As spring approaches, the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation (AIWC) prepares for the influx of baby animals to arrive at the rehabilitation centre. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns grow around how to care for these animals with all 140 volunteers and many of its staff staying home, along with fundraiser events cancelled as a result of social distancing.
Fortunately, according to executive director Holly Lillie, AIWC often encounters the unexpected. The close-knit team of staff and volunteers is constantly adapting and evolving to best meet a growing need for wildlife conservation in Alberta.
“We all work together to realize our mission. It takes more than just one person to do this. It's the coming together of a lot of people to make AIWC work,” Lillie says.
The AIWC works to rescue, rehabilitate and release orphaned or injured animals. Since its founding in 1993 when AIWC was run out of a church in Didsbury Alta., their operation now sits on just over nine acres of land outside Cochrane and includes over 20 outdoor rehabilitation enclosures, an accredited vet hospital, a volunteer program and an educational outreach program.
Just last year the organization worked with 150 different species and saw an increase of 20 per cent — taking in over 1,500 animals in total. They achieved a 47 per cent success rate, which is higher than other similar organizations. Lillie chalks this up to the competency of the staff and volunteers who prioritize patient care above all else.
“We want to do everything that we can to get those animals back to where they belong,” Lillie says. “We love the animals we care for and by loving them, we want them to get back into the wild.”
The AIWC prioritizes their critters and its routine is always subject to change as the team constantly brainstorms ways to improve patient care. For example, white cage covers allow in light, but reduce the shock of staff or volunteers entering the area. Medication, cleaning, and feeding are all administered to a patient at the same time to limit the amount of human interaction and animals in the clinic are afforded supervised visits to the outdoors to soak up some vitamin D.
“It’s a very stressful experience for them to be in captive settings; we try and minimize that wherever possible,” Lillie says. “We've implemented a lot of things like that, together as a team, so that we are doing our best to manage the stress of our patients as much as possible.”
Stress management is also achieved by having an on-site hospital and a vet on staff. Made possible by community donations, AIWC has the resources — including a surgical suite — to perform diagnostics, treatments and interventions without needing to transport injured animals to the city.
The AIWC, located outside of Madden Alta., typically has a small team of six full-time staff, three part-time staff, and more than 125 volunteers. But, with the current global pandemic, many of the staff are subjected to working at home. Photo courtesy of the AIWC
Patients are then moved to outdoor enclosures. Staff and volunteers release patients back to where they were found, provided it is a suitable habitat.
AIWC is the only centre in the province to have an aquatic bird enclosure. Recently they built a bear enclosure to accommodate orphaned black bears that needed housing. This year, AIWC would like to build additional bear enclosures, including a nursery for cubs, to meet a growing need for this species.
As an additional effort to protect the province’s wildlife, AIWC has developed education outreaches to provide Albertans with a better understanding of their wild neighbours. Katrina Terrill, community engagement manager, says the AIWC currently offers nine different programs.
“What we’re looking to do is get people excited about wildlife. Because the more they get excited about it, the more they learn about it, and the more people tend to want to protect the wildlife that they're seeing,” Terrill says.
AIWC’s expert advice reduces risk to many species. Terrill says that many are surprised to learn that bird feeders should be cleaned weekly to reduce the risk of infectious diseases spreading between birds, or that 20 million birds fall prey to domestic cats every year.
Therefore AIWC encourages people to use their Wildlife Hotline if they have questions about something they see. They receive over 4,000 calls a year.
“We attribute about 95 per cent of our patients coming in because of conflict. Whether that's windows, cars, domestic pet attacks, etc. We have seen that [education] has a direct impact on the number of animals we see,” Lillie says.
AIWC would like to expand their education outreach by reducing the costs of the programs. During this period of social-distancing and working mostly from home, the AIWC team is taking the opportunity to develop online educational resources to further their reach.
AIWC says it will likely have to cancel upcoming fundraiser events and in a recent online campaign is looking for donations to raise roughly $100,000.
In an online statement, AIWC says, “We are funded entirely by donations. Due to COVID-19, we are facing significantly lower donations, which will affect our ability to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. Your donation will be used to rescue, heal, feed and care for injured and orphaned wildlife.”
“I'm so passionate about our mission and that we provide expert advice and education that fosters an appreciation of wildlife,” Lillie says. “I'm very proud of our organization and so proud of our team of staff, volunteers, donors, and partners.”
- By Stephanie Gabriel