Chico’s wildlife maven is having a busy year caring for orphaned and injured animals
Marilyn Gamette and her husband, Bob, share their Chico home in a quiet cul-de-sac with several creatures, including a resident bum-winged great horned owl named Checkers and three endangered desert tortoises, Tank, Big Mama and Junior.
This time of year, an especially busy one for local wildlife rescuers, they are also tending to a passel of temporary guests in need of the expertise that Gamette, who specializes in rehabilitation, can provide.
On Tuesday (June 28), as the skies unleashed an unusual summer downpour, the couple invited this reporter over to check out some of the animals, a visit that offered a glimpse into the sort of effort required to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. Gamette, founder of the nonprofit Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation, says the number of folks involved in rehab has decreased in recent years, perhaps due to the economy. Meanwhile, more and more animals are in need of rehabilitation.
“We could use volunteers, but it is a commitment,” said Gamette, who has provided her services to the local wildlife community for more than 35 years.
Gamette, who has helped rehab everything from mountain lion cubs to hummingbirds, wasn’t kidding. Her current menagerie includes a bunch of juveniles: pairs of barn owls, scrub jays and American kestrels, along with a red-shouldered hawk. Each species requires its own very specific husbandry, as demonstrated by Gamette during the visit.
First, she presented the barn owls, a couple of weeks-old, alien-looking birds covered in white down, not feathers. The helpless baby birds had fallen out of a palm tree in the Orland area, and the woman who found the pair couldn’t get them back in the nest. Gamette handled the birds with ease and displayed an encyclopedic knowledge about the creatures, discussing their behaviors and anatomy.
For now, the birds are fed dead mice. In a few weeks, another volunteer will help ready them for release by acclimating them to eating live prey. All raptors—owls, hawks and eagles—require this training to live successfully in the wild. The pair of kestrels (also known as sparrow hawks) will also be trained on live prey. The effort is accomplished using a special cage in which the birds can fly.
“There’s a lot to this,” said the 71-year-old Gamette, who sexed the small, feisty young birds of prey by the coloring of their wings.
Gamette says people who find wild animals sometimes want to keep them and raise them or rehab them on their own. She’s seen cases, for example, where well-intentioned folks have quite literally taken animals such as fawns into their homes. Doing so, without taking the proper precautions, can expose wild animals to disease and familiarize them with domestic animals, thereby jeopardizing their chances of surviving back in the wild.
“That’s why it’s illegal to have wildlife in your possession,” said Gamette, who keeps her rehabs in crates and enclosures in her back yard.
And technically that applies to all native wild animals, including the common king snake and blue-belly lizard.
Gamette retired three years ago after working for 15 years as an interpretive specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Willows. She still volunteers for the agency by running California’s federal Junior Duck Stamp Contest, an annual educational art competition for K-12 students. She has federal permits and a memorandum of understanding with the California Department of Fish and Game that allow her to rehab “just about anything.”
She suspects one of the reasons this year may be so busy for local rehabilitation volunteers is because more and more people are heading out in nature and coming across wildlife they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. Gamette cautions people not to act too swiftly to rescue an animal. It’s extremely rare, she said, for an animal to abandon healthy offspring. Deer leave their fawns, for example, to forage for food.
“Don’t touch it. Back off,” she advised. “The mama deer is probably watching, hoping you’ll leave it alone.”
Those who encounter large injured mammals or birds of prey should always seek assistance. Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation operates a 24-hour action line at 343-9004. When in doubt, it’s best to call.
In the case of a featherless baby bird, if a nest is nearby, simply place the creature back inside. Gamette said it’s a misconception that the parents will abandon offspring that have been handled by humans. In many cases, however, the best advice is simple: “Leave it alone.”