Birds in peril as Sacramento’s wildlife rescue group faces closure

The wildlife sat on a metal “intake rack” in cardboard boxes of all sorts, waiting for triage specialists to decide if they were injured, dehydrated or simply had fallen out of a nest and needed rescue.

A pair of possums and 17 birds were the newest animals to be brought to the front door of the former radar building at McClellan Park, where the Sacramento Wildlife Care Association already houses roughly 1,000 birds. It was just noon on Monday by the time all the new arrivals had shown up.

For eight years, the association has operated out of the golf-ball shaped structure at the former Air Force base, serving as the region’s only center licensed to accept wild animals and help them recover until they can be returned to the wild.

But by August, if the group’s worst fears come to pass, the structure may have to shut down and force the staff to turn the birds over to be euthanized.

“We’ve been hurting financially for a long time,” association President Theresa Bielawski said this week as she pondered how the group can stave off a closure that would, for the first time, imperil the animals they have spent years trying to save.

A combination of factors has hit the group: The years-long recession has cut into donations that are its lifeblood; the drought has increased the number of animals facing difficulty in the wild; and the group itself acknowledges it has not done a good job seeking grants, public funds or publicity.

Its 2012 tax return as a nonprofit lists a whopping $70 spent on advertising and promotion.

“Wildlife care has been on a bubble for years,” said Bielawski, who serves as president without pay and balances her duties with a day job working in the car loan business. “Probably what should have happened is we should have gone to cities and counties and said, ‘There’s more need for our services; we need money from you guys.’ ”

Nearly all of the 39-year-old group’s funding comes from donations or an annual fundraiser. In past years, the group has managed to just scrape by with a tiny paid staff and as many as 100 volunteers.

But the financial situation has become so serious the association says it may be forced to shut down in August rather than following its usual routine of going largely dormant in October, when there are few birds hatching or newborn mammals being brought in. Most of the mammals found by citizens – foxes, skunks, possums, squirrels and other creatures found injured or unable to care for themselves – are farmed out to volunteers who care for them at their homes.

But the bulk of the birds – robins, herons, mockingbirds and others – fill cages, laundry baskets and converted children’s playpens at the McClellan facility, where the air is filled with the smell of bird dung and the sounds of singing and chirping.

“We get them from all over,” said Autumn Turner, a 26-year-old Woodland resident who began with the group as an unpaid intern in 2012.

She is now the assistant triage manager overseeing the needs of each bird or mammal brought into the building. “We get them from vet clinics, we get them from the Sac zoo, we’ve gotten them from the SPCA (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals),” Turner said.

So far this year, the number of birds at the facility has peaked at 1,500. It costs as much as $1,500 a month to purchase food for the birds, and the number being brought in has jumped from an average of five to 10 a day to 25 to 40 a day, largely because of the drought.

The drop-off in donations has hit hard.

“We just don’t have the funds to keep it operating,” Turner said, estimating that she works an average of 50 hours a week trying to manage the load. “I know that donations have been down for several years in a row, and I think that’s just impacting how things are going.”

The group’s Internal Revenue Service filings illustrate how the association’s budget of roughly $110,000 has been affected by the drop-off in donations. In 2008, it received nearly $121,000 in contributions. The next year, when the economic collapse was in full gear, it received $78,000. By 2010, donations had dropped to $74,000 and in 2011 to $65,000.

Conditions improved by 2012, when the association’s latest filing shows $103,000 in donations, but by then the group had found itself struggling as volunteers hit by the recession also began cutting the hours they spent helping.

Now, the association is hoping for a last-minute reprieve to allow it to continue operations through October, when most of the birds will be healed, trained to fend for themselves and released back into the wild. An August closure would leave the association scrambling to either find another entity to take birds or to face the possibility of euthanizing the ones that cannot be saved.

“We would do whatever we can to prevent that from happening,” Turner said. “We would much rather work with other entities and get the birds transferred to them.

“But, as far as shutting down, that’s definitely a very real possibility.”

Sacramento County spokeswoman Chris Andis said euthanizing the birds would be a remote possibility.

“Even though wildlife is outside our purview, we could certainly help spread the word that they need help through our media contacts, social media and partners,” she said. “Euthanasia is the very last step and would be far down the road; we want to avoid it whenever possible, no matter what kind of animal it is.”

The wildlife association, which accepts donations through its website, http://www.wildlifecareassociation.com, also is hoping to find volunteers skilled in writing grant applications, so it can provide a more permanent source of funding to pay for the cost of helping up to 6,000 orphaned or injured animals and birds annually.

“We have very limited fundraising that our board does, and that’s something that definitely needs to improve,” Turner said. “We don’t have a grant-writing team, and that’s what a lot of nonprofits have.”