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Bear necessities: Wildlife centre a place to heal before returning to the wild

North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre near Errington cares for everything from orphaned bear cubs to raptors struck by vehicles, getting them ready to return to the wild if possible

He was a just a tiny thing found hiding behind a house plant in a Campbell River home last June, trembling and fearful. The little black bear cub, four months old and about 12 pounds, wandered through an open door after being separated from her mother, who was nowhere to be found. It didn’t look good for the cub until she was delivered to the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre.

Now the little bear nicknamed Campbell is thriving. She is bigger and heavier, curious and rambunctious, thanks to care provided by the non-profit animal ­recovery centre near Errington, where she has company: Sookie was found under a deck near Sooke, also separated from its mother, and the Qualicum Triplets, who were orphaned about a month later.

All five of the bear cubs — three females and two males — are candidates for release next summer after a careful rearing process at the centre, which has raised and released more than 200 young bears since the program began in 1997.

“We owe it them,” says Robin Campbell, 73, who started the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre with his wife, Sylvia, in 1985.

The couple have been pioneers in giving Vancouver Island’s young black bears — as well as raptors and birds of every sort — a second chance at life in the wild. Other wildlife recovery centres have emerged since, including bear rehab ­centres in Smithers and the Lower Mainland, based on the Campbells’ assistance and ­innovative program model.

The cubs in Errington are raised in a series of enclosures with pools, boulders, logs and stumps where their food of fish, meat and berries and other fruit is hidden to spark their natural instincts to hunt and forage.

Their behaviour is monitored by trained staff and their vitals checked by the centre’s veterinarian of more than three decades, Dr. Malcolm McAdie, five times between capture and release. Their exposure to humans is extremely limited — ­centre visitors can only watch them via closed-circuit screens.

The cubs were moved last month to the pre-release enclosure, an open area with uprooted trees, natural vegetation and plastic hibernation dens stuffed with straw, though the cubs have been showing a more natural preference to den in root balls. In this enclosure, they can smell the great outdoors and forage, and the natural process of hibernation can begin. At this point, their food intake is increasing from 5,000 calories a day to 20,000.

Through a partnership with the Environment Ministry, the cubs will be fitted in the spring with ear tags and breakaway collars containing transponders that will allow scientists to track their movements and behaviours once they’re released. Most are released into the general areas where they were found.

“It all provides very important data on the bears we raise and what they do in the first year of their natural environment,” says Derek Downes, animal care supervisor at the centre. “It gives you an idea of behaviours such as denning preferences, where they travel and what kind of food they might be eating, and an idea about their size.”

Last July, the ministry released six black bears raised at the centre. The number of annual releases over the years has ranged from four to 15.

Campbell estimates there are about 7,000 black bears on the Island. The Vancouver Island black bear is one of six subspecies in B.C., and is darker and slightly bigger than its counterparts.

“You know, when you see them released, it’s just wonderful,” says Campbell. “I have this mindset where I see them lying in the soft moss under a tree on that first night … there are no human smells anymore; there’s only the smell of ‘I’m home again.’

“They have so much to teach us and we have to learn how to [better] protect them.”

Humble beginnings to international recognition

Robin and Sylvia Campbell were running the general store at Buckley Bay at the Denman Island ferry terminal on Christmas Day 1984 when they found a great horned owl entangled and injured in a neighbour’s fence. They started nursing the owl back to health and word got out. More birds arrived, and the volunteers and experts followed, as the couple, with two kids and another on the way, built enclosures to form the Buckley Bay Wildlife Recovery Centre.

Two years later, after a brief sojourn to Outlook, Saskatchewan for work, the Campbells returned to the Island and purchased eight acres in Errington, where they created the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre.

“Robin and I started to build the place up and the volunteers started to come,” recalls Sylvia. They cared for disabled people in their home for income and started a non-profit to build up the wildlife recovery centre.

“We have never been afraid of hard work,” Sylvia says. “And there’s been so much help from the community.”

The centre made headline news shortly after, when an area farmer left a euthanized cow in a field. Bald eagles feasted on the carcass and 29 of the birds were found lying on the ground, apparently poisoned.

The Campbells, their volunteers and veterinarians jumped in, eventually rehabilitating and releasing 25 of the bald eagles.

The centre developed expertise in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation and extensive educational programs for the public. Robin says he gets calls from Europe, the U.S. and even Africa for advice.

Operated by a board of directors, the centre runs entirely on donations and gate admissions, as well as sponsorships from businesses and organizations.

The site has the largest eagle flight cage of its kind in Canada at 42 metres long, the timber-frame Arthur Knowles Museum of Nature, the May Neish Wildlife Learning Centre, and an expansive treatment centre named in honour of McAdie.

Operating costs are kept low with just a handful of full-time staff and 80 volunteers. “It’s the people that make this place so special and make it work,” says Sylvia.

Robin says one of the keys to the centre’s success has been the long-time assistance of the Qualicum First Nation, whose hereditary and elected chief Buddy Recalma was an early supporter and always provided the centre with salmon from its traditional lands for the raptors and bears.

Recalma’s daughter Kim Recalma Clutsi said the tradition of helping the animals continues after her father’s death in 2002. “He always saw the work of Robin and Sylvia in helping the eagle and bear as important work and instructed us to carry on, so we do that,” says Recalma Clutsi. “Their work is single-minded. They are helping these animals in these times when logging and mining and drought are hurting the environment.”

The Campbell say they’ve never turned an animal away. “It can be small as a sparrow or it can be a bear,” says Robin. Dropoffs are encouraged 24/7. “We learn from every case … that’s what makes this work exciting. You get up every morning and you don’t know what’s in the box out there.”

Human conflict, human education

Not all animals at the centre can be returned to the wild. In some cases, their injuries are too severe, so they remain in enclosures as “ambassadors” for their species.

As many of 800 animals are brought to the centre on any given year, either by government agencies like the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, wildlife protection groups or just individuals who happen upon them lying in a ditch, yard, beach or forest. Some are treated and nursed through rehab for eventual release, while others remain and still more just don’t make it.

Since 1986, more than 25,000 birds and animals have been cared for here. Executive director Joyce Lee says the centre’s mission isn’t only to care for the injured and orphaned but to educate people about what brought them there.

She says 95% of the animals that arrive had some sort of interaction with humans, either directly or indirectly, from cat attacks to vehicle collisions, electrocutions via power lines, oil spills, infected bird feeders and garbage — even the unintentional yet harmful act of taking a fawn that seems abandoned.

One stark reality is the increasing number of raptors such as owls and eagles found dead or injured on roadways because people continue to throw organics from vehicle windows. A banana peel, half-finished muffin or sandwich and even the plastics they are wrapped in attract rodents that are hunted by raptors, which are often hit by cars.

Each of the enclosures tells a story: a golden eagle shot in the wing that will never be able to fly well enough to hunt; a great-horned owl that was hit by a car; and Rae, a black bear found having seizures on the roadside, likely the victim of a vehicle strike.

Lee said the centre measures its success by whether it can reduce the number of animals arriving every day. “People can do any number of things … sometimes it’s just not putting your garbage out until the day of pickup or cleaning your hummingbird feeders.”

The bald eagles that got away, and the one that won’t

At the centre’s medical centre, animal-care supervisor Derek Downes is preparing one of Casey’s favorite meals — a ghastly mix of quail innards and bits of fish.

Casey is an impressive juvenile bald eagle — three feet high and 10 pounds with long, piercing talons. Children and adults lean into the half-door of the clinic as Downes tong-feeds the bird, and everyone reacts with awe as the bird grabs the food and swallows it. Curious, Casey takes a step forward, and the spectators all take a step back. Downes moves in front and Casey returns to its position.

Casey was brought here in May 2019 as an eaglet and has never known flight; he was found on the ground with no nearby nest, a broken foot and severe damage to his left wing. The foot has healed, but the wing, still bent, remains only to keep his sense of balance.

It’s not known how Casey was injured — Downes explains that eagles can end up here because of everything from power lines to vehicle strikes and starvation. “The wild is a tough place for them.”

His enclosure is open and the perches are close to the ground, where Casey can easily climb. He watches everyone pass by. “Hey Case,” says one staff member, to which Casey responds by opening his good wing.

The centre recently released two bald eagles, one that was brought in with soft-tissue damage to its wing, the other grounded by starvation caused by the effects of a devastating heat dome in 2021.

“There’s a lot of times when we fail, when eagles come to us and they’re in a really bad way and it’s not the best outcome for them,” says Downes. “So having the opportunity for eagles to go back out into the wild is an absolutely amazing feeling.”

The release was timed for when the herring were spawning, giving the pair the best chance of getting a foothold in the wild. The eagles hopped once, spread their massive wings and took flight.

Wildlife veterinarian McAdie, who conducts pre-release exams, says releases are special moments, but there are no guarantees. “When you do this kind of work you realize there are a lot of obstacles and challenges that these wild animals have to deal with. The first thing is being able to find enough to eat, going through times when food isn’t as abundant.

“There’s also all these other obstacles that humans put in front of them like hydro lines and loss of habitat and toxins.”

Blizzard is a blast

Blizzard is busy inside his enclosure, assembling sticks and pebbles in piles or balancing twigs on logs and waiting for the next visitor to see his handiwork.

The white raven, one of the centre’s newest residents, mimics words like hello and wow and tilts his head when you speak with him. He’s one of the mysterious snow-white ravens known to exist only on the mid-Island around Coombs and Qualicum Beach — they have been recorded there for more than two decades, says Ken Yip, a bird photographer and author who’s been documenting the white birds since 2007.

The strange corvids are considered leucistic — not albino, which have no pigment at all. Leucistic ravens like Blizzard have blue eyes and a genetic defect that dilutes the natural black colour.

Yip said the feathers of the white ravens have less insulating value, which makes the birds susceptible to hypothermia. Their weaker eyesight may also impair their ability to find food, and their striking colour might make them more likely to attract predators.

The white ravens are the product of a mated pair of common ravens carrying the same rare recessive gene. Yip said there have been at least one or two white ravens hatched in the area every year since the early 1990s.

Ravens typically live for up to 20 years, mate for life and lay up to five eggs each season. Yip believes the mating pair on the central Island have been producing at least one white raven a year — sometimes up to three — along with traditional black ravens. But the white ravens don’t live long in the wild.

“I believe that most white ravens do not survive the winter,” he said. “All the white ravens I have seen have been juveniles, and I have only heard of one in over 20 years that had survived the winter.”

Blizzard arrived at the centre in spring 2021 after being found on the ground unable to fly and with infected wounds. He was tube-fed and given antibiotics to clear the infections over several months, and is now thriving.

He may live to be the oldest white raven in existence, and is surprising his handlers at the recovery centre, who have installed a small heating system for him this fall and winter.

Downes said Blizzard is thriving with the human interaction. “It’s been a very positive experience for our visitors, but it’s also positive for him as well because he’s getting interaction.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com

If you are interested in supporting the work of the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, or want to lend your expertise or volunteer, or adopt one of the animal ambassadors or visit the centre, go to niwra.org for more information

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: letters@timescolonist.com

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