For 30 years, Umpqua Wildlife Rescue volunteers have been nursing injured critters of all kind back to health and returning them to their natural habitat.
Story by Dick Baltus Photos by Thomas Boyd
Ok readers, if asked to guess the contents of a dedicated vegetarian’s freezer, how many of you would compile a list that included bag o’ mice?
Show of hands, please.
That’s what we thought. Here’s a guess that the smattering of arms that went up were attached to people who know Peggy Cheatham.
Besides being the co-owner (with daughter, Felicia) of Gathering Grounds Coffee Shop in downtown Roseburg, Cheatham also is a long-time volunteer for Umpqua Wildlife Rescue (UWR). It is that avocation that explains the neatly packed bag of white mice that occupies a portion of the top layer of the freezer in the rehab center just down the hill from Cheatham’s rural Roseburg home. This is dinner (or breakfast or lunch) for the various raptors she temporarily houses and nurses back to health after someone has called the UWR hotline with news they’ve found a wounded animal.
At this moment, the mice are nourishment for a red-shouldered hawk, which arrived with a broken leg that is nearly healed, meaning Cheatham will soon be able to return it to nature. That’s assuming it passes a couple of flight tests first.
Once the bone has healed and the pins have been removed, the hawk will be placed in one of the flight pens on Cheatham’s property, where it can exercise and she can watch to see how it is maneuvering. If it passes this test, the hawk will advance to creance flying, which involves strapping leather jesses to its legs and then connecting those to a long line attached to a rod and reel. Imagine flying a bird kite and you’ll have a pretty good visual of the exercise.
“Someone will man the reel and I’ll throw her up and let her fly, and then we’ll bring her down again,” Cheatham says. “It’s a way to let her exercise and see if she is ready to fly.”
Cheatham cares for 50 to 60 raptors a year, everything from barn owls and falcons to vultures and bald eagles. And yes, it did take some doing for her to get used to feeding meat to her patients. In fact, while she has volunteered for UWR for more than 20 years, Cheatham’s only cared for raptors for the last seven. She started out caring for non-carnivores.
“I chose spring fawns because my entire family is vegetarian and people told me, ‘You’re never going to be able to feed mice to raptors,’” Cheatham says, laughing at the memory. “It was hard at first, but I did it. Now I do it without thinking.”
Umpqua Wildlife Rescue was founded in 1988 by two wildlife biologists from Douglas County, Marnie Allbritten and Nancy Duncan. Their primary goal, to treat injured birds and mammals and release them back into the wild, wasn’t unique, Cheatham says, but their approach was.
“Their vision was different than rehab programs in bigger cities that usually have an actual rehabilitation center,” she says. “They wanted Umpqua Wildlife Rescue to be a nonprofit umbrella organization that trains, mentors and financially supports individuals in the community who want to become licensed rehabilitators. And they felt it would give the animals a higher-quality experience if the rehabbers could provide care from the comfort of their own homes.”
Brenda Weber was one of the program’s earliest volunteers. She says she saw an ad for Allbritten and Duncan’s first-ever wildlife rehab training class and thought, ‘This sounds like fun.’”
“I was the only one caring for songbirds back then,” says Weber, who holds a degree in wildlife biology from Michigan State University, “I took care of hundreds of them every season for nearly 20 years.”
Like Weber, Cheatham was introduced to UWR by an ad announcing the training program. After moving out into the country in 1992, she had made several attempts to rescue baby nestlings found on her property. Not understanding how much nourishment the tiny birds required (they have to be fed every 30 minutes to an hour, sun-up to sundown) she kept failing in her efforts to keep them alive.
“I kept thinking, gosh, what am I doing wrong?” she remembers. “So when I heard about the training class I decided to learn how to do it right.”
Cheatham decided to start her volunteer career working with fawns, even though experienced volunteers advised her against it. “Fawns require special methods of care in order to be raised wild. So you can’t have another volunteer babysit them for you occasionally like you could a songbird,” she says.
Still, she wanted to fill a gap where she was most needed, and no one was caring for fawns at the time. She did it for 17 years until another volunteer was trained and licensed to take over the responsibility, allowing Cheatham to switch to raptors.
Among UWR’s seven volunteer rehabilitators, Cheatham calls herself the “uneducated one” of the group, a bit of modesty that Weber is quick to dispel.
“What she isn’t telling you is she has written a scientific report that was published in the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Journal,” Weber says.
The report documents the outcome of a 15-year study Cheatham conducted to measure mortality and reproduction among hand-raised fawns after they are released. Study results enabled Cheatham and UWR to dispel the myth that fawns can’t be successfully hand-raised and released, and demonstrated their method’s effectiveness to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which doesn’t allow fawn rehabilitation in many counties.
UWR volunteers care for between 200 and 300 animals a year. They run the gamut from snipes (yes, snipes are real) to, in one instance, a badger that had escaped from Wildlife Safari and wound up on the wrong end of an encounter with a porcupine. His rehab required intervention from Canyonville veterinarian Dr. Tammy Eichman, who volunteers services to UWR along with Roseburg vet Dr. Steve Frack.
Imagine flying a bird kite, and you have a pretty good visual of creance exercising.
While the badger ultimately made his way back to his home at Wildlife Safari, not all stories end happily for the volunteer rehabbers. Many of the animals have to be euthanized because they can’t be healed enough to survive in the wild.
“We have to make those kinds of decisions all the time,” Cheatham says. “If a mammal has a broken leg and it mends, it can probably limp around out there and generally be OK. But birds, of course, have to be able to fly to survive. If we feel an animal can’t make it out there, the kindest thing we can do is euthanize it.”
On occasion, an animal that can’t be returned to the wild is kept for educational uses. Cheatham currently houses a great horned owl that suffered a broken wing and brain injury. She can fly again, but the brain injury took away her aggressive behavior. However, because she is now so calm she can be part of UWR’s educational efforts.
UWR volunteers will go to great lengths to rescue an animal. Last summer Cheatham took in a baby osprey that was found on the ground below its nest high atop a utility pole. After she “fattened up” the bird, she enlisted the help of Douglas Electric Cooperative to return it to its rightful place.
“One of our volunteers went up in the boom and got him all tucked back in his nest,” Cheatham says. On another occasion, a call came in that a hawk was trapped inside Roseburg’s Coastal Farm & Ranch supply store, which features an extra-high ceiling. A UWR volunteer with a 30-foot-long snare was able to grab the bird by its wing, bring it down safely, and release it.
UWR volunteers care for between 200 and 300 animals a year. They run the gamut from snipes (yes, snipes are real) to a badger on the wrong end of an encounter with a porcupine.
UWR’s modest budget (around $5,000 annually) is funded by an annual fall craft fair at Douglas County Fairgrounds and private donations. While the organization is always willing to accept money, its need for volunteers is greater.
“We really need help with songbirds,” says Weber, who now helps teach UWR’s training classes. “They are one of the easiest animals to care for, and they usually live. They take a lot of time, but once they are raised it’s pretty quiet until the next season.”
“It’s a challenge to get volunteers,” adds Cheatham. “You have to be able to fit this into your life, and people have busy lives. But when you get a call that there’s a bald eagle to pick up and it’s starving, you’ve got to stop your life and go get it. There aren’t that many crazy people like us willing to do that.”
For more information on how to volunteer, visit umpquawildliferescue.org. The Umpqua Wildlife Rescue hotline number is 541.440.6895.