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Giving animals a second chance

Updated: 
December 11, 2013 - 8:44am

A young Hawaiian petrel bobbed in a conditioning pool, meticulously preening its naturally waterproofed feathers, Tuesday at the Hawaii Wildlife Center in Kapaau.

Each feather had to be aligned just so to keep water or air from seeping through the microscopic barbs. Judi Ellal, the wildlife rehabilitation manager, closely monitored the petrel from afar, making sure it stayed buoyant — something it struggled with just weeks ago.

At the end of November, a Cascadia Research Collective team discovered the newly fledged bird struggling in the water about 6 miles off Kawaihae. It appeared to be on the verge of drowning. The petrel was taken to the Hawaii Wildlife Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to protecting Hawaiian species through hands-on treatment, rehabilitation, research, training and education.

The center, the first state-of-the art response facility exclusively for native wildlife in the Pacific islands, has been in operation since September 2012. Open daily, the center focuses primarily on providing quality, professional care to sick, injured and contaminated birds and bats, said Linda Elliott, the center’s founder, president and director.

Prior to beginning this waterproofing process, the petrel had to pass a health exam, as well as meet weight and behavioral standards. Upon arrival, the bird had a fairly low body weight and was estimated to be less than 6 months old, Ellal said.

On Monday, the petrel was stable enough to be bathed in soapy water, kept between 104 and 106 degrees, then rinsed and dried. It comfortably floated in the pool Tuesday. Come Thursday, this bird will likely be released back into the wild as long as it passes a final health exam.

The petrel is among 16 species the center has cared for in its first year of operation. Of those species, five were federally listed as threatened or endangered. More than half of the animals treated were successfully returned to the wild, Elliott said.

The cases received have come from all of the main Hawaiian Islands and are diverse, ranging from impact injuries and animal attacks to being down because of light attraction. Each animal receives individualized treatment and care. The facility includes animal intake, isolation and holding areas, wash and drying rooms, a laboratory, specialized aviaries and conditioning pools. Recovery programs can last weeks or months, depending on the treatment required, Elliott said.

Besides rehabilitation, the center provides responder and volunteer training. In its education pavilion, the center held a well-attended training on how to mitigate avian botulism, a paralytic, often fatal, disease of birds that results when they ingest toxin produced by the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum.

Hawaii Wildlife Center also does emergency response development and execution. It is currently helping with the relocation of 400 nene from Kauai’s Lihue Airport, where the endangered geese pose a risk to arriving and departing planes, Elliott said.

Science-based education programs, tours and research are major components of Hawaii Wildlife Center. For instance, the center has a relationship with its neighbor, Kohala Middle School. The school has taken advantage of the center’s lab and equipment. Students regularly perform community service at the center. They help maintain its native garden, which is a National Wildlife Federation certified wildlife habitat site. They’ve created a public service announcement about how the center protects vulnerable native species. The students are now developing a coloring book to raise funds for future center efforts.

An initiative is currently underway to develop a master plan for museum-like exhibits in the center’s interpretive courtyard. These displays will inform visitors about the center and its work, as well as how they can help. The center has received approximately $50,000 in grants to create the master plan, expected to be completed by February. But additional funding will be needed to make the exhibits a reality, Elliott said. Volunteer docents will also be sought, she added.

Fundraising is ongoing for Hawaii Wildlife Center to ensure there is sufficient funding to operate, provide staffing, develop programs and accomplish other efforts, such as creating satellite offices. The center has an annual operating budget of about $550,000, which comes from service contracts, grants and donors, Elliott said.

While Hawaii Wildlife Center works in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, it is not funded by or a part of these agencies, she said.

With the limited pool of highly competitive grants, the center has diversified its funding sources and become more creative with its fundraising, Elliott said. The center is in the process of creating a retail store, anticipated to open this week, and is selling a donated outrigger canoe.

The center hopes to create an endowment fund in the near future and is pursuing corporate giving opportunities, added Rae Okawa, development coordinator.

The successes so far achieved don’t only belong to the center’s five-member staff. Credit also goes to the pro-bono and consultant veterinarians; dedicated wildlife transporters, of which more pilots are needed; countless volunteers; and ongoing partnerships. However, more support is needed to continue making a difference, Elliott and Okawa said.

To get involved or for more information, call 884-5000 or visit hawaiiwildlifecenter.org.