Sacramento County's only wildlife rehabilitation center closed by regulators after staff leave

Sacramento County’s only wildlife rehabilitation center closed by regulators after staff leave

State wildlife officials have temporarily closed Sacramento County’s only wildlife rehabilitation center for treating thousands of sick and injured animals a year after most of its staff walked off the job. Wednesday.

Department of Fish and Wildlife officials hung signs Wednesday evening at the entrance to the Wildlife Care Association in McClellan Park instructing people bringing wildlife to the facility to take the animals to Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Auburn.

A former employee told The Sacramento Bee that she and other employees quit due to a hostile work environment as well as concerns about substandard wildlife care. A recent state inspection revealed issues including unsanitary conditions for birds and squirrels, though inspectors reported no outbreaks, abuse, deaths or other flagrant violations that would have caused them to revoke the permit. the establishment.

Fish and Wildlife officials took 23 animals from the McClellan Park facility, mostly birds such as pigeons and doves, to the Auburn Rehabilitation Center on Wednesday, said Heather Perry, who oversees the 83 California nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation centers for the state agency.

There is no set date for the reopening of the Sacramento facility.

Wildlife Care is a nonprofit that has “rescued and rehabilitated wild animals for more than 40 years,” according to a 2020 tax return. Founded in 1975 by, among others, famed conservationist Effie Yeaw, the organization operates on a budget of approximately $240,000 per year, mostly funded by grants and donations.

The center receives approximately 7,000 injured or sick wildlife annually, mostly birds and small mammals such as squirrels, although they occasionally receive coyotes and fawns.

Perry said the decision to temporarily close the center was due in large part to concerns that its remaining staff and volunteers would be overwhelmed with people dropping off animals over the upcoming Labor Day weekend. She said more people during the holidays would be outdoors and more likely to encounter stressed and injured animals. The punitive heatwave in the Sacramento area is also putting additional pressure on wildlife.

“It was pretty obvious that they were understaffed and they weren’t able to sort out the intakes well,” Perry said. “And with the walkout, that seems to be the biggest problem: animals that come in injured or sick, they just don’t have the staff at the moment who have the capacity to triage effectively. And so the animals don’t necessarily get the medical treatment as quickly as they should.

Sandra Foreman, animal care manager at the Wildlife Care Association, takes a look at a hummingbird brought in on Wednesday. Lezlie Sterling

Tensions lead to walkout

Tensions with staff and management have been simmering for months, and this is not the first walkout, said association board chair Theresa Bielawski.

“We had something similar several months ago,” Bielawski said. “And it was the few people who were left who were still unhappy.”

She said four employees quit on Wednesday, leaving just three employees and a group of volunteers, including herself, to take over. Bielawski said the employees who quit were frustrated that a new manager “actually makes sure that the animals are properly taken care of” and that the employees didn’t care about the new rules.

“I’m not going to put up with poor animal care,” she said. “And if people leave because they don’t like it, they really have to do their job, so be it. It’s the best thing that can happen.

But Rachel Hirota, a vet student at UC Davis, said she quit this summer because she was constantly micromanaged and belittled by members of the association’s board of trustees who had no not provided adequate “training or confidence”.

She said she and her colleagues were also troubled by what she described as substandard animal care, such as the birds not getting proper food.

“We were providing substandard care at the time,” she said. “That’s what you’re told (to do), even if you have other experiences. You are constantly degraded.

She provided The Bee with photos, taken by other employees, which she says depict an infestation of flies and maggots at the establishment.

Various state inspections at the facility over the past few months have revealed no serious issues, such as mass animal deaths, Perry said, but a July inspection Perry conducted revealed some issues that, in her view, needed to be resolved immediately.

Inspectors found ‘fly larvae’ on the lid of a trash can inside the building near the baby bird nursery area and evidence of a possible rodent infestation, according to the inspection report by Perry, The Bee, obtained through the California Public Records Act. The report also noted potentially unsanitary conditions for birds and squirrels due to accumulation of feces and food debris waste.

Perry of Fish and Wildlife said subsequent inspections didn’t reveal anything too egregious, although it was clear the facility needed help with organization and better protocols, “to be able to s ‘handling wildlife properly’.

“They’re the only ones in the Sacramento area, and it will put an undue burden on other facilities if they close because they house several thousand animals a year,” Perry said. “So we would like to do what I call ‘coach to compliance’ with them to get them back on track.”

She said she plans to meet with staff and her new manager next week to work out a plan to reopen it as soon as possible.

Bielawski, the chairman of the board, took responsibility for the upheaval.

“Hey, that’s on me,” she said. “I am the president of the organization. And I do not agree that we do not take care of animals. And that’s ultimately what was going on was that animal care was not up to the standard that we should be at. And that’s a good change. Because we already have experienced people joining us.

On Wednesday, animal beds and habitats are piled up next to overflowing trash cans outside the Wildlife Care Association. Lezlie Sterling

The Bee’s Dale Kasler contributed to this story.

This story was originally published August 31, 2022 8:22 p.m.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environmental, corporate and investigative stories for McClatchy’s California Newspapers. Before joining The Sacramento Bee in 2015, he was a reporter for the Auburn Journal, Redding Record Searchlight and the Indianapolis Star.

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