Squirrel Refuge a squirrel safety zone

Volunteer rehabilitates wildlife from Vancouver home

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

Published:

 

Get involved

• Learn more about Squirrel Refuge at squirrelrefuge.org.

• If you're interested in becoming a wildlife rehabilitator visit www.wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/rehabilitation Questions can be referred to patricia.thompson@dfw.wa.gov

Jackie Marsden's phone rang, as it does most days, with a plea for help: A postal worker had accidently hit a squirrel with her truck.

But the animal didn't die. It was last seen dragging its back legs as it crawled away.

As Clark County's only certified wildlife rehabilitator, Marsden had a job to do.

In late June, during a midday break from her 9-to-5 job as a business analyst, Marsden drove to the scene and searched for the injured squirrel. She found it hanging by its front arms on a tree branch about 12 feet up.

"Here I am on my lunch hour, climbing up a tree," she said about her rescue effort.

These days she spends lots of time in trees.

"I put up five (squirrel) boxes this last weekend," Marsden said about her regular routine of releasing rehabilitated animals back into the wild. "Every time I go up, I asked myself, 'What am I doing? I'm a 50-year-old woman, 30-feet up a tree, hanging off a branch.' But I do love it."

It's all in a days work for a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator.

From her home in central Vancouver, Marsden operates Squirrel Refuge, a small nonprofit she created a few years ago with a mission to look after the many squirrels, chipmunks, opossums and other small mammals that live alongside us.

In her backyard are two "squirrelariums," large wooden enclosures built by her husband to temporarily house the hundreds of small creatures dropped off at their home every year. If there was no Squirrel Refuge, most of the injured or abandoned wildlife that end up in her care would likely be euthanized. She estimates about 95 percent of the animals she receives are orphaned babies.

"It's not only a love of animals. It's this need to help something that has nothing. It's really hard for me to turn away a baby animal in need. They are adorable, they are sweet. It just would break your heart to walk away," she said. "To be able to take something that's very ill and nurture it back to health, it's very fulfilling."

Marsden is one of about 75 wildlife rehabilitators licensed with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The volunteers are on the front lines of helping sick, injured or orphaned wildlife, from squirrels to birds to bats. Some rehabilitators are veterinarians, though many, such as Marsden, are simply animal lovers who spend thousands of dollars a year on supplies — and go through a required 1,000 hours of training — to help animals-in-need get back into the wild. Except for the serious medical work that can only be done by a veterinarian, the everyday people who volunteer for the state's Wildlife Rehabilitators Program are asked to perform a number of tough tasks, from nursing an animal back to full health to euthanizing it when there are no other options.

"They are not just hobbyists," said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Patricia Thompson, who leads the rehabilitators program. "For all intents and purposes, they are practicing heavy duty rehabilitation."

A successful rehabilitation means an animal is mentally and physically ready to return to the wild, though many never reach that point and must be euthanized according to state law. It's illegal to own a wild animal in Washington, and the ones that Marsden and other rehabilitators care for are only temporary housemates.

"Most people don't know that we're out here," Marsden said about the wildlife rehabilitation program. "Most people don't think about it until they have an animal in their hands."

That's exactly what happened to Marsden four years ago when she came across a baby squirrel while mowing her lawn. It was alone and in need of care. She didn't know what to do.

"I called all around to figure out what to do with it, and I realized there were no real resources at all for wildlife. The only option was taking it to the humane society to be euthanized. The closest wildlife center at that time was in Cowlitz County," she said. "I asked myself, 'Why not me? Why don't I do something about this problem?'"

So, after some research, she began the process of starting her own small wildlife center from her home.

She now spends about five hours a day feeding the animals, keeping a close eye on the sick ones, cleaning their cages and communicating with the public. When she checks her cellphone, there's almost always a message waiting for her about a new animal that will soon end up at her door.

For certain animals she's not equipped to care for, including larger ones such as raccoons or deer, she has to make a choice: refer the people who found the animal to a facility out of the county or personally drive the creature to another rehabilitator, sometimes as far away as Seattle. Another option is euthanization, but Marsden said she does all she can to put down animals only if it's absolutely necessary.

"If I don't take it, it has to get euthanized by law," she said. "I try not having to say no."

Before she was a wildlife rehabilitator, Marsden had never killed an animal. Now, she's a reluctant pro. Every time she watches an animal die, it still brings sadness.

If it doesn't recover, the injured squirrel she rescued from a tree last month must also be put down.

"I have killed more animals, probably, than anyone you know," she said. People have dropped off animals to her that have been poisoned, starved, hit by cars and covered in bugs. "I've learned not to be squeamish. I try to treat every animals with as much compassion as I can."

A small team of volunteers helps Marsden with some of her duties, but even with that assistance, the work never ends. There's always another call and another plea for help — morning, day and night.

In her fourth year as a wildlife rehabilitator, Marsden is feeling worn out.

She'd like to see a larger wildlife rehabilitation center be created in Clark County, but her and her husband's efforts to get that going haven't gotten off the ground and she hasn't seen much strong interest in the community.

"Every hour of the day I'm working," she said. "I told myself I would give it five years to get this going. At some point you have to accept that it's not a priority. It's hard for me to give up."

Now that she's nearing the five-year milestone, she thinks she might have to soon step aside and take a breather.

"She says that every year," her husband Curtis said.

That's true, Marsden added, but this year might, truly, be her last.

Sometimes at the end of a busy day, you just want to be able to drop everything and watch TV, she said. But it's hard to relax when there are hundreds of hungry baby squirrels scurrying around just outside your window.

"I have done all I can. I love these animals and I want them to be cared for and it's been hard for me to come to that conclusion," she said about pondering an end to Squirrel Refuge, which costs her family about $15,000 a year to maintain.

"But it will also, at some point, take over my entire life and I need to get other people involved or understand that this is the way it is. It's a hard decision."

Leave Wildlife in the Wild

Donny Martorello of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, urges people to leave wildlife in the wild.