to communicate together. “It’s like a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “And it fits everyone.”

PAWS receives no government funding for our wildlife rehabilitation work. We rely entirely on donations from people who love wild animals – people just like you!

Please donate now.

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