Helping Canadian Wildlife During A Pandemic
By Jennifer Thorpe
“The work that goes on in our clinic makes a big difference, not only to the individual animals that we treat and release, but also to the volunteer caregivers. Hearts are touched and lives are changed in a selfless spirit of co-operation focussed on giving back to nature. That is the miracle of Salthaven,” says Brian Salt.
When Brian Salt arrived at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St Marys to aid in the rescue of an osprey chick entangled in its nest, a small group of observers were thrilled to watch what was another ordinary working day for the founder of Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre.
At the time, almost exactly five years ago, Salthaven was halfway to its goal of fundraising $1.2 million to relocate and update its facilities. Incorporated as a non-profit in 2004, Salthaven has grown steadily, opening a second location, Salthaven West, in Regina in 2014.
Their Ontario location cares for 1500 patients each year with a 70% success rate. At peak season, they receive 150 calls per day. With a group of 120 volunteers and a diverse range of wildlife needs, they needed to expand.
This spring they officially moved to their beautiful new location on Glen Oak Road near Strathroy. The new 25-acre site includes a 5-acre woodlot, a spring-fed pond, room for an amphitheatre for educational events, housing for the operations manager and interns, and more room for wildlife to roam during the day. Upgraded facilities in the clinic include an operating room, a triage room, a food prep room, and a heavy-duty laundry room.
Thoughtfully planned to accommodate the needs of many different species, the new facility features many important changes. Tinted windows within the clinic reduce distress to the patients while permitting observation. Temperature, humidity, and recirculation can be independently controlled in some rooms. Fully dimmable lighting whose frequency can be changed to simulate late morning and early evening light, important for feather development in chicks, has been installed in the bird room. And a large, deep tub in the aquatic bird room makes it possible for birds like loons and grebes, who are not able to feed out of water, to fish for their dinner. Salt notes that a group of ten long-tailed ducks kept volunteers busy by eating four dozen minnows a day!
The new location is a major improvement, says Thorndale intern Sarah Norley. It’s her third season at Salthaven. “Last year we’d have mammals and birds in the same area and everyone would be bumping into each other. We now have more room for birds to spread out in the outdoor aviary. There’s lots more room for our shore birds, geese and mallards. They have their own flight pen outside so they can stay there overnight and roam around grounds during the day.”
A fourth-year student in animal biology at University of Guelph, Sarah’s studies have been influenced and inspired by her work at Salthaven. “No day is ever the same. We learn so much that we put towards school. It’s incredible being able to work with animals up close. Every year we get a batch of squirrels and songbirds. They’re close to my heart because I work with them so closely and get to know them, it’s just really touching. All the releases are very incredible.”
Salt had been dreaming of the new location for fifteen years, but no one could’ve imagined the impact a pandemic would have on future plans, day-to-day work and funding. By the time the year-long move from their Mount Brydges location was officially completed in May, pandemic restrictions were already in full-force. Plans to re-open to the public, offer facility and horticultural tours, and host events in an outdoor amphitheatre have all been indefinitely postponed. Volunteer numbers had to be cut by half to follow safe social-distancing guidelines.
The team of trainers and volunteers worked hard to adapt. “At the beginning we only had about one or two volunteers per shift, so we were taking fewer patients than normal,” says Sarah Norley. “We had to take more critical cases, ones that we thought we could help. Now we’re up to at least three volunteers per shift. It’s been difficult when we only had a few volunteers to rely on for so much. We are so grateful for them, especially during this time.”
One group of volunteers called The Bat Squad is particularly devoted. Coached by Brock Fenton, Professor Emeritus of Biology at UWO, they volunteer daily to test fly the bats, clean cages, dish up meal worms and administer supplements. This year, everyone was surprised by the birth of twins, a rare event which is remarkable considering that each baby bat weighs 25-30% of its mother’s weight. Some nursing mothers consume their body weight in insects each evening, about the equivalent of 5000 mosquitoes. Bats, the only flying mammals in North America, are an important source of insect control and it’s estimated they save billions of dollars in the agricultural sector.
“Our volunteers are amazing people,” says Salt, “They become family.” And these volunteer positions are highly sought after. Every January and February, 90 applicants are interviewed for 20-25 new positions. They have received applications in the past from Puerto Rico, Calgary, Germany, Denmark. This year, however, international borders were closed to applicants from Brazil, France, and Florida.
Pandemic restrictions also effectively cancelled all educational speaking engagements. Averaging 75-100 presentations each year at schools, universities, retirement homes, and organizations, Salthaven now plans to deliver educational programming via online platforms like Zoom.
Now more than ever, social media is proving to be a powerful way to connect with the public. With the help of former TV anchor Kathy Mueller, Salthaven’s Facebook page regularly posts videos and photos of unique patients and feel-good wildlife releases and rescues. They also post important conservation tips and emergency care guidance for injured or abandoned creatures.
“Kathy’s doing a really great job. Our followers and views have definitely gone up,” says Sarah Norley. “It’s a really great way to get the Salthaven name out to the world. When I go out in a Salthaven hat or sweater people recognize the name and they always thank you and say you’re doing such great work. That means the world to us. It will be really hard to leave in September, it always is.”
Funded completely by grants and donations, Salthaven continues to rely on the generosity of the public to support their important work. “We’re still here,” says Salt. “We still need supplies.” Pandemic restrictions forced them to cancel two major annual fundraisers; they are also seeing a reduction in donations. One of their big-ticket items is a supply of nitrile gloves. “We go through 4000 pairs of medium gloves each year because 75% of our volunteers are female and their hands tend to be smaller.”
There are many ways to support Salthaven. As they continue to meet the challenges of operating safely during the pandemic, they are finding ways for the public to give that are safe and convenient. Wild Birds Unlimited in London will accept phone orders for donations of seed that Salthaven will arrange to pick-up. Visit Salthaven online at www.salthaven.org to learn more about supporting them with a financial donation, with resources or bequests, or by sponsoring a species. Contact them at (519) 264-2440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. While they remain closed to the general public, virtual visits on Facebook are encouraged to see the many amazing creatures that they help return to the wild.