The nonprofit known for rescuing homeless pets also tends to injured and orphaned creatures who need comfort.

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RESIDENTS OF A Spanaway apartment complex spotted the black bear cub in November, wandering around the parking lot. Fluffy as a stuffed animal and with a toddler’s clumsy gait, the cub appeared dazed, likely hungry and thirsty, and perilously close to a busy highway. Mom was nowhere in sight.

Picked up the next day by a state wildlife agent, the cub arrived at PAWS Wildlife Center in north Lynnwood, snarling and trying to gnaw through the steel bars of his cage. A team of wildlife veterinarians and technicians quickly sedated the bear, then crowded into a small exam room, where they fitted his snout with an anesthesia mask, examined him for broken bones and wounds, checked his vital signs, and took blood and fecal samples and several X-rays.

Wildlife veterinarians Nicki Rosenhagen and John Huckabee said they didn’t find any obvious injuries, but the cub — about 10 months old — weighed just 27 pounds. By comparison, four other black bear cubs orphaned in Oregon and transported to the PAWS center in late spring now weighed about 60 pounds each.

If you find a wild animal you think needs help …

Contact PAWS at paws.org/wildlife/found-a-wild-animal.

The vets’ plan was to give the cub a chance to eat, and gain strength, while monitoring his progress on a video camera, one of several in the center’s enclosures designed to minimize human contact and ensure the wild animals remain wild.

THE BACKSTORY: Reporter Lynn Thompson’s notes on the PAWS Wildlife Center

Founded in 1967, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society is best known for its shelter and adoption services for dogs and cats. Its care of injured and orphaned wildlife was a natural outgrowth of its rescue work with homeless pets, says Jennifer Convy, director of the wildlife center.

 

“People knew us as an animal place, and they kept showing up with injured wild animals,” she says. The wildlife center opened in 1981 and moved into its current tight quarters in 1989. It relies almost entirely on donations for its operating costs, Convy says.

In 2016, the center admitted more than 4,000 animals — 2,125 mammals, 2,281 birds, and 54 reptiles and amphibians — representing 150 species. The animals range in size from a small baby bat or hummingbird to a juvenile black bear; from dozens of baby squirrels and raccoons to blue herons, bald eagles, owls, otters and harbor seals.

Convy says that almost all of the animals wind up at the center because of an encounter with people gone wrong — our cars, our pets, our pesticides, our good intentions. Bear mothers, for example, typically don’t abandon their cubs unless something drastic happens, she says. They might be struck by a car or shot by a hunter. Without at least a year of Mom’s protection and guidance, she says, the cubs typically can’t survive.

A great horned owl, at the center in November, flew into a car. The people in the car knew they’d hit something, but it wasn’t until the next day, going out to their garage, that they found the owl trapped in the car’s front grille, clacking and trying to fight.

A juvenile bald eagle lies in a nest of blankets as it rehabs at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
A juvenile bald eagle lies in a nest of blankets as it rehabs at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

PAWS CEO Annette Laico calls the center the Harborview of wildlife trauma care, a 365-day emergency hospital with on-site veterinarians, licensed rehabilitators and specialized recovery facilities. It’s a service the state does not provide.

“People think we have vets to treat injured animals. We don’t,” says Matt Blankenship, a conflict specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We can’t put a cast on a deer with a broken leg, but these animals can be rehabilitated and put back in the wild, where they can thrive. PAWS is incredibly valuable to us.”

Like many of the staff at the wildlife center, Rosenhagen, 32, got her start as an unpaid intern. She grew up in a family in Michigan that hunted and fished, watched wildlife shows and, she says, “was always around nature.” At PAWS, she says, she discovered a career in wildlife medicine she hadn’t known existed.

“My first day, I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ I’d never been so close to wild animals,” Rosenhagen says. “They have nowhere else to go. They’re terrified. We help them and give them another chance.”

Nicki Rosenhagen looks at the vital signs of a bear cub as it comes out of the MRI chamber. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Nicki Rosenhagen looks at the vital signs of a bear cub as it comes out of the MRI chamber. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

MIDMORNING, HALF A DOZEN staff members crowd into one small office in the wildlife center to conduct daily rounds. On this fall day, just 44 animals are in care, compared to hundreds in the spring.

What’s different from rounds at a human hospital is that here the two veterinarians, a vet technician, the rehabilitation manager, a staff rehabilitator and the wildlife naturalist don’t visit or disturb the animals in any way. Instead, they read the animals’ charts on a computer screen, review new tests or staff observations, and direct follow-up care.

With her computer screen turned to her colleagues, Rosenhagen reviews the list of patients. The great horned owl found embedded in the car grille is recovering from surgery that inserted a pin in its broken wing. A big brown bat with a mended broken wing is getting physical therapy to restore its range of motion. A song sparrow that had been shredded by a cat and couldn’t stand is taking flight practice in an aviary behind the clinic and looks “ready to roll,” Rosenhagen says.

Huckabee explains that to return to the wild, an animal must be able to interact with others of its species, to socialize, hunt and reproduce. “We don’t want to send an animal back to the wild that isn’t capable of surviving,” he says.

Over his 32-year career in wildlife medicine, Huckabee has seen the development of the profession, from a few self-taught people who nursed injured animals to today’s specialized wildlife veterinary training, which includes the latest in diagnostics, diseases and treatment. Huckabee, with other colleagues in the field, has published two papers on new diseases in Northwest bat populations that previously had not been identified.

“Part of our function is to be vigilant to diseases that may be emerging or spreading and be able to recognize and document how it’s affecting a species,” Huckabee says. “The work we’re doing here is important.”

A week after its arrival, the little bear cub had gained about 15 pounds, but Huckabee said it still had a wobbly, deliberate gait and a head tremor that suggested a neurological disorder, rather than malnutrition. An X-ray of the bear’s skull didn’t show any abnormalities, so the wildlife staff arranged to get an MRI taken at the Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle, which donated its sophisticated equipment and expertise.

A young bear cub awaits its turn in the MRI chamber at the Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle. John Huckabee and veterinarians from PAWS brought the 1-year-old cub for the test. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
A young bear cub awaits its turn in the MRI chamber at the Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle. John Huckabee and veterinarians from PAWS brought the 1-year-old cub for the test. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

THE PRESENCE OF a bear cub at a clinic where the patients are overwhelmingly dogs and cats attracts a score of onlookers from the staff. Everyone watches quietly, in awe of a juvenile of a species that few have ever glimpsed in the wild.

“This is my first bear,” says Mikayla Bruce, a veterinary technician at the Specialty Center.

A colleague reassures her. “It’s just like a German shepherd.” Only, he might have added, with a thicker coat and longer claws.

Jean Leonhardt, a PAWS wildlife veterinary technician, helps strap the cub onto the table that glides animals into the MRI tunnel. She tunes out everything but the bear.

John Huckabee looks over MRI scans for a bear cub in PAWS’ care. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
John Huckabee looks over MRI scans for a bear cub in PAWS’ care. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

“I get my game face on,” she says. “Nothing matters except this animal and what it needs to get through safely.” Despite loud, mechanical whirs and rushes, the bear sleeps peacefully through the procedure and is driven back to PAWS, where it will slowly awake in its enclosure.

Raina Domek, one of four full-time rehabilitators at PAWS, describes her role as similar to a nurse on the medical team. Every morning, she is charged with checking on the progress of the patients, from cages where new arrivals await their first intake exam to the cluster of outdoor enclosures where injured animals complete their recoveries.

With the help of a volunteer, she scoops a Lesser Scaup — a diving duck with dark wings and gleaming black eyes — from a netted pool where it’s regaining strength and buoyancy. Scaups typically come on land only when in distress. This one was found running along a road near a boat launch, dragging a broken wing.

Domek and the volunteer swiftly wrap the bird in a towel so that only its beak shows. With one motion, Domek slips a feeding tube down the Scaup’s throat and gently squeezes in a green slurry of ground insects and vegetation the bird accepts without protest.

Domek says that while compassion for animals is one prerequisite for working in the wildlife center, staff members also need a healthy measure of realism. Despite the best available veterinary care, some animals don’t recover and must be euthanized.

“This is the best place it could possibly be,” she says. “What are the alternatives? Staying in the wild, suffering, waiting to be eaten by something else? If we can’t restore the animals to health, we can at least provide a humane ending to their lives.”

An injured pigeon is readied to have its bandages changed by wildlife rehabilitators at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
An injured pigeon is readied to have its bandages changed by wildlife rehabilitators at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

LESLIE CHANDLER, president of the PAWS board of directors, says she is often asked why. Why provide sophisticated veterinary treatment to an injured squirrel, a seagull, a pigeon? They’re not endangered. Don’t we have enough?

She answers that they’re a part of the grand scheme of nature; they play a role in a complex ecosystem, and they have value in and of themselves.

“To cherry-pick one species over another assumes we know better. I don’t think we do know better,” she says.

Built almost 30 years ago, the wildlife center has outgrown its cramped facilities. So have the companion animal-adoption and shelter operations. At the same time, new housing developments have multiplied just outside PAWS’ once-rural, 7-acre site.

“Even 20 years ago, this part of Lynnwood was in the country,” Laico says. “Now there’s roads, people noise. It’s stressful for our wildlife.”

For six years, the organization sought futilely for a larger, undeveloped tract of land within a 40-minute drive of Seattle. Laico says she and the board had almost given up when they found three adjacent properties that totaled 25 acres on a hillside above the Snohomish River Valley, off Highway 9 just north of Cathcart Way.

A barred owl looks out from its perch in one of the larger enclosures set aside for raptor rehabilitation at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
A barred owl looks out from its perch in one of the larger enclosures set aside for raptor rehabilitation at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

PAWS plans to launch a $20 million capital campaign this spring to raise money for a new $30 million, state-of-the-art facility that would increase the total square footage from 28,000 to 46,000. The wildlife center, shelter and adoption services, education programs and administration would all be located on the same site.

Laico, a former teacher and national nonprofit director who joined PAWS in 2002, says the organization hopes to begin construction in 2019 and be fully operational by 2020.

“It’s been an exciting tenure, to see us grow and meet new challenges,” she says. “And now to be building a new campus for the next 50 years — that’s even more exciting.”

A young bear cub is bandaged after blood samples and other vitals were measured at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
A young bear cub is bandaged after blood samples and other vitals were measured at PAWS. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

BY DECEMBER, the bear cub had put on an additional 20 pounds, but was still stumbling and plagued by head tremors. Huckabee and Rosenhagen shared the bear’s MRI results with several experts, who agreed the problem was likely a genetic defect for which there was no treatment or cure. Additionally, Huckabee had learned of a bear population in the Northeast United States with similar symptoms. Those bears’ conditions had worsened over time. With little chance of the cub surviving in the wild, the vets decided to euthanize him.

After putting down the bear, the cub’s body was cooled and refrigerated. The following day, Huckabee drove the body to Pullman, where veterinary pathologists at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory performed a necropsy to try to determine the underlying cause of the neurological symptoms. The findings would then be shared with other veterinary and wildlife rehabilitation organizations around the country. If there were a genetic defect similar to those found in New England bears, Huckabee says, the problem could be more widespread than previously known.

ON A BRILLIANT late-fall day, PAWS wildlife naturalist Jeff Brown loads a harbor seal into a large dog kennel and drives to an Everett marina. This is the hoped-for result of all the skilled and compassionate work — the return of animals to the wild. The seal, just a few months old, was attacked by a dog on a beach at Point Roberts, near the Canadian border, about a month earlier and had arrived at the shelter with infected wounds in her rear flippers and abdomen.

After a regimen of antibiotics and regular feedings to regain weight and strength, she spent her final week in captivity taking practice turns in a netted, outdoor pool. Brown consulted with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees marine mammal rehabilitation, on a safe and secluded place to return the seal.

At the marina, Brown and Convy, the wildlife director, meet Mike and Shirley Allert, PAWS volunteers who own a boat with a swim step, a low platform at the back end ideal for launching a seal.

A young female harbor seal takes in its surroundings before deciding whether it’s safe to plunge into the water off Jetty Island in Everett. PAWS released the seal after caring for it. The seal had shown signs of an animal attack when it was rescued near Point Roberts. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
A young female harbor seal takes in its surroundings before deciding whether it’s safe to plunge into the water off Jetty Island in Everett. PAWS released the seal after caring for it. The seal had shown signs of an animal attack when it was rescued near Point Roberts. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Just off Jetty Island, in Port Gardner Bay, Brown positions the crate above the swim step and opens the door. With a backdrop of snow-covered Olympic mountains and a sparkling bay, the seal pokes her whiskered snout outside the crate, assessing the scene. While the back end of a boat might be unfamiliar, an expanse of water is not. The seal pushes her flippers out onto the back platform and slides into the bay. About 20 yards away, she resurfaces, and turns her pale, spotted face back to the boat.

“We’re giving back to the animals what we’ve taken from them,” says Convy. “They’d be fine if we didn’t build roads, build homes, throw trash in the ocean, let our pets run loose.”

On another late autumn afternoon, with tatters of mist drifting above fields outside Snohomish, Brown positions a cardboard cat carrier near tall trees. An injured barn owl had been picked up a week earlier beside a nearby road, weak and unable to fly. An X-ray revealed a broken keel bone. Just five days later, the owl was taking practice flights in one of PAWS’ outdoor aviaries.

Brown called ahead to get permission from Mark Craven, a Snohomish pumpkin farmer with 70 acres of land, to release the owl on his property. Because owls mate for life, Brown wanted to return the owl as close as possible to where he was found.

“Our goal is to get these animals back to a place where they’re fully functioning,” Brown says. “Now he can be an owl again, doing what an owl does.”

Brown opens the flaps of the carrier at the edge of the property and waits. When the owl hasn’t left the box after a few minutes, Brown crouches down and gently tips the box. The owl steps forward, spreads his wings and lifts off with a whoosh. He circles an adjacent field and lands in a nearby tree. After another few moments, in the last light of day, the owl flies west and disappears from view.