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Safe Harbor: Cape Wildlife Center Is Strong Advocate for Animals

Cape Cod facility cares for ailing and orphaned creatures while helping humans and wildlife live in harmony

All Animals magazine

  • Heather Fone/The HSUS.

  • David Sokol

  • Heather Fone/The HSUS.

  • David Sokol

by Jennifer Weeks

A drive through Barnstable, Mass., a picture-perfect New England town on Cape Cod’s north shore, provides a glimpse into the intimate relationship among humans and their wild neighbors. Gray-shingled homes peer out over backyard ponds and salt marshes. A red-tailed hawk perches in an oak tree, scanning for prey. Gray squirrels poke into the crevices of stone walls, searching for leftover winter food caches.

On this damp, overcast day in early April, a chill lingers in the air. But spring breeding season is under way, so birds and animals are staking out territories and foraging with new energy. Homeowners are out and about too, raking yards and tilling their gardens. All this activity leads to human-animal encounters. And at The HSUS’s Cape Wildlife Center, a 5-acre former horse farm set back from Barnstable’s main street, phone calls are already coming in: “There are raccoons in my attic.” “I mowed over a rabbit’s nest in my lawn.” “I cut down a dead tree and found baby squirrels inside it. What do I do?”

The center has answers. Since 1995, the facility—operated in partnership with The Fund for Animals—has provided care 365 days a year for sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife from Cape Cod and adjoining areas. In a typical year, the center may care for more than 2,000 animals representing 135 species, including skunks, foxes, coyotes, squirrels, opossums, mice, raccoons, rabbits, fishers, and turtles, plus many types of songbirds, raptors, and waterbirds. “You never know what’s coming in day to day—it could be anything,” says animal care technician Heather Fone.

Proximity to nature and the sea has drawn people to Cape Cod for centuries. Henry David Thoreau, who traveled the Cape from end to end, called it “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts behind which the State stands on her guard boxing with northeast storms, and, ever and anon, heaving up her Atlantic adversary from the lap of earth.” Measuring 65 miles long and 20 miles wide at its broadest, the Cape looks like a peninsula but is really an island, separated from the mainland by the Cape Cod Canal. This narrow span contains many types of habitat, including forests, grasslands, bogs, marshes, and sand dunes. It juts out into the Atlantic Flyway, a major north-south migration route for many types of birds.

"Most Cape Codders realize that protecting animals means protecting their natural heritage." 

Cape Cod’s year-round population has boomed in recent decades, from just over 70,000 in 1960 to about 220,000. That figure roughly triples in summer when vacationers flock to its beaches. Development is consuming open space and bringing humans and wildlife ever closer together. In this setting, the CWC’s role is broader than just treating injured animals: It also advocates for wildlife and works to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.

“The Cape hasn’t lost many native species since colonial times, and I think most Cape Codders realize that protecting animals means protecting their natural heritage,” says Theresa Barbo, who became the center’s director last summer. A longtime Cape resident, Barbo is the author of six books, including histories of Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound, which bound the Cape to the north and south. “But the ecosystem here is very fragile, and there aren’t a lot of places for animals to go.”

Nearly every animal who comes to the CWC goes straight to the clinic, a wing of the main house that was once a solarium. There’s a steel examining table and lots of medical equipment, plus other tools of the trade—hoods of various sizes for calming birds, and blow darts and syringes for sedating animals in emergency situations in the field, sometimes at the request of local police. “Injured animals are scared, and you have to know how to handle them safely,” says staff veterinarian Roberto Aguilar, known to employees and volunteers as Dr. Bob.

Bearded and jovial, Aguilar has spent his career working with wildlife. He grew up and attended college in Mexico, then interned in wildlife medicine at Oklahoma State University and was the first clinical resident at the University of Minnesota’s raptor center.  From 1992 through 2005, he was senior veterinarian at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, helping to care for animals after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city (but largely passed over the zoo). After holding positions in Chile, Arizona, and New Zealand, Aguilar joined the Cape Wildlife Center in 2009.

Barnstable may seem tame by comparison, but Aguilar rattles off a list of daily threats to Cape wildlife. “Roads are narrow here, and they become impassable with summer traffic, so animals get hit,” he says. “A lot of homeowners plant lawns on their property and remove native plants that provide habitat, cover, and food for wildlife. Trash in the environment lures animals toward humans and homes.” And it poses other dangers: Aguilar displays a collection of hooks and lures that staff have removed from birds’ wings and animals’ guts. He also shows a bird’s nest with monofilament fishing line woven into it—a tangling hazard for chicks.

The animal ward, a former multicar garage, was converted in 2010 into a bright, airy recovery area. On the ground floor, former car bays now house adult mammals and birds, plus reptiles and amphibians. The second floor has nurseries for juvenile mammals and young birds. A large erasable board in the ground-floor hallway charts individual cases, listing each creature’s species, problem, diet, recent cleanings and feedings, and special notes. Keeping this information current is a constant process, especially during peak periods when the center is busy 14 hours a day.

Safe Harbor, Part 2: The Day's Patients » 


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