By Leigh Calvez
On the north end of Bainbridge Island, tucked under the cool shade of tall Douglas firs on Dolphin Road, stands a small hospital ready to handle the next emergency. With a congregation of dedicated volunteers and staff, West Sound Wildlife Shelter (WSWS) provides lifesaving support to some of the island’s oft-overlooked animal residents in their most vulnerable moments, granting fortunate second chances at a life in the wild.
As the only wildlife ER of its kind on the west side of Puget Sound, this small organization has become widely known as both support and demand for its services continues to grow. In 2004 the shelter treated 333 animals.
In 2015 that number grew to a record 1,569 animals with a 72-percent release rate back to the wild. Additionally, WSWS responds to nearly 6,000 wildlife conflict calls annually. Ascended from humble yet noble beginnings—Bainbridge residents Gil and Jan Bailey caring for sick and injured wildlife in their backyard—WSWS moved to its existing, more formal hospital setting in 2000.
At the end of 2021, the shelter’s lease with Bloedel Reserve will expire. WSWS plans to look for and purchase land where an expanded wildlife shelter as well as an educational facility can be built.
A heap of baby squirrels sleeps soundly in a blue fleece hat inside an incubator, offering a rare, behind-thescenes glimpse of the shelter’s work. Orphaned when their home tree was blown over in a windstorm, the infants share their cozy bonnet with a second scurry of babies whose tree was felled during a landscaping project. In another warm cage, six opossum joeys snooze.
Their mother was killed by a dog, their lives spared by the safety of her marsupial pouch. Thankfully, a concerned resident knew to check for the hidden young, delivering the foundlings to WSWS for care. Nursery volunteers, dressed in blue medical scrubs, gather around feeding babies with ears colored purple, blue, green and other shades of Sharpie for individual identification.
The baby squirrels eagerly suck the milk from the syringes, but the passel of infant opossum, lacking instinct, require a little more care. Christina Filarski, one of WSWS’s six permanent staff members, carefully sticks a red tube, thinner than a piece of yarn, down the throat of a squirming opossum, the baby visibly relaxing as the warm milk fills her belly.
Two hours later, Filarski returns, repeating the procedure and underscoring the extent of the ongoing care involved in fostering the baby animals. All the while, volunteers and staff like Filarski work equally hard not to habituate the wild animals during their stays at WSWS.
Despite the caregivers’ affection for their patients, they’re not cuddled, talked to or treated as pets. WSWS embraces the philosophy that “a habituated animal is a dead animal,” because the best outcomes occur when patients remain as wary of humans as possible.
As the squirrels and opossums grow, they will be moved outside to a cluster of small enclosures alongside areas dedicated to birds and small mammals being readied for release. Here the animals receive minimal human attention, recovering the natural behaviors and strength necessary for a life in the wild.
Also found here are gazes of baby raccoons, coyotes in a separate pen, and a waterfowl nursery for diving birds—like baby ducks and seagulls—where they’ll grow waterproof feathers before heading to yet another pen that features six enclosed pools. If the extent of the work sounds overwhelmingly time-consuming and complex, it is.
“We’re just at the beginning,” said Lynne Weber, a licensed wildlife rehabilitation specialist, about the first wave of spring juvenile animals coming into WSWS. The season began about four weeks early due to the relatively warm winter. A second surge is expected mid- to late August.
“Some of this is preventable,” Weber said. “We ask that people not cut down trees in the spring. Fall or winter is a better time. Also, we remind them to check around the yard before doing work,” she said. “If you have babies, please wait until they’ve left the nests. And call us. We can always give you ideas to help you live with the wildlife in your backyard.”
Down the hall from the wildlife NICU, other volunteers prepare meals in the kitchen for WSWS’s educational animals—ambassadors who would not survive in the wild because of their injuries that live permanently at the shelter behind the main hospital building.
A 2-year-old opossum, Linnea, who never healed fully enough to return to the wild, will spend the rest of her days at WSWS. With a white face, dark ears, a pink nose and small black eyes, she peers out of her cage while eating lunch before her enrichment walk around the grounds, a time set aside for the educational animals to exercise some of their remaining wild skills.
Harmless to humans, opossums act as wandering pest control services, keeping mice and rat populations in check. They also eat slugs, leaving Northwest gardens lush and healthy. And it’s Linnea’s job—along with two other rescued opossums, Luna and Pogo—to carry this message to the people.
Last year 10 volunteer handlers from WSWS led 158 separate programs at events like the Kitsap County and Harvest Fairs as well as at schools in 17 Western Washington cities, educating some 12,000 people about wildlife stewardship. Nine different animal ambassadors like Athena, the 8-year-old barred owl hit by a car, as well as Remington, a 3-year-old turkey vulture, star in the shows.
The Priceless Volunteers
“I love these guys. I love doing this,” said volunteer handler Rick Gillette, who stood in the sunshine holding an 8-year-old American kestrel, Pele. “This gives the animals a second chance at life. They inspire instant awe.” With as many as 17,000 hours from 115 volunteers providing nearly half of WSWS’s total annual support, donated time like Gillette’s is invaluable.
“This is my church and these are my people,” declared Bonita Sanders, another dedicated volunteer. Executive Director Lisa Horn agreed, noting, “It’s a team effort here.” WSWS depends on the generosity of islanders in addition to the larger community to stay afloat.
“People were so generous at our baby shower in March,” Horn said of the event that raises supplies like detergent, birdseed, pet food and linens in anticipation of the influx of orphaned animals. “We filled the rescue van and had to start stacking donations on the ground.”
The rescue van itself was a donation from the Bainbridge Community Foundation and the Bainbridge Rotary, and after WSWS posted patterns on its Facebook page in January, the community made more than 600 hand-knit yarn nests for baby birds and mammals.
Last November, when two washers, a dryer, two refrigerators, a furnace and a heat pump all died at once, a new refrigerator and dryer, donated by Puget Sound Energy, arrived the next morning. Within two weeks everything had been replaced with donations.
Even the freezers are near overflowing with thousands of pounds of salmon donated by the Suquamish Tribe and smelt confiscated from poachers and delivered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. All told, from the hours given to rescuing and caring for sick and injured wildlife, to the generous donations from so many, one gets the impression that Mother Nature herself is smiling on WSWS. For more, visit westsoundwildlife.org.