Central Coast Saviors

Animal Rescues
By Donna Wolfe

“When we return wild animals to nature, we merely return them to what is already theirs. For man cannot give wild animals freedom, they can only take it away.” Jacques Cousteau

California’s landscape is incredibly diverse with its rugged peaks, desolate deserts, sprawling forests, rich valleys, and miles of pristine coastline. And according to the California Biodiversity Initiative, “Among the 50 states, California is home to more species of plants and animals and the highest number of species found nowhere else.”
That biodiversity, of course, needs protecting and preserving, and that’s where animal sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers play a such a vital role. From San Luis Obispo south to Ventura County, the Central Coast boasts a large number of such organizations.

But it’s not just the native birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish that need help, so locals have created a number of sanctuaries for domesticated animals, as well. When it comes to animals in need, the Central Coast has dozens of groups ready to jump in and help.

Find a sick or injured animal? Want to adopt a surrendered pet? Read on to find out who to contact, and how you can get involved.

The Marine Mammal Center

Photo by Bill Hunnewell/The Marine Mammal Center California sea lion Katz is treated for malnutrition and pneumonia at The Marine Mammal Center after being rescued at Cayucus State Beach in July 2021.

“Marine mammal health, ocean health, and human health are all connected, and we must recognize the only way to conserve the ocean environment is to engage communities to take action,” says Adam Ratner, associate director of conservation education at the Marine Mammal Center. Though its main facility is in Sausalito, it covers more than 600 miles of coastline in California and Hawaii, and also has a satellite operation in Morro Bay.
“As the world’s largest marine mammal hospital, the Center advances marine mammal health knowledge and understanding about these links to inform conservation policy, inspire consumer and corporate behavior change, and protect our future, ” Adam added.

The Marine Mammal Center’s Central Coast location includes two staff members and up to 100 volunteers. Once they rescue a sea mammal, the Morro Bay team will transfer the animal to the main hospital in Sausalito. Adam, a marine biologist who has worked at the Marine Mammal Center for the past 12 years, wants a chance to help sea life and make sure the marine mammals have a healthy and safe return to the sea. He and his team consider the center as a hospital, and the goal is to get the animals back to their normal habitat.

Although the Morro Bay location isn’t currently accepting visitors, volunteers are needed. Visit marinemammalcenter.org/get-involved/volunteer/san-luis-obispo to find out more. Can’t volunteer, but still want to help? Consider the Center’s Adopt-a-Seal program, which allows you to select a specific animal at the sanctuary you’d like to sponsor.

If you’ve found a marine mammal in need, the Marine Mammal Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: (415) 289-SEAL (7325). For more information on the Marine Mammal Center, visit marinemammalcenter.org.

Redwings Horse Sanctuary

Photo by Marissa Todd Happy burros, at Redwings.

The mission of the Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Paso Robles is to end the abuse, neglect, and slaughter of horses, ponies, donkeys, mules, and burros. Their rescued animals come from California, Montana, Arizona, and as far away as Canada. Sara Ruggerone, the equine care manager, says, “I am so grateful to be part of such an amazing organization and have a job doing what I love every day.” She is passionate about horses and knows every horse’s story on their 141 acres of land.
Redwings started in Carmel, then moved to Lockwood. Last year, it found a new home in Paso Robles, where it is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. The sanctuary allows horses to recover and regain health, and retrain horses to find their next home or even career. Depending on a horse’s history and capability, they may become a riding, working, therapy, or companion horse. In some cases, due to their age or illness, they will live the rest of their lives at the sanctuary.

“Horse adoptions are slower compared to dog and cat adoptions because when people think of a rescue horse, most think that it can’t be ridden or need to live out the rest of their lives at the sanctuary. That is not true,” Sara says. “I wish more people would realize how many horses end up in these rescues that have wonderful careers ahead of them. They make fabulous riding horses … They are very versatile. Even if they are not rideable, they make great companion horses or great therapy horses.”
Seven years ago, Redwings was accredited by CARMA (California Retirement Management Account) to provide care for thoroughbred horses after they leave the racetrack. Sara explains, “We let them just be a horse and relax and enjoy their surroundings. Then we help the horses with their next phase of life.”

Redwings Horse Sanctuary offers tours at their Paso Robles property, as well as a number of opportunities to help — whether though volunteering, donating, fostering, or adopting.

To schedule a tour, call (831) 386-0135. For more information, visit redwingshorsesanctuary.org.

Feline Network of the Central Coast

Feline Network of the Central Coast in San Luis Obispo was founded by Elaine Genasci. Elaine is a world traveler with a history of rescuing cats and dogs from Chernobyl, Ukraine, and French Guiana. “The Feline Network’s goal is to better the lives of cats and kittens through spay or neuter,” she says.

She recalls, “It all started when I was at a car repair shop, and I saw the mechanic feeding a feral cat and saw there were kittens!” He agreed to help trap the kittens. Elaine saw that other people working in the same industrial area were also feeding feral cats and kittens. She began sharing notes with the other cat rescue groups and it led to Elaine and the other rescue groups in the area forming the Feline Network of the Central Coast in 2002.
The Woods Humane Society in San Luis Obispo are partners with Elaine’s volunteer group. “They are wonderful at helping with the spay and neutering. Woods mostly takes tame cats and kittens, and the Feline Network of the Central Coast mostly deals with adult feral cats and kittens. We call our other organizations, like Woods, our sister organizations, ” says Elaine.

In addition, the feral cat program is dedicated to help the offspring of unaltered house cats who are lost or abandoned by their owners. The Trap-Neuter-Return program (TNR) reduces the number of feral cats, while also allowing them to live out their lives in healthy, managed colonies. Elaine has personally TNR’d more than 300 cats this year. In all, the Feline Network spays and neuters around 1,500 cats yearly.

To donate, volunteer, adopt, or learn more about their low-cost spay and neuter program, call (805) 549-9228 or visit felinenetwork.org.

Pacific Wildlife Care

If you find a baby possum, or an injured seagull, or a lost baby skunk in the Morro Bay area, you can contact Pacific Wildlife Care (PWC). They have been protecting and caring for injured, sick, orphaned, pollution-damaged animals and mammals for more than 37 years. PWC cares for more than 200 animal species under permits from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

PWC started because of an oil spill in 1987 that resulted in a number of oil-coated pelicans on the beaches of San Luis Obispo County. Since then, they have grown from a small group of dedicated home rehabilitators into a successful non-profit organization with a well-equipped rehabilitation center. The PWC has a full-time wildlife veterinarian, a small paid staff, and more than 200 volunteers. The group includes specially trained staff who know how to care for animals in pollution and oil spills on the coastline.
PWC also has an outreach program to teach children and adults the importance of wildlife conservation. PWC travels with their educational “ambassador” animals called Wildlife Ambassadors to teach how to interact with wildlife. The educators of PWC are available for presentations that educate the public about what they do, provide information about the wildlife living in our communities, and offer ways for us to live peacefully with our wild neighbors. Among its many other missions, the PWC is dedicated to helping business owners learn about the ecosystem and the dangers of poisonous rodenticides to raptors, mammals, domestic pets, and children.

There is a chapter at PWC called the SLO-RATS (San Luis Obispo Raptors Are The Solution). Christine Johnson, executive director for Pacific Wildlife Care, says, “Our main goal is to rescue, rehabilitate, and educate.” She encourages locals and visitors who come across sick or injured animals to contact PWC at (805) 543-9453. For more information on PWC, to donate, or get involved, visit pacificwildlifecare.org.

Ojai Raptor Center

Photo by Elizabeth Chouinard A redtail hawk is released back into the wild by an Ojai Raptor Center volunteer.

Since 2000, the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) has been committed to rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing birds of prey. Kimberly Stroud, director and founder of the ORC, started the Raptor Rehabilitation and Release program in 1992 and then co-founded Wildlife Care of Ventura in 1994.

Those groups have since evolved into the ORC, which at its Ojai home base takes in between 500 and 1,000 sick or injured raptors each year. The ORC also takes in non-raptor types of birds and a small percentage of mammals. The ORC’s four-acre campus includes a hospital and a medical room, as well as outdoor flight pens and mews for the injured raptors. It includes one of the largest flight pens in California.

“Our goal is to rehabilitate and release them to their natural habitat. There are raptors that cannot be released, and they are our Education Ambassadors,” says Kimberly. These animals can’t be released back into the wild due to injuries or other health issues, but can still live happily at the ORC, helping educate people on their species and their roles in the natural environment.

Kimberly sees more raptors entering human-inhabited areas, due in part to the historic drought, so it’s become even more important to educate the public. “Human interference can harm the raptors. Leave them alone and call our center to find out how they can be helped. This is one of the most needed pieces of information for people to know,” says Kimberly.

Like the PWC, the Ojai Raptor Center cautions people on the dangers of using rat and mouse poison, and how it negatively affects wildlife. “We see poisoning of these types of birds because of people poisoning mice and rats,” Kimberly states. One easy alternative to poison? Barn owl boxes! Owls love to eat mice, and this is a sure way to help keep the rodents at bay. You can find directions on how to make your own box on the ORC website.

Want to visit the ORC’s campus and its ambassador raptors? ORC offers a handful of Open Houses each year, and is now offering tours for small groups (reservations and advance payment required).

Found a sick or injured bird in the Ojai area? Call the ORC Wildlife Hotline at (805) 649-6884 to learn what to do. To learn more about local raptors, donate, volunteer, or schedule a private tour, visit ojairaptorcenter.org.

Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary

Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary SBBS is home to dozens of exotic birds, many of whom love to make new friends (both human and feathered!)

Back in 2004, Jamie McLeod founded the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary to house displaced and unwanted parrots, and provide a much-needed outreach and education program for the exotic birds. The goal, according to the SBBS website, is to create “a positive, enriching environment for companion parrots, minimize neglect and ignorance that lead to relinquishment, and make space for birds entrusted to us who outlive their owners.”

“We get parrots that are relinquished to us because the owners had no idea how to care for their bird,” says Jamie. “They have special needs, and create a bond with the person and may be aggressive towards other family members. Have a plan for the bird. Most exotic birds can live up to 60 to 80 years!”

There are both adoptable birds and a “forever flock” (not adoptable) at their Santa Barbara location. There are more than 26 species of parrots, and they have their own distinct personalities. Parrots are very special, says president of the SBBS board, Leslie Rugg. “They create a lifelong bond with their mate. Having a parrot requires an education of what is really needed to have a parrot in your life.” One of the most intelligent birds, she adds, is the African Grey. “The African Grey is one of the smartest parrots that have critical thinking, highest level of vocabulary, and works with tools … These parrots can mimic a sound and they will check to see if you can mimic it back. That is how they find out if you are smart.”

The public is encouraged to visit the sanctuary. “They love having visitors,” says Leslie. Reservations to visit their tropical sanctuary are required a week in advance, and SBBS is open every day except Tuesdays.
Can’t make it to the sanctuary? Check out Jamie’s talk about parrots on PBS’s nature show on Amazon Prime, “Parrot Confidential.” On the show you will get a look at what owners of parrots, breeders, and rescuers say about the dedication and care it takes to have parrots as pets.

Call (805) 969-1944 or email office@sbbird.org to schedule a tour, and visit sbbird.org to donate, volunteer, and learn more about adoptions.

Other sanctuaries and rescues

When we travel to our favorite destination spots, whether it be wine tasting, shopping, exploring the beach, or discovering hikes along the California coast, we may run into wildlife that is injured or sick. These sanctuaries can help you find a way to assist these animals and get them back to their natural habitat:

• Wildlife Care of Southern CA: wildlifecareofventura.org
• Squirrelmender Wildlife Rehabilitation: squirrelmender.com
• Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network: sbwcn.org
• Animal Rescue Team: animalrescueteam.net
• Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute: cimwi.org
• Central Coast Snake Services: centralcoastsnakeservices.com