Noe Valley Voice February 2001

Are We There Yet? Family Adventures Close to Home

By Janis Cooke Newman

My son Alex finds the injured mourning dove on Sanchez Street. Half of its wing has been torn off, and clumps of feathers are missing from its back. We think it must have been attacked by a cat.

"We can't leave it here," Alex tells me. "The cat will come back."

But the bird doesn't want to be picked up. It hops away lopsided and tries to fly with its one good wing. I wrap it up in my scarf and put it in Alex's lunchbox. Then we carry it back up the hill to the house.

"We only take domestic animals that are injured," the man at the SPCA tells me. "You need to call WildCare Rehabilitation Center in San Rafael."

But it's late, and WildCare is closed. The recording on their hotline says to keep the bird warm and in a dark place and bring it in the morning.

We put the dove in a shoebox and cover it with an old Sierra Club T-shirt that belongs to my husband. Then we put the box in the bathroom and leave the heater on.

The next morning, we have a dead mourning dove in a shoebox.

"Why did it die?" Alex asks. And he and I sit on the bathroom floor and have The Conversation About Death that animals are so good at instigating.

Later, after an appropriately solemn burial in the backyard (we make a little shroud out of the Sierra Club T-shirt), I decide to take Alex on a field trip to WildCare. There we can see what might have happened if our mourning dove rescue attempt had had a happier ending.

WildCare, which a few years back merged with the Terwilliger Nature Education Center, is both a hospital that cares for ill, orphaned, and injured wild animals, and a wildlife education center for kids (and adults). The outdoor courtyard contains peaked-roof wooden cages for birds whose injuries have left them unable to live in the wild. Along the front wall is a cage with one-way glass for viewing mammals like raccoons and foxes who might be recuperating. There's even a small pool for injured shorebirds.

We arrive at noon, just in time to see the pool birds being fed. As a WildCare volunteer hands out little silver smelt, a couple of pushy pelicans with injured wings use their beaks to knock aside a group of gulls. A snowy egret, with long spiky feathers like a Haight Street haircut, waits regally on a rock for his lunch. And a pair of blue-throated cormorants stretch their long necks to reach the fish.

"Those guys are the freeloaders," the volunteer tells us, pointing at a collection of night herons and egrets standing on the railing that surrounds the pool. "They always know when it's feeding time."

Alex and I walk around the grounds, peering into the cages. We introduce ourselves to Leonard, a raven that was raised by humans and has forgotten how to hunt; Chilkat and Aurora, bald eagles whose wings have been amputated; and Chaucer, a pygmy owl with a little round face. The owl was hit by a car and now can't fly.

"Where's the turkey vulture?" Alex asks, looking at the tag on an empty cage.

"Vladimir is on assignment," Louann Partington, the director of animal foster care, tells him. "He's in Olema teaching another bird about turkey vultures."

Part of the difficulty in caring for orphaned animals and birds is keeping them from imprinting on humans, so WildCare uses puppets or other birds, like Vladimir, to remind them what species they are.

Vladimir and most of the birds in the courtyard are educational animals--animals that can't be returned to the wild because they won't survive. The animals that WildCare hopes to release stay in the facility's hospital, to avoid excess human contact.

Alex and I go into WildCare's building, which is a hands-on wildlife education center. We're surrounded by taxidermy animals: a mountain lion and a skunk, a badger and a turkey vulture. "Please touch (gently)," reads a sign on the wall above a stuffed heron. In the corner is another sign. It encourages us to "Be a pellet detective!" by poking around a pile of feathers and bones that have been regurgitated by a hawk in order to determine what it had for dinner.

"Doesn't look too yummy," Alex says.

In the Children's Discovery Corner, Alex opens boxes of shells and antlers and bones.

"Check this out, Mom!" he shouts, waving a cow femur at me.

The Discovery Corner also has a track-making kit, with an inkpad and stamps of bobcat and fox tracks, and two shelves of nature books, including one called the Encyclopedia of Extremely Weird Animals.

Although visitors aren't allowed in the hospital, there's a wall of photographs that show what goes on inside, including a far too detailed picture of a gull having a tube pushed down its throat. Nearby is a lightbox, where kids can view the x-rays of some of the injured animals that WildCare has treated.

Before we leave, Louann brings out Azor, a red kestrel--a small falcon--that's been at WildCare for 17 years. Azor sits on Louann's gloved hand, studying us with his shiny eyes.

"He was shot by a BB gun," she tells us. And I can see that his left wing is gone at the shoulder.

"Azor gets a small mouse every day," Louann says. "And as many mealworms as he wants."

Fortunately, we are not invited to poke around in his pellets.

Out in the field near the WildCare parking lot, Alex and I spot a wild hawk with a pigeon in its beak.

"Mom!" Alex shouts. "We've got to save it!"

But the pigeon's head is hanging too far to the side, and I'm not about to fight a hawk over a dead pigeon. Instead, we get into the car and have The Conversation About Nature and Survival of the Fittest that animals turn out to be equally good at instigating.

Visiting WildCare

WildCare Nature Education and Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is located at 76 Albert Park Lane in San Rafael. Take 101 north to the Central San Rafael exit, left on Third Street to B Street, left on B Street, and left on Albert Park Lane. The center is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The pool birds are fed at 9 a.m., noon, and between 3 and 4 p.m. There is no fee, but WildCare does accept donations.

In addition to running the center, WildCare offers nature camps for kids and has a Nature Van that will visit classrooms all over the Bay Area. There are also lots of volunteer opportunities for both children and adults. For more information, call WildCare at 415-453-1000, or visit the center's web site at

If you find an injured or orphaned wild animal, call WildCare's hotline at 415-456-SAVE. If your animal does recover, WildCare will let you release it back into the wild.

Are We There Yet? is a Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at or the Noe Valley Voice at