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Livin’ The (Wild) Life At New Mexico Wildlife Center

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

We paid a visit last week to the New Mexico Wildlife Center (NMWC) in in Española, New Mexico. The center — a combination of a wild animal hospital and rehabilitation facility and an open-air native wildlife housing more than 35 “ambassador animals” (those who for multiple reasons are unreleasable but are living their best lives with NMWC) — is located on a serene 20 acre parcel of land nestled between Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges and bordered by BLM land accented by striking mesas and desert shrubbery. The focus of our visit was to get acquainted with Executive Director Matthew Miller and his eight staff members and to see firsthand what it takes to successfully rescue, treat, rehabilitate and release nearly 1,000 injured animals of more than 120 species annually, and nearly 30,000 animals since its inception in 1986. (And let’s be honest, we were excited to see some wild animals!)

The NMWC mission is one we at DPFF resonate with deeply: “to connect people and wildlife for an abundant tomorrow.” Their focus is not only to treat and release animals that have been injured but to reconnect humans and animals, educating the public on how we can live together safely and in harmony. In a world where humans are increasingly encroaching on animal habitats and changes in global weather patterns are threatening the balance of these fragile ecosystems, the mission of NMWC and the work they are doing has never been more essential. We spoke with Matthew and his team about how they operate on a day-to-day basis to treat and rehabilitate the steady stream of animals they take in and also learned about what they are envisioning for the future, so the center can continue to expand its efforts as the need for their services continues to grow.

Learning the Landscape

On the day of our visit in mid-May, the facilities were still closed to the general public (with exception of scheduled outdoor visits), which it had been for 14 months due to Covid. But there was a flurry of activity as the staff was preparing for a free grand re-opening event on May 29. There was excitement in the air and an energy of doing and multitasking, as the staff (whom it appears wear many hats) moved quickly enough to keep up with the multitude and variety of tasks they happily conquer every day. In addition to welcoming us, the staff was busy reorganizing the lobby area to prepare for their guests at the reopening — a modest but critical room in the main building that houses a variety of ambassador animals and serves the important purpose of separating the public, educational side of the center from the hospital side, which is closed to the public to protect the rescued animals and ensure the sensitive processes of treating and rehabilitating them can be carried out safely.

Matthew introduced us to Dawn Wright, the office manager on paper, but a superwoman in reality, and Jessica Schlarbaum, the site manager and volunteer coordinator whom Matthew describes as a “Jane of All Trades and Master of All” (we think she should get some new business cards made!) Jessica, who joined us on our tour, is instrumental in the daily operations on both the educational and hospital sides of the business. On the day of our visit, she was helping out in the hospital wing where the staff was teaming up to feed the nearly 15 baby birds they had on location that day — a process that requires feeding each bird by dropper every 15-60 minutes, depending on the bird’s age, from 7am until 8pm.

“The spring is our ‘crazy season,’” she told us, explaining that this is the time when many baby animals are found abandoned and are brought in to NMWC. According to Jessica, 2020 was a record year for intakes, which she suspects was partly due to more people being home due to the pandemic, with extra time and awareness placed on the animals around their homes.

The majority of intakes, which come from all across New Mexico, are brought in by the general public, people who witness animal injuries or find injured animals in the wild. Songbirds injured by house cats and injured or abandoned squirrels are some of the most common intakes, Jessica said, but they also get calls from Animal Control and the NM Department of Game & Fish. While the NMWC, which was founded by local veterinarian Dr. Kathleen Ramsay in 1986, began as a rescue center for birds specifically, they have expanded to accept wildlife of all species, from birds of prey and songbirds to reptiles and snakes, and a variety of mammals, like rabbits, deer and squirrels.

The animals that come to NMWC are sometimes sick or injured in the wild, but often they are hurt after colliding with the human population — be it a car accident, injuries from a run in with cats and dogs, flying into a glass window, or even being electrocuted by faulty wires. The folks at NMWC have surely seen it all, but regardless of the injury, their mission is clear: to treat, rehabilitate and release the animals back to the wild, whenever possible.

The Intake & Rehabilitation Process

On the day of our visit, there were 68 patients in hospital care. While the hospital section is closed to the general public in order to limit animal contact with humans, we were fortunate enough to get a behind-the-scenes look at the facility and hear from the wildlife rehabilitator on duty, Hilary DeVries, and the newly-hired veterinarian Dr. Sarah Sirica, what the processes and challenges are to examining and treating a wild animal.

“The goal is always release,” Jessica explained, adding that in order to rehabilitate an animal effectively they must be very careful to avoid human imprinting. Young animals can imprint on humans when they are touched and fed by humans or interact with them socially. Once human imprinted, an animal can lose its natural instincts, mistaking itself as human, or mistaking humans as their own species (we don’t really know which way it appears to the animal), and rendering the animal unreleasable.

Currently the hospital intake section is housed in one big room, with a single examination table next to a laboratory counter where tests are conducted. When an animal comes in, it is assessed for injuries, and vitals and samples are taken to improve the animal’s prognosis and fine-tune the plan for rehabilitation care. Depending on the species and condition of the animal, it is then moved to an indoor rehabilitation room or to a rehabilitation mew, or enclosure, in the outdoor hospital area. The bird mews, for example, range in size for birds of different species or stage of recovery. As birds progress in their healing process they are moved to bigger mews where they have more room to fly.

Often times x-rays are needed, and Dr. Sirica explained that the machine they have now is what she calls an “ancient” machine. It uses film, whereas modern x-ray machines are digital. This means that animals are required to lie in the machine for longer (sedated if possible, to limit stress and pain), and because they cannot instantly see the images, it may mean the animal has to return for a second round of imaging if they didn’t get the angle right the first time.

Another challenge for the rehabilitation team is noise — wild animals are noisy, especially when in pain and under duress, as are humans. While separated from the offices and lobby by a hallway and closed door, the team has to be careful to limit speaking and other noise, which can stress the animals and negatively impact their rehabilitation process. The center has hopes to remodel the hospital area, including soundproofing the intake area (which would keep human noise out of the room and also protect the adjacent hospital rooms, which house patients in recovery, from the noise of the intake room) and separating the lab area from the intake table, so that lab work can be done at the same time as examinations.

Remodeling improvements like this would make a world of difference for the hospital, Dr. Sirica told us. She showed us to the surgery suite, which was recently remodeled after they received funding from a generous donor for the project. The surgery table and tools were brand new, and the room was well organized in updated storage cabinets. The room felt clean, easier to navigate than the more cluttered intake area, and it was easy to see how the upgrade is making their job smoother.

“This is where we want to go strategically,” Matthew said, explaining that their plans for growth are focused largely on infrastructure in order to increase their capacity to intake, treat and house animals safely, and also to further expand their educational programming. In addition to remodeling the hospital wing, some of their infrastructural needs include running electric to outdoor mews, expanding the water system, building secondary entrances in the rehabilitation mews for birds, adding additional small mammal enclosures and expanding some of the ambassador animal enclosures.

A Focus On Education

“A big part of our reason for being here is to talk to the general public about how humans and animals can co-exist,” Jessica told us. Visiting the NMWC website it is easy to see that they are dedicated to mission. Aside from providing people the unique opportunity to see New Mexico’s wildlife up close, they offer a variety of virtual, in-classroom and on-site education programs for school-aged children, as well as offering summer camps and field trips.

“We are rather unique in New Mexico,” Matthew said, adding, “There are other rehab facilities, zoos and nature parks, but none that really bring all these areas together. That combined with our education programs really sets us apart in the state.”

Part of Matthew’s vision for future expansion is expanding and extending the reach of their educational programming. One area he would like to see grow is their focus on supporting native plants and eradicating non-native species, which he says is one of the best ways to support the animals in the wild. The small native cactus garden on the grounds is a first step toward that vision.

Education Coordinator Chase Spearing is also in the process of launching a pilot program that would bring small native “pollinator gardens” onto elementary school grounds, along with providing educational materials, so that students can learn about why these plants are important to the local ecosystem and learn to care for them in the classroom. With the help of a grant from the NM Department of Game & Fish, the program will be introduced to 4-6 schools in the area during the Spring and Fall 2022 semesters, with the hopes of expanding if the program is deemed successful.

Matthew would also like to see updates to the signage in the educational areas, making them bilingual, or even trilingual (English, Spanish and the local Tewa language). “I’d love to work with the local communities to hear how they would like to see these animals represented,” he said.

Lastly, there are plans to expand the NMWC intern program. Currently, they take on four summer interns each year, who work mostly on the hospital side. “But we’d love to have the capacity to take on more interns,” Matthew told us, adding, “We’d like to expand the program to include educational interns and administrative interns as well.”

They are currently awaiting a new trailer for intern housing, which is slated to arrive this week, so they can house more interns, more comfortably.

Funding the NMWC

Most of the center’s funding comes from private donations, from a mix of individuals, foundations and corporate foundations. They do receive some small grants as well as a small amount of earned income from offsite presentations, visitor fees (waived for this week’s re-opening!) and the sale of merchandise. Matthew hopes to increase their capacity to work with donors for legacy giving and planned giving.

Their website makes it easy to donate online, or to help care for the ambassador animals through their “Adopt an Animal” program. They also accept donations of food and other supplies, which are listed on their website as well.

And of course, don’t miss out on visiting the center to see these amazing animals up close and learn all about them from the very knowledgeable and passionate staff!

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