Bay Area wildlife rescue center caring for record number of injured or orphaned animals

PETALUMA, Calif. (KGO) -- Mealtime is always busy at Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Center. In fact, it actually lasts almost all day because there are so many hungry mouths to feed. But this year, the staff and volunteers have been busier than ever.

The rescue center accepts almost all kinds of injured or orphaned wildlife, including birds, from all over Sonoma County. Usually, by October, the team has taken in about a thousand animals, but this year they have already cared for 250 more than that.

RELATED: Here's who to contact if you find wildlife in distress around the Bay Area

Wildlife Support coordinator Desiree McGunagle guesses the increase may be due to improved staffing of the animal rescue hotline, which now operates from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week.

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue is in Petaluma on a hillside above Mecham Road. The non-profit center is licensed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, on property owned by Sonoma County. The rescue group does not pay rent but instead provides critical wildlife services to the county.

MORE INFO: More than just a pretty face-- opossums have superpowers
EMBED More News Videos

Opossums are one of the most commonly injured or orphaned animals brought to bay area wildlife rescue groups.

Most of the funding for animal care and medical expenses comes from private donations. The annual budget is usually about $700,000, but this year it is on track to be closer to $900,000 because of the increased number of animals coming in and needed improvements.

On the day ABC7 News was at the rescue center, the hospital was packed with baby squirrels. Some were so young their eyes were still closed. Baby squirrels have impressive appetites and have to be bottle fed special formula five times a day. They won't be released until they can open nuts on their own.

Executive Director Doris Duncan says the goal is always to release wild animals back to the wild if at all possible. With young or injured animals, getting them healthy is just the first step, then there is what she calls "pre-release conditioning." Duncan explains "We have to teach them how to forage and find their own food. We never serve them food in a bowl or dish. We always hide it from them and they learn how to go out and find it on their own."

This year the center has rescued more opossums than any other kind of animal. Opossums are actually not native to California, but many animal experts consider them an important creature to encourage because they have a lot of environmental benefits. McGunagle says opossums are amazing.

"They eat up to 4,000 ticks in a week, effectively protecting us from Lyme disease and our pets from getting Lyme disease. And they are really wonderful at eating rodents (including) mice."

Even though opossums can look scary, they are not generally aggressive and have a low body temperature, so they almost never contract rabies. Opossums "have so many superpowers, everybody here is trying to get everyone on the opossum bandwagon!" according to McGunagle.

Part of Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue's mission is to teach people how to keep themselves and their livestock safe, while still allowing wildlife to thrive. They have a barnyard demonstration area with activities for children and education for adults about predator proofing your home or barn.

Assistant Animal Care Director Katie Woolery says humans are constantly infringing on wild animals' habitat. She believes, "it's important to educate people about how important it is to keep all our species because they are all very important to keeping our eco-system together."

Most of the wild animals are cared for out of public view to keep them as wild as possible before they are released. However, there are a few animals not suitable for release that live at the facility permanently as part of the public education program.

Those animals include a couple of half-dog/half-wolves that were bred to be pets. Duncan says that is a misguided idea. Wolf-dogs seem gentle, but can not be fully trusted around people and are not safe to have at home.

"Part of the animal thinks it's wild and part of the animal thinks it's domestic," Duncan said.

Happily, about 70-percent of the animals that end up at the rescue center are eventually released, thanks to an extremely dedicated staff and volunteers.

"Every time you can help an animal, every time you see a human being taking care of an animal, and bringing all the love they bring here to care for the animals. That's what keeps me going!" said Duncan, who has worked at the rescue center for 20 years.

Sonoma County Wildlife Life Center offers some services for a fee including humane, non-lethal removal of wildlife living in or under your home, predator proofing consultation at your property, and a barn owl program for pest control at vineyards or in backyards.

To donate or get information, go here.
Copyright © 2022 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.