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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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."
"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
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.