Southwest Environment

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Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
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Injured wild animals find shelter in Tucson

By Conor Quinlan
great horned owl

Photo by Conor Quinlan
A great horned owl recuperates at the Tucson Wildlife Center.

Arizona is home to an impressive array of animal species, but who cares for these animals if they’re injured and where do these wild animals go when crisis occurs? Local wildlife rehabilitation centers have accepted the responsibility of caring for many of them, from baby rabbits to Cooper’s hawks.

The Tucson Wildlife Center has javelinas, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, bats and hummingbirds, among many other species. Nearly every desert animal imaginable inhabits the dozens of cages and enclosures that cover the property on Speedway near Saguaro National Monument. Some animals look out from behind chain link fences while others, in more serious condition, rest in dog kennels. Flight cages spanning more than 100 feet house large predatory birds, including species of eagles, hawks and owls. Birds are among the most challenging animals to rehabilitate.

Baby bobcatPhoto by Conor Quinlan
A baby bobcat reaches out to touch the hand of the photographer.
Lisa Bates, executive director of the center, noted that hundreds of wild animals can be housed at a time. The rehab center has everything it needs on site, from a freezer full of mice for birds, offices to fill out the Arizona Game and Fish Department documents required for each animal, and an Intensive Care Unit and surgery room. Veterinarians are among the 77 volunteers who help keep the non-profit center running.

“You have to start out realizing that if you’re going to grow, you have to do it with your own blood, sweat and tears,” said Bates, who founded the center in 1998.

Injured wildlife is more common than many would guess. Forever Wild Animal Rehabilitation Center, located about eight miles east of the airport, accepts about 2,400 animals a year, Forever Wild founder Darlene Braastad said. Spring is the busiest time, with up to 30 wild animals coming in a day – some of them babies brought in with good intentions by people who mistakenly thought they were abandoned.

After an injured or immature animal is brought to the facility, volunteers go through an intense and involved process to recover and release the animals. This process can take anywhere from a few days to months for each animal, depending on the extent and severity of the injury.

The majority of birds of prey at the Tucson Wildlife Center are hawks and owls with injured wings. Most are large, with razor-sharp beaks and vicious claws that could easily tears through flesh. Volunteers use heavy leather gloves to handle and feed these nervous birds, as they will bite and scratch in an attempt to escape the clutches of the rehabbers. The most common bird of prey that wildlife rehab centers receive is the Cooper’s hawk, which volunteers know as a small but feisty bird that will make every effort to dodge capture even to eat.

So how do birds like the Cooper’s hawk and other wildlife end up in rehabilitation?

“Birds frequently fly into windows,” explained William Mannan, a University of Arizona professor who directs the Wildlife & Fisheries Resources program in the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment. A sudden crash into a car window or a shock from a power line often injures them badly without killing them.  “The bigger bodied birds – great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Harris hawks – all are susceptible to electrocution.”

Once they’re in rehab, how and when do they get released?

Before birds of prey are released, the centers must follow a specific process.Great Horned Owl
Photo by Conor Quinlan
Great horned owls recuperate in a hand-constructed cage at the Tucson Wildlife Center.

”They go from surgery to holding pens. Then, when they’re ready … and all the casts are off, they go into the flight cage,” Bates explained. “After a week or so we put a volunteer at each end and fly him for ten minutes. If he can recover his breathing within two minutes, he is fit to go out.”

The flight cage stretches about 100 feet in length and is a necessity for predatory birds to get fit for release. A red-tailed hawk can fly 20 to 40 miles in a single hour. The fastest bird of prey in the world, the peregrine falcon, can reach speeds exceeding 200 mph when diving for prey. Therefore, in order for birds of prey to be released, it is important that they are not only fully healed but also have the energy to live and fly in the harsh desert environment.

At least 20 percent of the animals brought to the center are impossible to release back into the wild due to the severity of their injuries, Bates indicated. Most of these have to be euthanized because they wouldn’t survive in the wild anyway. But every so often, the rehab facilities adopt a wild animal to use for educational purposes.

A large Harris hawk named Hopi has been Forever Wild’s “Wildlife Ambassador” for more than three years now. After receiving a serious injury to its wing, the bird of prey was not fit enough to be released back into the wild and was taken in by Braastad.

Cooper's hawk in flight
Photo by Conor Quinlan
A Cooper’s hawk takes flight at the Sonoran Desert Museum during a raptor flight show.

“Hopi has wit, charm and style” – the three attributes most sought-after in a wildlife ambassador, Braastad noted. Hopi now spends his days being observed by the multitudes of people interested in the science behind these beautiful birds.

The joy of working with these animals helps sustain the directors and their volunteers through the challenging work of keeping the facilities running and taking in animals daily.

“You have to have accountants doing everything right when you’re getting donation money and you have to have it spot-on for the IRS,” Bates said. “With Game and Fish, all your paperwork that goes in, you have to have it all right and all your permits in place, and you have to renew them all the time, so [there is] much work involved.”

With all of the extensive equipment needed to run a rehab center properly, would government funding be a good thing for rehabilitation centers?

Lisa Bates is skeptical: “I’m not real big on big government anyway because if the funding disappears, and the state goes broke, where are you? You’re stuck and you have lives that are depending on you. You can’t just close down. If the people can do it for themselves, it’s probably the most stable situation.”

Mannan understands these concerns, but suggests that it would be appropriate for Game and Fish to provide funding at least for equipment and construction.

“If they had more money they’d be able to do a better job, (have) money to build cages,” Mannan said. “Care can be improved but money is the limiting factor.”

With the government providing no funding, what helps local rehab centers most today is the general public. It is volunteers from the community that Lisa Bates and Darlene Braastad rely on to care for the animals and keep their centers up and running. As Bates said, “I’m big on learning how to survive on your own and the goodness of the people in the community that want to see animals get rescued.”

One of the greatest joys for volunteers is to see a bird of prey, such as the Cooper’s hawk, that has regained its health and strength enough to be released back into the wild.

“Greater than 80 percent of treatable animals are released back into the wild,” noted Bates.

When the time comes, the hawk is transported to the same area in which it was found. Finally, with a quick good-bye, the volunteer throws the bird gently in to the air and allows it to, once again, enjoy the freedom of the vast deserts of Tucson.

Conor Quinlan is a University of Arizona student in wildlife conservation and a nature photographer. He volunteered for two years at a different wildlife rehabilitation center in Northwest Tucson.


Tucson Wildlife Center

Forever Wild Animal Rehabilitation Center

Moments of Nature Photography by Conor Quinlan

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