In September 1998, a 30-foot-long container holding the killer whale Keiko was loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster bound for Iceland.
The star of the 1993 film “Free Willy,” Keiko grew up in aquariums and amusement parks before attention from the hit Warner Brothers movie led to Keiko’s relocation to the Oregon Coast Aquarium. A massive campaign was undertaken to eventually return the orca whale to the wild, and by 2002, four years after leaving Oregon, Keiko was finally free.
But despite the extensive and expensive effort to help him, Keiko never integrated back into a pod of whales. He showed up in Norway engaging with children just months after his release, and died in December 2003, having failed to fully adapt to noncaptive living.
Rescues of other whales, however, have been more successful. This includes Springer, an orphaned orca from British Columbia who was reintegrated into her Northern Resident orca pod in the summer of 2002, following a period of rehabilitation.
Most recently, members of the Lummi and Seminole tribes have lobbied for the release of Tokitae, the last surviving L-pod killer whale taken in the l960s from Puget Sound and living at Miami’s Seaquarium for decades under the name Lolita.
Substantial debate has occurred over whether the 50-plus-year-old whale can transition back to wild living. The story is emblematic of human efforts to “save” wild animals that have been taken from the wild.
From large to small
While rehabilitation and release efforts like Keiko’s attract international headlines, smaller ones play out daily without cameras or fanfare.
In Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties, only one professional wildlife rehabilitation facility exists: the Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (WRC). Located about seven miles northeast of Bellingham, a seven-person staff operates a wildlife hospital that sees an average of 3,000 patients each year.
An average winter day at the facility sees 20 to 30 animals, while summer days might see upwards of 200. About 75% of animals admitted to WRC (excluding those who must be euthanized immediately) are successfully released after treatment, said manager Alysha Evans.
“The reason we exist is basically to offset human impact,” said Evans, a licensed veterinary technician and permitted wildlife rehabilitator who’s one of four full-time staff.
The clinic operates under state and federal permits enabling it to legally care for a wide assortment species of wild animals, including marine mammals as allowed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Clinic stays vary widely from animal to animal but are limited to 180 days. Extensions may be granted for specific animals by the clinic’s regulatory bodies, however.
A juvenile beaver, for instance, stays with its family up to two years while being raised, Evans said. If one came to the WRC, it would require longer-term lodging before exiting captivity.
Animals arrive at WRC in one of two ways: a concerned citizen brings them in, or someone calls WRC to initiate a field rescue.
Typically, the clinic sees a lot of songbirds, raptors such as owls and eagles, deer, squirrels, opossums and raccoons. Less common are mammals like bears and bobcats, or seabirds like loons and mergansers. Reptiles and amphibians also make rare appearances, Evans said.
The facility cannot take escaped or abandoned domestic animals due to its permitting, meaning that commonly feral creatures like turkeys, peacocks and even some rabbits must be taken to animal shelters instead.
Previously wild animals that people have illegally and unsuccessfully tried to care for, however, can and do visit WRC.
“We get a handful of raccoons every year, and squirrels, that people have taken upon themselves to keep and raise, and then release,” Evans said. “Those animals do not fare well, so then they end up coming to us.”
Once a critter enters the WRC, vets immediately examine it and determine whether to order any diagnostic services like bloodwork or x-rays. If an animal is determined to be critically ill, it is euthanized as soon as possible to limit suffering.
For those deemed fit for treatment, a very individualized protocol begins. This includes figuring out needed medications, any surgeries, and diet and housing plans.
“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all,” Evans said. “Every single patient is different, just because of the reasons they come in and their species. We wouldn’t give a northern flying squirrel a pool, whereas a beaver we would.”
Once medical treatment is completed, animals enter a pre-release phase to complete rehabilitation. Animals are assessed in large outdoor enclosures, which are heavily regulated based on what species will be inside them. Regulations cover the size, materials and objects inside the enclosures, Evans said.
If WRC staff see progress in an animal’s health and behavior, it is then subject to a pre-release examination. This thorough checklist determines if a creature is moving normally, eating properly, and showing other normal behaviors. If an animal usually hunts or must evade predators, is it able to?
Numerous other factors determine if an animal can be released, Evans added. This includes whether an animal is old enough to be returned to the wild alone, as well as the time of year, the daily weather, and even the time of day.
It is also important to consider where the animal is being released, and whether any special permission needs to be obtained from other parties. Some animals may also need to be collared or banded.
Then, and only then, is a release conducted.
“It can take two days, it can take six months,” Evans said of the entire process. “It just depends on what’s going on with that animal.”
A forever home
What about an animal — a bird that can’t fly, for instance — that cannot be reintroduced to the wild?
The answer again depends on multiple factors, but is generally limited to two options: captive placement or euthanization.
Animals are usually deemed unfit to return to the wild for serious medical issues or traumatic injuries, Evans said. The WRC works with state fish and wildlife to place an animal into a permanent captive setting, like a conservation center or sanctuary.
Not all animals make this transition, however. Evans said invasive species like opossums and some squirrels don’t have many options if they can’t be returned to nature. Subsequently, there may be laws regarding a specific species’ captivity or release, especially if the species is endangered or threatened.
There is also the basic consideration of what captivity means for the animal.
“Taking a bald eagle that’s been soaring hundreds of miles, chopping part of its wing off and putting it in a cage is a horrible quality of life,” she said. “These animals are wild. They do not want to be in captivity.”
For those rehabbed animals that cannot find a place to live, euthanasia is the only option.
Animals that wind up at conservation centers and sanctuaries are not only cared for, but sometimes become part of educational programs as “animal ambassadors,” Evans says. Those chosen to help educate have often developed bonds and habits with humans that make them ideal choices for such positions, she added.
Some animals can also be used as foster parents. An owl that’s suited to captivity can be used to foster baby owls brought to the same facility, helping naturally raise them until they’re ready to be released.
A few safe places
In the Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan county region, a few professional wildlife rehabilitation facilities exist.
On San Juan Island, Wolf Hollow has cared for a wide variety of wild mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians since opening in 1983.
In Whatcom, Ferndale’s Sardis Raptor Center rehabilitates and releases birds of prey like owls, hawks and bald eagles, but the facility only recently began accepting new patients after closing in May 2022 due to avian influenza concerns.
In Skagit County, the Anacortes-based conservatory Predators of the Heart (POTH) cares for about 100 animals — 52 different species — on a 10-acre property. There are 15 wolves, as well as bobcats, lynx, cougars, opossums, alligators and even South American animals such as sloths, anteaters and parrots.
The nonprofit began in 1998 as a traveling educational exhibit, but now engages solely in virtual education programs to avoid stressing its animals with travel and groups of children.
Ashley Carr, the nonprofit’s executive director, said animals are placed at POTH through animal control organizations and government agencies. These animals also cannot be released into the wild — not because they lack survival skills, but because they’re too acclimated to human activity to stay away from it.
“We’re here to give an animal a ‘forever home’ so that it doesn’t have to be euthanized,” Carr said. “We are the place for them to come so that they can just live out the rest of their life, peacefully and with respect.”
The human hand
Whether the animal is as large as a whale or as small as an owl, its rescue, rehabilitation and return to the wild requires time, skill, space — and funding.
Whatcom’s WRC moved to its present location in the summer of 2021, giving it much better lodgings than its previous one: an old, cramped house off the Mount Baker Highway near Nugents Corner.
The move was made possible by private support and donations, as the WRC receives no city, county or state funding.
At POTH the situation is similar. Without donations, the organization would cease to exist. Carr said a growing social media platform has expanded the facility’s donor base far beyond local borders, which is especially important while the facility is weathering several storms.
POTH is likely to eventually depart Skagit County for another Washington location. A $1.6 million fundraising effort for relocation is underway; as of press time, it’s raised nearly $42,000.
As for what to do when encountering a wild animal in need of attention, Evans said calling the WRC first is a great idea. A phone call can answer questions about whether it’s safe to transport the animal yourself, or even if the animal needs help in the first place. Some animals, she added, may appear injured or abandoned but are just carrying out natural behaviors.
“Safety is our biggest concern for sure,” she said.
After all, wild animals are, by definition, wild.
— Reported by Matt Benoit