When wild animals are injured, sick or abandoned, it’s Project Wildlife to the rescue
By Sarah Sapeda & Chase Scheinbaum
Photos By Paul Body
This winter, a group of five juvenile raccoons were brought to Project Wildlife, a program of San Diego Humane Society, in the Morena area. The circumstances that landed them there were unknown—they may have been abandoned, orphaned by a predator or vehicle, or somehow separated from their mother—but their history was no concern to compassionate staffers and volunteers. The kits were fed and kept safe until strong enough to forage on their own, then packed up and taken to a quiet spot close to where they were found. The carrier doors were opened and the young raccoons cautiously explored the area, then scampered off into the brush.
NOW, WHO’S NEXT?
“We just keep seeing more and more wildlife coming through our doors,” says Lauren DuBois, Project Wildlife’s director of rehabilitation. In 2018 alone, the program cared for 12,594 animals.
When Project Wildlife got its start in 1972, it was just a handful of volunteers who saw a need. Much of the fledgling nonprofit’s animal rehabilitation work was done from volunteers’ homes. In 2000, it moved into a 1,100-square-foot trailer on San Diego Humane Society’s Sherman Street property. The bigger (but still tight) space focused on triage, while continued care was still outsourced to specially trained in-home rehabbers. “The animal would come in, get treated for whatever injury they had, then go directly into home care,” DuBois says.
Although Project Wildlife and SDHS were now neighbors, the agencies mainly kept to themselves. Project Wildlife saw modest expansion over the years, adding a medical unit housed in an RV and a few outdoor areas, but it wasn’t until the two nonprofits merged in 2014 that Project Wildlife could take its commitment to helping the region’s animals to the next level. It’s now one of the largest wildlife rehabilitation programs in the country. SDHS teaches volunteers all about local animal species (There are 320 in San Diego County!) and what it takes to care for a wild animal in their home. It’s a big responsibility. Unlike foster caregivers for companion animals, wildlife rehabilitators have the added challenge of meeting the animal’s basic needs without it becoming accustomed to human interaction.
HOW THEY DO IT
“A lot of the animals we get in are babies that just need some time, and to be fed two, three or four times a day, until they get to a size where they can be on their own,’’ DuBois says. Volunteers must limit contact with the animals and keep them separate from family areas. “Once they’re habituated to people, they might not be able to be released.”
It can be a tough job, but it’s worth it to know that the animal has a second chance. “I have a soft spot for ducklings,” DuBois says. “When the little ducklings get to be released into a nice pond—that’s always fun. It’s amazing to see them go out. They preen and flock together, go into the reeds and disappear.”
Teaching San Diegans to coexist with wild animals is a big part of the Project Wildlife program, too. Animals who can’t be released, for whatever reason, become “Animal Ambassadors,” visiting schools, community groups and events with their handlers to spread the word on conservation. “All these animals are in our backyard, whether we see them or not,” DuBois says. “Whatever we do can have an impact on them, and they have an impact on us as well.”
Now the Project Wildlife program has the space it needs to spread its wings. In March, the 5,200-square-foot Pilar & Chuck Bahde Wildlife Center opened to much fanfare, and Project Wildlife was ready, having doubled its staff and hired its first full-time veterinarian. Although it still enlists satellite and home-care volunteers due to the sheer number of animals in need, the transition into the new center allows staff to evaluate and treat more wildlife in-house. In a county as biologically diverse as San Diego, the extra room is much appreciated. “Each animal plays an important role in making up this ecosystem,” DuBois says, “so it’s crucial we take care of them.”