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June 5, 2009

Putting Life Back into the Wild

The Humane Society of the United States

by Pepper Ballard

The phone rings around the clock at The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, Calif. Injured animals from San Diego County and surrounding areas—from a bird of prey with a broken wing to a critically wounded coyote—are taken to the rehabilitative center’s trusted resident managers, Chuck and Cindy Traisi, no matter how dire the injury, no matter how late the call.

In the nearly 25 years since it opened in the high desert town, the center—operated by The Fund for Animals in partnership with The Humane Society of the United States—has been responsible for the treatment of thousands of injured animals.

Each year, the Traisis and their staff rehabilitate and release about 400 native animals, and, day to day, provide a permanent home to nearly 40 animals rescued from the exotic pet trade and other acts of cruelty.

A Marriage for Animals

The Ramona sanctuary took shape in the early 1980s when a woman running a no-kill dog and cat shelter donated her buildings and accompanying property to The Fund for Animals. The Fund’s president, Cleveland Amory, wanted to see the property operate as a sanctuary and called upon Chuck Traisi, who had helped Amory in his efforts to halt the U.S. Navy’s killing of about 4,000 goats on nearby San Clementine Island.

“When we came out here and it was a run-down little domestic animal facility, we perceived a desperate need to take care of wild animals found injured and sick in the area,” Chuck Traisi said. “Very early on, I ensured that everything we did out here, everything we didn’t do, our actions—everything—focused on what is best for the animals in our care, and that continues to prevail.”

To create the sanctuary, the couple dropped everything: Chuck Traisi left a government security job, and Cindy Traisi left an elementary school teaching career.

The transition for Chuck Traisi from a government job to the field of animal welfare was “terrifying and stimulating at the same time.” He left behind good pay and a great reputation for a task he knew nothing about.

Driven by a love for animals and the fact he didn’t want to die in a three-piece suit, he made the plunge. Now—past retirement age—Traisi’s day-to-day uniform means pulling on jeans, work boots and work shirts to pour feed and care for the animals.

Learning the Ropes

But it wasn’t until after about five years on the ranch—and after the couple adopted out a large number of the previous owner’s dogs and cats—that the Traisis decided to get a wildlife rehabilitation permit. In the meantime, the couple pored over books in an effort to learn everything there was to know about their neighboring wildlife.

“There’s a saying that goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ Well, I say, ‘Necessity is the mother of learning,’” he said. “It was essential: we had to learn every piece of knowledge available about all of those animals. With each passing day we learned more and more about them.”

Using their knowledge of the animals, the Traisis, center staff and volunteers used the property’s tree cover and remote location to create a sanctuary for a large number of predatory animals. They also built large flight cages for the rehabilitation of the region’s large birds of prey—from Cooper’s hawks to golden eagles, and other enclosures with animals’ needs at the forefront.

Chuck Traisi has become so familiar with the center’s most frequent visitors—mountain lions and coyotes—that he has become regarded as an expert in their care and often speaks about their natures. The oft-maligned coyote is intelligent and resilient, and the animal the center treats most.

Day-to-Day Care

Because the center is a depository for the California Department of Fish and Game’s cases of native animal abuse and neglect, Cindy Traisi said staffers have treated a variety of animal ailments.

Every animal who comes through the center is checked for internal and external parasites, and nearly every animal is given an electrolyte solution, mainly because most of the animals taken to the center have gone through shock (either from an injury or from some form of traumatic human contact). For animals who need surgery or orthopedic work, the animals are sent to the center’s veterinarian, who has a practice in town.

During a recent week, the center’s hospital ward was made up of two cougar cubs, two coyote pups, four barn owls, two great-horned owls and one skunk—all with injuries. It was birthing season for the area’s wild animals, which means a high volume of injured infants and workdays that easily exceed 12 hours.

The cougar cubs would not be returned to the wild, Traisi said, because they were snatched from the woods as infants by a person using a tranquilizing gun. Sadly, without the critical instruction and development of survival skills provided by their mother, the cougar cubs will spend their life in captivity.

“If a young cougar cub comes in, they can never go back into the wild because they lack the training,” she said. Working with predatory animals means that staffers have to work very hard to keep the animals from becoming imprinted—or reliant upon humans. It’s one thing if a prey animal approaches a human, and it is a completely different situation if a predatory animal, like a coyote, approaches a person.

“I think once you’ve seen a wild animal who’s imprinted and can never go back into the wild—that’s the lesson right there why you shouldn’t get too close.” she said. When the center gets an infant predatory animal, they call other area rehabilitators to see if they have an infant who can bunk with the center’s new patient. That way, the babies will imprint on each other rather than on their caregivers.

While the rehabilitation end of the center’s work continues, staffers also maintain the center’s resident animals, many of whom were used by people to turn profits for entertainment in the exotic pet trade. Because they were born in captivity or raised by humans, the resident animals could not be returned to the wild, and, therefore, live in sanctuary at the center instead.

Their Stories

Samson, the center’s resident African lion, suffers the effects of that industry: his dwarfed hind legs and internal problems are the result of inbreeding rampant on exotic pet farms. He was confiscated from a man using him as a children’s photography prop.

Sheeba, a cougar who is perhaps the center’s longest resident, was confiscated from a woman who was training her to ride on the backs of horses at circuses. A pigmy hippo—Hannah—was taken from a doctor’s yard, where she was deprived of shade and water. Hannah had suffered such intense dermatitis that center workers could barely touch her skin without causing it to bleed profusely.

Chuck Traisi said the hippo was a good example of how staff at the facility adapt when a new injured animal is introduced; the center had never taken in a hippo before and staff had to immerse themselves in knowledge of the animal's medical needs. Hannah remains happy in their care today.

Animals injured in the wild are kept at the sanctuary until they recuperate and can be released into the areas from which they came. Young, injured animals are raised wild—with minimal human interaction—so they develop skills necessary for their future survival.

None of the animals—even the residents—are treated as domesticated species; staffers have no direct contact with them. But that lack of contact by no means prevents the care givers from having strong feelings for the animals.

Their Future

Though staff members do their best to restore to health every injured animal who passes through their doors, they don’t all make it. Cindy Traisi said it is estimated that 50 percent of all animals born in the wild won’t survive their first year.

“When an animal loses her will to live, nothing we humans can do will help that animal,” she wrote in her book, Because They Matter. The book profiles a sampling of the sanctuary’s rehabilitated animals.

She added that it’s never easy losing an animal under their care. Sending an animal back home provides some comfort.

Chuck Traisi said, “The most rewarding part of this job is when we deal with injured animals and birds and are able to patch them up, condition them and bring them right back to the areas from which they came and give them their freedom. All the rest is hard work, and sometimes heartbreaking hard work.”

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