March 20th marks the time of year when the hours of darkness roughly equal the hours of light; when the sun crosses over the equator in its slow progression north from the Southern Hemisphere. After a long winter, we all applaud the Vernal Equinox, ushering in spring’s longer days and warmer temperatures. The various melodies of songbirds are a welcome sign of things to come.
Spring, the season of rebirth, usually April, May and June, brings a flurry of activity to the diverse mosaic of habitats—mountain tops, river valleys, wetlands, lakes, ocean—across the Pacific Northwest. Humans shake off winter’s cobwebs and replace heavy coats and boots with jackets, tennis shoes and sandals. Being outside in the sun, taking in some Vitamin D, lifts everyone’s spirits.
Watching wildlife, one of the most popular types of outdoor recreation in the Northwest, as well as the rest of the country, is popular throughout the year, but the springtime is the time to see young animals. The antics of wild youngsters often make us smile as we cheer them on as they learn what to eat, what to avoid and where to live.
Every spring I am always keen to get out, especially early in the morning, to take in all the “wild” activity. My dogs are usually with me, so I keep a vigilant eye on them; they are curious and busy checking out all of the activity, too. In my neck of the woods, I am prepared for fawns quietly curled up in the tall grass or under a bush, songbirds darting off a nest full of eggs, a mother moose with calf just off the road (best to make an abrupt about face here) and an assortment of other moms and babies. The rule around my place, except in very rare circumstances, is to let babies be. Even though it may appear they are on their own, I know mom is close by. By the time we get around to our evening walk, the babies have reconnected with mom and have moved on.
Often when people come across a wild baby, their initial thought is that the baby has been abandoned. This is rarely the case. Mom is usually close by feeding, resting or finding food for the baby; after all, she needs to take care of herself in order to take care of her baby. You may not see mom, but she may be keeping an eye on you. It is normal for a young animal to lay quietly hidden, sometimes for an extended amount of time. In some cases, mom staying away is a protective measure; the baby doesn’t have any scent but mom does, which may draw predators to the baby she is trying to protect. Also, keep in mind that mothers can be protective and may become aggressive if they interpret your behavior as predatory. Kidnapping the baby not only causes angst for the mother, but it also reduces the likelihood that the baby will survive.
In the rare case where there is certainty that the mother is not coming back, orphaned or injured wild animals can be taken to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Skilled rehabilitators are adept at assessing and repairing injuries. However, many of these animals arrive in poor condition, and proper nutrition is critical for the animal to thrive and recover. Young animals that do survive typically lack survival skills and may have lost the fear of humans.
Kathleen St. Clair-McGee, founder of American Heritage Wildlife Foundation in Clark Fork, Idaho, is a registered rehabilitator who works primarily with nongame animals. St. Clair-McGee is very cognizant of the negative effects that excess human contact brings, so she and her dedicated volunteers are specifically trained to limit animal-human interactions to prevent imprinting. Additionally, American Heritage has uniquely designed facilities that follow national guidelines to minimize human contact. The goal is to return rehabbed animals, which must be physically and mentally ready, back to the wild. “A 35-percent release rate is good,” says St. Clair-McGee. “We often exceed 30-percent.”
Wildlife rehabilitation is a 24/7 job. “May through August and sometimes into September are the busiest months,” says St. Clair-McGee. “The average number of hours spent caring for the animals is about 4,000 a year, about 80 hours per week. Some animals need to be fed every 15 minutes for 16 hours a day.”
In 2016, American Heritage took in 80 different cases, consisting of 121 individuals and comprising 38 different species. The average number of cases per year is 50. It is a lifestyle that requires knowledge of species’ specific natural history, diet, rehabilitation requirements and caging. St. Clair-McGee’s years of experience working at the Dallas Zoo and Western North Carolina Nature Center provides a solid base for the life of a wildlife rehabilitator.
St. Clair-McGee networks with other rehabilitators who are licensed, permitted and qualified. Networking with other facilities keeps the animals’ best interest in mind when an individual needs to be transferred to a rehabber who specializes in species-specific care. Mystic Farms in Sagle specializes in caring for deer. Birds of Prey Northwest in St. Maries has highly skilled rehabbers who work with all species of raptors. State and federal permits are required to house and care for these animals. It is against the law to keep wild animals captive.
The financial commitment to rehabilitate wild animals is substantial. American Heritage, like most wildlife rehabilitation facilities, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported entirely by donations, personal funds and grants. St. Clair-McGee explains, “American Heritage needs about $10,000 a year just to care for the animals. Grants can’t be used for operational purposes.” Therefore, garnering community support and being creative help fill some of the funding gaps. On the American Heritage website (AHWF.org), she lists a number of ways the public can contribute. In addition to the website, illustrated children’s books, that St. Clair-McGee created, are sold locally to raise funds.
St. Clair-McGee founded American Heritage 14 years ago to focus on wildlife rehabilitation, but also to provide educational programs. Her long-term goal is to develop a nature center that would offer educational summer camps for fifth- and sixth-graders and wildlife seminars for the public, including what to do when you cross paths with young animals.
In a world dominated by technology, nature centers and outdoor education programs have become a lifeline to the natural world, especially for children. In 2005, a book by Richard Louv titled Last Child in the Woods, documented the gap between children and the outdoors. Louv links the knowledge of nature shortfall, what he calls nature-deficit, with childhood trends like obesity, attention disorders and depression. He recommends, for the physical and emotional health of children and adults, spending time outside on a regular basis.
Since Louv’s book was published, connecting with nature has become important to many families, and schools have incorporated visits to nature centers and educational organizations into the science curriculum. Nature centers offer diverse environmental education programs, exhibits, classes and training for children, families, school groups and adults. Educational programs use creativity and imagination to create unique outdoor experiences.
Since 2004, Harbor WildWatch, an exceptional marine environmental education organization in Gig Harbor, Washington, has used creativity and imagination to craft exhibits focusing on the marine life in Puget Sound. For many people, aquatic environments are unfamiliar, and they are completely unaware of what goes on beneath the water’s surface. Harbor WildWatch offers a variety of unique interactive activities for all ages that are designed to be educational and fun, and get people excited about the marine environment.
Founder DeeDee Holser wanted to share her wonder and fascination of the diverse marine life found in Puget Sound. Holser started with a few touch tanks, which are shallow tanks containing marine organisms such as moon snails and nudibranchs that you can touch while learning about each species. Holser’s programs were so popular that Harbor WildWatch partnered with the City of Gig Harbor to move into the historic Skansie House where, in the first year, nearly 30,000 visitors took in more than 600 educational programs. Activities have expanded to include science workshops in the classroom, junior naturalist and citizen science-training programs, and college internships. Additionally, the organization produced Puget Sound’s Wildside, a natural history reference, and placed interpretive natural history signs in parks along Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula describing local marine life.
I talked with Jennifer Beard, a development associate with Harbor WildWatch, about the re-opening of the Skansie Visitor Interpretive Center, which took place on March 2. “Harbor WildWatch was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Ben B. Cheney Foundation, which allowed the organization to improve exhibits.” The Cheney Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the Cheney Lumber Company, focuses their giving in communities where they were historically active. After a year of planning, the new exhibits are bringing visitors to Skansie Brothers Park to experience Gig Harbor’s natural and cultural history firsthand.
A new touch tank is the cornerstone of the exhibits, giving a nod to the initial educational outreach programs that Holser put in place. “The new touch tank in the Skansie House is a larger, more permanent version of what we offer during the Summer Sounds concerts and the Waterfront Farmer’s Market,” says Lindsey Stover, executive director of Harbor WildWatch. Visitors can now get to know a variety of marine animals by touching them year round.
“Adults and children love to dip a finger in to feel the sturdy exterior of a sea star, or the squishy spikes of a sea cucumber, or experience the quick reflexes of a feather duster tube worm,” says Beard.
In addition to the touch tank, and taking advantage of a tech-savvy public, a state-of-the-art, hands-on “sandbox” allows visitors to create their own watershed by digging rivers, lakes and bays, or piling sand into hills and mountains. Once “construction” is complete, virtual rain falls across the landscape collecting in the newly constructed topography. The sandbox provides an excellent opportunity to learn about watersheds and how what happens in the broader landscape effects Puget Sound. Another fun exhibit features live underwater video that allows visitors to see what is swimming and crawling around Gig Harbor Bay. Many other fun, educational displays and projects, some on a rotating basis, will keep children and adults busy for hours and adhere to Harbor WildWatch’s motto: Learn. Have Fun.
So, as we switch our wool hats to ball caps and head outside to enjoy springtime’s sun, warmth and longer days, remember to give wild mothers a break, and don’t kidnap their babies. Let fawns quietly wait for their mother to return, count the eggs in the nest and quickly move on so mom can get back to keeping them warm, and if you run into momma moose with her busy little calf, do an abrupt about face and head in another direction. Make it a priority to get out in the woods or take a hike to a high mountain lake and cast a line. Learn something new at one of the many wildlife refuges and educational interpretive and nature centers in your area.