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Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue struggles with budget shortfall

Two young gray foxes are among the animals being treated at Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.

By John O'Hara/ For the Argus Courier
Published: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 12:14 p.m.

At first, it seemed the infant gray fox might be suffering from brain damage. She couldn't stand up without support, collapsing whenever the staff at Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue tried to get her steady on her paws. It looked like the animal would have to be euthanized.

“We don't know if she overheard us talking,” jokes Doris Duncan, executive director of Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, “but the next day the fox slowly began to improve.” Abby, as the fox came to be known, is now part of the education team at the county rescue center on Mecham Road north of Petaluma, helping visitors understand local wildlife.

But caring for Abby and the menagerie of other temporary and permanent residents requires an immense amount of food and funding, to the tune of about $320,000 a year, and the rescue center is anxiously seeking new sources as their old ones dry up.

For 15 years, the rescue agency enjoyed a free supply of frozen rodents provided by the San Francisco Zoo. But the laboratory that donated rodents to the zoo quit doing so and began selling the extra rodents to a for-profit company, from which Duncan's organization must now purchase them. This has increased their costs by about $70,000 a year.

And now, in addition to operating costs increasing, important funding sources have run dry.

“The Cole Trust has given away its money and no longer exists,” says Duncan. “The Russell and Grim estate were entities that had named SCWR as a beneficiary in the estate when the benefactor died. The bequeathed funds have all been spent. In our 32 years of existence we have been the beneficiaries in only one other trust.”

This shortfall didn't catch Duncan and her team off-guard — they knew funding would run out in 2012 and intensified their fundraising effort in 2010.

But the results have been mixed, explains Duncan. In 2012, the organization doubled its year-end appeal to $30,000. In the spring of 2013, the organization set the goal of raising $92,000 but only brought in $18,000.

More discouraging was the response rate. Out of 2,300 appeal letters/e-mails sent out there were only 160 responses.

But while the number of donors has fallen off, the need for the rescue's services remains constant: “Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue works with a large and diverse population of wildlife,” says Duncan, listing some of the animals they most commonly care for as Virginia opossums, northern raccoons, striped skunks and western gray squirrels. The organization, with a small full- and part-time staff and a huge volunteer force, rehabilitates almost 2,000 animals a year.

While some of the animals they treat might seem common, their care requires highly experienced volunteers who can handle newborns, juveniles and adults, Duncan explains.

“This can require exhausting hours of commitment and dedication from volunteers in their own homes through our Foster Care Program,” she said.

Duncan added that demand for the rescue's services seems to be rising this year: “We had an especially high number of animals brought to us by rescuers this year,” she said, listing illegal trapping, animals hit by cars and high winds as the biggest causes of animals being sent to the rescue.

The organization also takes predators in like coyotes, gray foxes, and bobcats year-round, housing them in a series of larger enclosures on their expansive property.

The rescue gets no federal funding, Duncan said, adding that no government agency rehabilitates wildlife. Still, the organization provides a year-round emergency hotline from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., taking more than 5,000 calls a year.

“We fulfill an important service for the people and wildlife of Sonoma County,” Duncan said, adding that most animal control departments don't have the funding or resources to rehabilitate wildlife and must usually euthanize an animal without the rescue's assistance.

So that the organization can continue these services, Duncan urges Sonoma County residents to become members and donate.

“There are about 492,000 residents in Sonoma County, but only about 700 are dues-paying members or donors to SCWR,” she says.

The rescue has undertaken an awareness campaign, not just to raise its profile, but to help the community understand the role it plays. To learn more about the rescue, visit www.scwildliferes cue.org.

(Contact Liam Nelson at ar gus@arguscourier.com)

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