Tag Archives: wild animals

‘We See a Lot of Hope Every Day’: SB Wildlife Care Network Growing as Need Expands

The pandemic might have produced a reduced need for services at many businesses and nonprofits. But that’s not the case at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. In fact, the coronavirus crises created a contrary result, even if only indirectly.

“We saw a dramatic increase in animals coming here in 2020, and we’re certainly on track for more of the same in 2021,” said Ariana Katovich, the executive director of Wildlife Care Network, whose mission it is to rescue, rehabilitate, and return to the wild animals that are sick, injured, or orphaned as well as birds and reptiles that have been similarly afflicted or coated with oil or tar.

Katovich noted that while perhaps part of the uptick is due to increased publicity and outreach efforts resulting in people becoming more aware of the organization, more is because of limitations during lockdown.

“People are spending a lot of time outside recreating, walking, or just being in nature, or doing projects in their backyards, and they’re noticing wildlife and seeing injured animals,” Katovich said.

Whatever the reason, the WCN has had to handle the influx of injured creatures with the same level of compassionate care despite having to follow pandemic protocols that resulted in many businesses letting employees work remotely.

“We haven’t been able to slow down, and we can’t work from home because everything happens here at the center,” Katovich said, gesturing to the organization’s Goleta grounds that formed the bucolic background for our Zoom conversation. “Our animal care staff has to be here on property, and we deal with members of the public every day because concerned citizens are constantly bringing us animals.”

But if COVID concerns provided a unique and unprecedented challenge — including a need for enhanced PPE because even wildlife medical procedures can require several trained staff working together — the executive director said the staff has also been “heartened by the fact that so many people, even in a pandemic, care about wildlife and go out of their way to bring animals who need help to us.”

The thing is that even before the pandemic, things were getting crowded at the WCN center.

The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network will have new digs with a state-of-the-art building
The SBWCN aids wildlife, including feeding hummingbirds, among others

When it started back in 1988, Wildlife Care Network consisted largely of volunteer “home rehabbers” helping animals in their kitchens and bathtubs. It was only in 2004 that its North Fairview property was purchased, with WCN moving into its permanent home in a single building in 2012. But its threadbare facilities consisting of barns and trailers added over the last decade has proven insufficient to meet the mounting needs, as the nonprofit whose service area ranges from Cuyama to the Ventura-L.A. county line averages as many as 40 intakes a day year-round, helping to heal thousands of animals covering 240 different species — just about everything except domestic or exotic pets, adult deer, bear, mountain lions, coyotes, and wild boars. 

And those numbers were growing even before COVID arrived. 

“Every year it’s getting harder to be a wild animal, because of how we’re encroaching on nature and other factors such as poison and traps,” said Katovich, who first encountered WCN as an 18-year-old freshman at UCSB when she brought an injured bird to the center. “The need just keeps growing.”

Good thing, then, that construction on the Network’s much-needed Wildlife Hospital broke ground last year and is well underway. The professional building was always part of the founders’ original vision, Katovich said, but it wasn’t until she took over as ED in 2017 that the project got going.

“It’s been a dream of the organization for more than 30 years, and we really wanted to see if we could make it happen. So, we took the first steps to launch our capital campaign and then hire our permanent wildlife veterinarian, who really informed the final design of the hospital. It’s been an incredible journey with the community coming together to help out.”

The improvements are taking place even as construction takes place, Katovich said, noting that the vet arranged for the donation of a small X-Ray machine as well as tables, lights, and tools for diagnosing and treating wildlife.

“It’s opened our eyes to how incredible the hospital is going to be when it’s completed, and we have dedicated space for all of the different functions,” Katovich said. “We will be able to diagnose issues quicker and treat animals more accurately, in house, rather than stressing out these animals when we have to bring them somewhere else. We can provide better pain control, too.”

The new hospital, which is expected to open by the end of the year, will also allow WCN to truly treat oiled wildlife onsite, a major issue considering that Santa Barbara is home to large oil seeps off the shore. Instead of having to transfer the birds to a facility in Long Beach once a week, Wildlife Care Network’s new facility will have a dedicated oiled wildlife capability.

“We’ll have four oil sinks so we can do washing as well as a specialized drying room and a pelagic pool that will allow us to swim the birds before we release them back out into the wild,” Katovich said. “That really takes our capability to a whole new level and allows us to treat more of those animals here in Santa Barbara, as opposed to transferring them somewhere else.”

Less esoteric, but equally important, are the logistical improvements the hospital will bring, including temperature control, proper ventilation, solid walls for sound control, floors that can be quickly and easily hosed down with drains in the floors, and a dedicated kitchen to prepare animal diets.

“These are all things that really benefit a fragile being that is trying to heal,” Katovich said. “That’s really what it’s all about: always improving upon our mission to save wild animals.”

While the capital campaign has raised most of the $6 million goal, about $800,000 is needed to complete the fundraising, she said. 

“We’re so grateful that we’re this far along and can’t wait until we are able to build the raptor aviary and the mammal enclosure,” she added, noting that she and her staff are happy to talk to anyone who would like to learn more about supporting WCN.

But dollars aren’t the only way to get involved.

Volunteers are always in demand, even with many of the nonprofit’s workers who stayed home during the pandemic returning to helping out.

“Our staff is working so hard to take care of animals that every person that helps us answer the phone, transport animals, wash dishes outside, clean the crates and even help feed the baby birds really makes a difference,” Katovich said. “We have volunteers who knit nests that we can use for baby birds. People shop off of our wish list on Amazon. There are so many ways to help us and we’re always eager to work with people on discovering what they want to do and how to channel that here at the center.”

That assistance proves rewarding for all, especially during our still trying times, she said.

“We see people every day who are really upset that an animal got injured, and when they talk to us and see how we take care of the animals, they feel so relieved. We see a lot of hope every day and witness an amazing side of the human spirit.”

For more information, visit www.sbwcn.org.

An Oasis for Animals and Humans Alike

After three months of being closed to the public in response to the pandemic, the Santa Barbara Zoo reopened in June. 

“The Zoo has been an amazing respite where families can congregate in a safe way,” says Board Chair George Leis. “That has been very meaningful for me; a touch of normalcy in a very confused world.” 

But it isn’t just humans finding respite at Santa Barbara’s world-renowned zoo. Through its conservation programs and the exciting opening of its new Australian Walkabout exhibit in summer 2021, the Zoo is busy protecting animal species ranging from California’s Western snowy plover to Australia’s Bennett’s wallaby.

The Zoo’s President and CEO, Rich Block, points to the Zoo’s now 18-year commitment to bring the California condor back from the brink of extinction. Part of a broad coalition of other zoos and federal agencies, the Santa Barbara Zoo has helped bring the population back from a mere 22 birds in 1987 to more than 500 today. In wild condor country (such as the Sespe Wilderness), Zoo staff can regularly be seen scaling sheer cliffs to get eyes on chicks and ensure their safety. And they assist in rounding up the birds each year to check the population’s health. 

“The people who work with them know these birds like avid soap opera fans,” Block says. “They know all the characters, know all the bonds, and all the cheating. It’s an incredible drama.” 

Within the Zoo’s walls, the deaths in 2018 and 2019 of beloved elephants Sujatha and Little Mac created a physical and emotional void that impacted the entire community. The Zoo’s experienced Animal Care team, along with outside partners, researched a multitude of options before narrowing down species and experiences that would be best for the animals and Zoo guests. 

Rooted in its conservation focus, the Zoo team landed on an “up close and down under” experience which will allow visitors to actually walk through the exhibit and get close to kangaroos, wallabies, and emus. While Australia has incredible biodiversity – more than 100,000 species of animals have been described so far – the wildfires of 2019-20 helped propel it to the dubious distinction of having the most rapid rate of mammal extinctions worldwide. 

“This new immersive exhibit is exciting for us and our Zoo guests. It perfectly complements our mission of bringing people and animals together for safe, inspiring, educational, and fun experiences. This will be a totally different Zoo opportunity, providing a wonderful added new dimension for visitors while supporting our commitment to conservation,” commented Block.

Our Wild Neighbors

Ariana Katovich, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, winds her way through Montecito, a Great Horned Owl in a crate in the backseat.

Today’s mission is nothing new to Katovich, who returned to Santa Barbara to usher the Wildlife Care Network into a new age three years ago. From a clutch of sheds, trailers, and other buildings in the Goleta hills, she, anywhere from 15-32 staff (depending on the season), and an army of nearly 300 volunteers rescue, rehabilitate, and return to the wild sick, injured, orphaned, or oil-impaired wild birds, reptiles, and small mammals in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.  

The volume is daunting: 40 intakes a day of 200 species ranging from badgers to Brown Pelicans during the spring, a helpline that rings 12,000 a year and as many as 6,000 feedings a day of baby birds from sunup to sundown. 

“We are working as hard as we can to make sure animals get the best treatment they deserve,” Katovich says.

To accomplish that, the 32-year-old nonprofit is entering a transformational stage of its growth: building a true wild animal hospital that will help Katovich and her team mitigate human impacts to the region’s wildly diverse fauna. Katovich says that 90% of the animals that the network cares for are there because they were hit by cars, attacked by cats or dogs, poisoned, or caught in a fishnet. The result is orphaned baby animals, and complex injuries that require full-blown surgery.

“The hospital will allow us to serve thousands of animals every year,” Katovich says. “To provide services that we have never been able to provide, from complex surgeries to raptor care.”

For Katovich, who as a UCSB undergrad started the “UCSB Coastal Fund,” which has since raised $5 million to preserve the idyllic campus’ coastline, rehabilitating wildlife is a defining aspect of local citizenship. 

“I feel like it is our responsibility to take care of these wild neighbors,” she says. “It’s what makes Santa Barbara home. The hummingbirds, the pelicans, and even the skunks. People recognize that part of our local identity is to care for and appreciate wildlife.” 

The sun is getting low in the hills of Montecito. Katovich pulls up to board member Connie Pearcy’s house. She and Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Avery Berkowitz take the crate out of her car, open the door, and watch as the owl flies up into a sprawling oak. 

Half an hour later, she and Pearcy are enjoying a glass of wine and watch as the owl flies from tree to tree, finally settling. It looks out over Montecito’s natural splendor, the home it knew before its wing was entangled in a net and the owl spent eight days in care.