Oregon wildlife rescue sees increase in patients due to wildfires, heat waves

Raptor trainer Bree Hinricher leads a tour highlighting birds of prey at Chintimini Wildlife Center. Birds that can’t go back into the wild stay at Chintimini, and are given enclosures, toys and names. (Mindy Moradi/High School Journalism Institute)

With singed whiskers and burned paws from a wildfire, a baby bobcat wandered into a neighborhood east of Springfield in search of safety and food. Community members found the bobcat in a chicken coop and brought her into the Chintimini Wildlife Center to be treated for injuries, dehydration and parasites.

The Corvallis wildlife center, founded in 1998, has seen an increase in animals affected by climate change, including wildfire-related injuries and heat waves, as well as disease outbreaks. Chintimini has adapted as it cares for wild animals from around the Willamette Valley, including the bobcat that specialists treated for eight months before releasing her back into the forest.

Ashlee Sabiers, director of wildlife rehabilitation at Chintimini, said during some seasons animals are able to recognize dangerous situations early enough to escape. However, between April and September, animals face more challenges.

“If it’s summer, and baby season, then usually the juveniles and babies don’t quite know where to go yet, and that’s usually where patients come from,” Sabiers said.

The fall and winter are known as “raptor season” due to the influx of hawk, eagle and owl patients. Colder seasons introduce new dangers for animals facing their first winter. Lack of food prompts raptors to search the side of the road, bringing the threat of getting hit by cars.

The growing risk of wildfires will most affect animals that require specific habitats. Their displacement and destruction of habitats will also cause a population drop, said Kegan Benson, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. Animals that thrive anywhere, like deer, racoons, and coyotes, will also be pushed out.

“Fire in general is a habitat reset, or simplifier,” Benson said. “As the people of Oregon work to make their city more fire safe, we might have more deer coming there for refuge.”

Even animals already at the refuge aren’t totally safe from the dangers of fires.

While wildfires rarely threaten the city directly, the refuge is still affected by the aftermath of poor air quality. Several times over the past few years, keepers have had to move animals typically kept outside to indoor facilities as wildfires burned to the east.

An employee at Chintimini Wildlife Center uses tongs to feed a rescued bird. The center sees an increase in baby birds and squirrels during “songbird summer,” as many fall or jump from the nest to escape the heat. (Mindy Moradi/High School Journalism Institute)

Heat waves also have had a big impact on the center’s work. High temperatures can cause baby birds and squirrels to prematurely jump from the nest. A fall can leave them with broken bones or ruptured air sacs, and more vulnerable to predators. Chintimini makes cardboard booties for animal patients with broken bones and treats other health issues including dehydration.

The rehab center has seen an increase in calls from community members asking how to help a baby animal that’s fallen out of its nest.

“We really try renesting, and things like that are the best, because their natural parents are going to do a better job than we ever could,” Sabiers said.

Chintimini has also had to adapt to challenges from recent disease outbreaks.

After a flare-up of avian influenza, or bird flu, Chintimini was forced to limit intakes for certain species. Animals that commonly carry the virus, such as waterfowl, may be turned away for fear of spreading the flu. If an animal shows symptoms, it must be euthanized and kept in the morgue. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is contacted for testing.

“It’s not moral to keep them alive much longer,” said Jessica Neilson, wildlife rehabilitation specialist at Chintimini.

The clinic is recovering from an exposure to the highly contagious virus known as parvo as well. A section of the center had to be closed for decontamination after an infected raccoon came inside.

The center has had fewer patients this summer, but it did take in a host of new animals after a Salem wildlife rehab center closed.

The center also works to educate the public about wildlife. It hosts summer camps and brings raptors to schools. And it gives advice over the phone to people who find injured animals that could be further harmed by improper handling.

As Chintimini sees an increase in climate change and disease-related challenges, Sabiers said workers still love their job and the animals.

“It’s so gratifying to open that box and see them go back,” she said.

— Mindy Moradi, Glencoe High School

— Sophie Cadran, Skyview High School

This story was produced by student reporters as a part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/Oregonlive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.