Saving wildlife, one animal at a time: Veterinarian Kathleen Ramsay

by Deborah Begel

ESPAÑOLA, New Mexico — Kathleen Ramsay found her calling in a veterinary school lab, when a man brought in a golden eagle caught in a foothold trap. "He threw the trap and chain at me, with the eagle flapping in the trap," she says. "(That’s when) I decided ... to help animals that could no longer help themselves."

Fast forward a couple of decades. Ramsay is sitting in her clinic in Española, N.M. It’s a cramped building with desks and partitions that serve as offices. Behind a closed door is a small intensive care unit for injured animals. On the critical list today are some rabbits, a phoebe, a house sparrow, a couple of pigeons, a bald eagle, a raven and a Franklin’s gull.

Ramsay founded her wildlife rehabilitation center as a nonprofit in 1984 to treat raptors. Soon, she says, "we decided that wasn’t going to work, because ... every kind of species was getting into trouble." She eventually named her clinic The Wildlife Center.

Now, she says, she and her staff care for "everything from black bear and mountain lion all the way down to bats and snakes." The Wildlife Center is also permitted by federal and state authorities to treat endangered and protected species. Over the years, it has treated bald eagles (which just came off the federal endangered list), a Gila monster, a Mexican spotted owl with cataracts, an Aplomado falcon, a whooping crane and two species of endangered bighorn sheep.

Her biggest challenge, she says, is keeping up with the animals that need help: "It never fails. As fast as we can build a cage, I can guarantee you that within 24 to 48 hours, it’s filled."

The Wildlife Center rehabilitates 1,400 animals a year on an annual budget of $300,000, with only three full-time and two part-time paid employees. Nearly 140 volunteers clean cages, feed wounded birds and animals, and carry water. At the head of every rehab team is "Doc," a volunteer herself. She runs a domestic animal clinic nearby to earn her keep.

Ramsay says the field of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation has progressed rapidly since she graduated from veterinary school in Colorado. "Twenty years ago, wildlife care was in its infancy," she says. Now, the Internet speeds information sharing, helping veterinarians decide how and where injured animals will get the fastest and best medical care: "We can move an animal anywhere in the state within 12 hours of a phone call," she says.

Making that happen often requires an elaborate network of people and organizations. On one recent day, The Wildlife Center office manager drove four hours to Santa Rosa, N.M., to pick up a bald eagle rescued from barbed wire in Logan, N.M., an hour and a half further down the road. Days later, Ramsay drove two hours to meet New Mexico Department of Game and Fish agents — who had themselves driven three hours to hand off a bear hit by a car near Ruidoso, N.M.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish gets between 100 and 400 calls a year about injured wildlife, according to Kerry Mower, the department’s animal health specialist, who is also on The Wildlife Center’s board. "Our game wardens do not have the time and facilities to do (wildlife rehabilitation)," he says. Nor the training: Game and Fish doesn’t even have a veterinarian on staff.

Most injured animals are referred directly to Ramsay, who is the only bear rehabilitator in the state and one of the few vets with facilities for injured deer. About 55 percent of Ramsay’s patients recover enough to be released back into the wild. That’s 20 percent higher than the national average for rehab centers. Most of the other animals don’t survive treatment, or Ramsay euthanizes them because they’re too far gone by the time she gets them.

There are a few that heal, but not enough to be released back into the wild. These often become "education" animals.

Volunteers trained in a yearlong program take them to visit schools, pueblos and "any group that would like to learn more about wildlife and the environment," Ramsay says. There, the volunteers discuss how to slow the spread of animal-borne diseases, explain that throwing food along highways creates more animal injuries by drawing critters into traffic, and describe relationships between predators and their prey.

The need for wildlife rehabilitation has only risen in recent years, Ramsay says. It’s due to a combination of factors, including better roads that allow people to drive faster and further. Ramsay bemoans a section of Interstate 40 through Tijeras, N.M., that she calls "decimation city" (HCN, 8/2/04: New Mexicans move to make roads more wildlife-friendly). She wants people in the United States to follow Canada’s example, and build "animal overpasses and underpasses and causeways."

The so-called "baby season" creates long lines at The Wildlife Center. From May to the end of September, people bring in as many as 200 injured or orphaned young animals and birds a day. These fragile newcomers fall from nests, get attacked by cats and dogs or lose their mothers in highway and other accidents. Past hunting seasons have left a legacy as well, says Ramsay: "Last year, every bald eagle that came into our facility had lead poisoning," she says — the result of eating ducks that had swallowed lead gunshot. Lead shot is now outlawed on migration routes, but there is still plenty of lead lying around where ducks can mistake it for food.

The increasing human population poses other serious problems for wildlife, says Ramsay. In New Mexico, cabins and houses, snowmobiles, four-wheelers and hikers intrude on the space and quiet that some animals, especially large ones, need. "Unless the U.S. wakes up to the fact that we are encroaching on (wildlife) habitats," she says, "there will be nothing left for our children’s children."

The Wildlife Center is moving to a larger 20-acre facility just south of Española later this month, with a grand opening Dec. 5. There, Ramsay hopes to host education programs and tours — and invite the public to watch butterflies in the butterfly garden.

The author writes from La Madera, New Mexico.

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