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Animal Sanctuary: The Wildlife Center Of The North Coast

One of the most striking things about walking into the Wildlife Center of the North Coast – besides the pungent smell of fish – is the lack of noise. After lunch, the patients are peaceful and quiet. There’s no squawking or hooting. The facility looks almost full to capacity, and though they’re far away from the familiar waters of home, the birds seem to know they’re safe.

On a tour of the center, volunteer Carmen Hammersmith stops briefly at each cage to tell the story of the patient inside. She knows every bird, including the subtle differences in physiology between similar-looking species. When she talks about protecting wildlife from environmental hazards and human carelessness, the passion is evident in her voice.

Laurel Berblinger drives from Portland once a week to help care for the animals at the center. While delivering raw fish to shy brown pelicans in the outdoor fly cages and to the gentle murres paddling around in large blue tubs, Berblinger says she only had to visit the rehab center once, and “that was it.” Even though it means a long drive and messy work, she knew she had to be involved.

One of the many reasons Berblinger enjoys volunteering is Nurdles, a northern fulmar, who has been living at the facility for three years. Prevented from returning to the wild by a shoulder injury, Nurdles is now employed as an education bird. Berblinger describes him as handsome, with a great sense of humor. Other than his weird name – and the propensity to eat raw fish off the floor – he sounds just about perfect.

“Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets the plastic industry makes, and they’re the base product from which all plastic is molded,” Sharnelle Fee, the center’s founder, explains. It’s an appropriate name for a fulmar. As surface feeders, fulmars ingest a lot of plastic. “I would venture that every fulmar in here has some amount of plastic in them,” Fee says. Citing a study conducted by the University of British Columbia, she says plastic ingestion on the West Coast is among the highest in the world.

Birds come to Fee for a number of reasons. Different species have different issues, but some of the main problems marine birds face are starvation, fishing gear entanglement, loss of water proofing on their feathers, and broken bones or wings.

Fee didn’t start out as an aquatic bird expert. “I was a legal assistant for 25 years, and during that period, I had a sabbatical I used to volunteer at the Oregon Zoo, which at the time did owl rehab. And it kind of got me hooked on wildlife rehab,” Fee says. She volunteered for several organizations before finally getting her own rehabilitation permit. Fee then started caring for creatures out of her own home. Eventually, she knew she had to start a center. “The north Oregon coast had the biggest need,” she says. From her home, she moved to a trailer, which she says eventually disintegrated. With the help of grants, she was finally able to build a permanent hospital.

Serving half the Oregon coast and all of southwest Washington, the wildlife center is one of the few rehab facilities caring for aquatic birds and is “pretty much it for rehabbing brown pelicans,” Fee says. Caring for 2,000 animals, mostly birds, every year, the facility’s release rate back into the wild is 60 to 70 percent.

As an all-volunteer organization, the center relies on public donations for funding. There’s no lack of passion, dedication or a steady stream of patients to keep it going, but when asked how many volunteers she has, Fee quickly replies, “Not enough.”

“We look big on our website, and people think we’re big, but we only do a big volume of patients. We’re actually pretty small as far as support – human support. We have a good facility now, but we’re always hurting for volunteers,” Fee says.

Not only does Fee care for wounded wildlife, she also teaches humans to be mindful of the tremendous impact we have on the creatures with whom we share the earth, and she urges us to be compassionate toward them. It’s difficult to imagine anyone in any field more dedicated than Fee. Sometimes dedication is so strong it begins to take solid form. In Fee’s case, it created a sanctuary.


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