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Shelter's where the wild things are

An exotic snapping turtle is among the patients currently undergoing rehabilitation at the Island Wildlife Shelter. - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
An exotic snapping turtle is among the patients currently undergoing rehabilitation at the Island Wildlife Shelter.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

Sandy Fletcher is used to having a tiger – or in this case, a turtle – by the tail.

The director of the Island Wildlife Shelter hefts the fierce, 14-pound reptile with practiced hands – one carefully ensconced in an oven mitt.

“Watch out, she can reach you,” she warns. “They have very long necks.”

Annoyed at the unceremonious removal from its tank, the turtle shows off jaws that could easily take off a finger or two.

Fletcher, who has been rehabilitating animals for years, isn’t fazed by the display.

“If I haven’t been bitten, scratched, stomped on or crapped on in a day, something has gone wrong,” she says.

Located next to the Bloedel Reserve, the shelter is currently host to some two-dozen denizens – not counting their dinners – that have been rescued by Kitsap residents and brought to the only facility of its kind in the county.

The snapping turtle is one of Fletcher’s luckier guests. The impressive creature, probably an escaped or abandoned pet, will ship out soon to another wildlife facility in its native Midwest, where it will be reintroduced into the wild.

“It’s really wonderful to get an exotic animal out of the pet world and back into the natural world,” Fletcher said.

Less than a third of animals that arrive at the shelter survive. But that’s a good “release rate” for the kinds of injuries the shelter sees, Fletcher said.

“Most of the animals that come to us are trauma cases,” she said. “Most of them have also been in the field a long time, so they are in horrendous condition.”

Particularly difficult to care for are large birds like owls, hawks and eagles, which are often injured in falls or collisions.

“They tend to be moving at pretty high speed when they hit things,” said Fletcher.

The shelter recently rescued two eaglets from a downed nest near Winslow.

One of the young birds was successfully restored to its nest tree in an aerie reconstructed by a team from the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

The other, which suffered several fractures in its fall, is in the care of rehabilitators like Cheryl Hunter.

“It feels like a real privilege to be around an animal that magnificent,” said Hunter, a longtime shelter volunteer.

“For me, that’s the most rewarding part, when you can release an animal back where it belongs.”

Like its residents, though, Island Wildlife Shelter struggles for survival.

Since its opening in September 1999, funding at the center has been tight.

“Our essential funding is private. We also get about $10,000 a year from the city,” said Gil Bailey, who, with wife Jan, spearheaded development of the facility.

Money also comes in from the Bainbridge Foundation drive, as well as individuals who bring in injured animals.

“Very frequently, we survive from hand to mouth financially,” said Fletcher, the shelter’s only paid employee, who estimated the monthly operating budget at $4,000.

Work at the shelter – everything from cleaning cages to administering medication – is done by a small cadre of volunteers.

Although volunteers are trained in animal handling, and several have advanced certification in rehabilitation, the center is currently without even a part-time veterinarian. The center relies on local vets to donate services and medical supplies.

“Right now, we have to beg,” Fletcher said.

The shortage of volunteers means the shelter usually cannot take in the kind of animal with the best chance of survival: babies.

“Baby birds need feeding every 20-30 minutes,” said Fletcher. “To be able to accept them, we’d need about 45 volunteers. Right now, we only have 18.”

Hunter also cites the need for a waterfowl pond, and a larger facility for the half-dozen eagles and hawks the center sees each year.

An important part of raptor rehabilitation is building up wing muscles – something difficult to do in the cramped quarters of the outdoor cages.

“Sometimes we let them fly on leads, but they’ll get to the end of the lead and crash back down,” Hunter said.

While resources are in short supply, the need for its services continues to grow.

Last year, Island Wildlife Shelter took in 450 animals – most harmed, in various ways, through interaction with humans.

Animal-auto collisions claimed the lives of about 50 deer on the island last year, Bailey estimates, and killed or injured countless smaller animals – including one of the shelter’s two barred owls, blinded in one eye in a car accident and now unable to survive in the wild.

Outdoor pets, particularly cats, are another major cause of injury for birds, which make up 80 percent of the shelter’s cases every year.

Artifacts of human activity also pose a danger: Every year, the shelter takes in waterfowl that have become tangled in nets or discarded fishing line.

A family’s chance stroll through Bremerton’s Pendergrast Park led to the rescue recently of a great horned owl, which had become snared in a soccer net.

The owl was released last week, but most avians are often trapped for days before they are discovered.

Don’t feed ‘em

Even well-meant meals can be dangerous to wildlife, said Fletcher, who once cared for a swan with an intestinal blockage caused by its consumption of white bread.

Smaller birds also suffer from injudicious feeding. This spring, the shelter issued a warning about a virus spread at bird feeders in Northwest Canada, and urged members not to put out food during the bountiful and disease-breeding summer months.

“There is a lot of evidence that feeding helps birds in the winter, especially chickadees, but it’s not a good idea otherwise,” Bailey said. “When we feed the birds in summer, we really do it for ourselves.”

A growing concern is the feeding of raccoons, which can lead to aggressive behavior. Ultimately, such handouts are harmful to the animals themselves.

“We expect they will become so badly overpopulated that they’ll be weakened by disease,” Fletcher said.

Aggravating human intervention, Bailey said, is the pressure placed by development on the animals and their habitat.

“Any time you take out a tree, you are pushing out the wildlife,” he said.

While efforts to preserve habitat and open space are important, he said, co-existing with wildlife is an individual effort.

“People need to, if they can, modify their behavior,” he said.

Bailey advises islanders to leave brush and blackberries around as habitat for animals – and to adopt a spirit of compromise, like that followed by one of his neighbors.

“She decided to grow really tall roses,” he said. “She has the top half, and the deer can have the bottom half.”

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