I was following Donna Burt down the hallway when the squirrel rolled by.
Burt is the founder of the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center in Hughson. The 2-acre center, which lies near the Tuolumne River, will celebrate its 30th anniversary this fall. About 2,000 animals per year go through SWCC, most for just a short time before being reintroduced to their native habitats.
I was there because I wanted to see a Swainson’s hawk that had been brought in a few days before.
The fledgling had fallen from its nest in a eucalyptus tree near the docks at Lake Yosemite where my husband teaches junior sail camp. It seemed to be injured, and so Joe Malta, a camp volunteer, took the hawk to SWCC.
Burt had already shown me the three baby opossums whose mother appeared to be blind.
“We’re going to let her raise her babies,” Burt said, as I peered at the mother opossum’s red eyes.
“Then, we’ll have to euthanize her. She’s at least 18 months old, and they only live two years at the longest.”
I looked again at the doomed opossum.
“They’re stupid as stones, but blindness is uncommon in opossums,” Burt continued. “She might have been attacked by dogs.”
We had seen the wild piglet which would eventually be returned to the landfill where it had been found.
We had seen the fledging osprey, rescued by Turlock Irrigation District workers after it had been tangled in electrical wires. Its burns were still healing.
We had seen the red-tailed hawk found in Modesto with severe injuries. After months at the center, it was ready for release.
We had seen a volunteer, Elizabeth Oie, feed a nestling mockingbird. It had looked up, its fuzzy head thrown back, its neck stretched taut, and waited for Elizabeth to drop little pearls of slurry into its wide-open mouth.
Songbirds flitted in cages nearby, and one escapee hopped around on the floor, playing catch-me-if-you-can with the volunteers.
We had seen a coyote, displaced when farm equipment destroyed its den, pacing the fence in its enclosure.
And now, I was back in the main building and a ground squirrel was rolling by in a giant critter crawler, the kind I used to put our hamster in so he could run around the house and get some exercise.
I had never seen a squirrel in a critter crawler, and so I watched the squirrel and listened to Burt and animal care coordinator Veronica Sandow discuss the most recent problem facing the center: wild opossums breaking into the outdoor cages. Apparently, life at the center is pretty good if you happen to be an opossum.
Burt decided that the best solution was to tear down the old cages, which were falling apart anyway.
“Number 24 is the worst,” Sandow said.
“Replace 24,” Burt said. “Then we’ll worry about the other ones.”
A volunteer came in, carrying two cardboard boxes. In them were a barn owl and a hawk, and though they didn’t know it, they were about to be returned to the wild.
The hawk hissed, and I looked down at the box and considered the flimsy nature of cardboard.
Later, Sandow took me to see a burrowing owl. I had never been so close to a burrowing owl before, though it is definitely possible to be next to a burrowing owl without knowing it. Even in the enclosure, it was hard to spot.
It did not move the entire time we were there, and the only reason I was able to make it out was because of its yellow-green eyes, wide and intense. Ah, I thought, now I know why I have never seen one in the wild.
It turned out that the Swainson’s hawk was already gone. It wasn’t injured. It would have been best to leave the hawk alone, as its mother likely would have rescued it.
But we thought we were doing the right thing, and now that I’ve visited SWCC, I know that our hawk, while no longer with its siblings and mother, is at least free.