From chipmunks to bears, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care helps rescued animals

Photo: Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care/Facebook.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care is the kind of place where a pizza box might hold pizza — or it might hold an injured turtle.

Where a baseball cap isn’t a sun protector — it’s a way to transport an injured weasel.

It’s where a trio of bears undergoing rehabilitation once climbed into the attic and refused to come out. A couple days later, the bears fell in a jumbled pile through the ceiling tiles back into their enclosure.

The South Lake Tahoe facility is also the saving grace for injured wildlife from throughout the region.

Since 1978, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care has rescued, rehabilitated and released more than 17,000 orphaned and injured wild animals. The center rehabilitates animals from Bishop to Placerville to Susanville, and occasionally animals from the Northern Nevada area.

"We’re ready for anything, and we just make it work," said Denise Upton, animal care director.

The center recently relocated from a 3/4-acre site to 27 acres and for the first time is allowing limited public events.

A new series on the property offers free educational talks featuring animals that cannot be returned to the wild because of their injuries.

The "Wildlife Wednesdays" are the first opportunity for the public to meet some of the animals rescued by the care facility. Most of the animals the center treats received injuries inflicted by humans, intentionally or unintentionally, Upton said.

"This is their home," said Capital Projects Manager Bruce Richards, gesturing at the woods surrounding the care facility. "We really need the opportunity to get the word out how to interact with wildlife and how not to create an orphan. Part of it is convincing people we are the invasive species here."

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care houses anywhere from 700 to 900 animals per year.

During droughts, wildfires and other times of environmental distress, the center sees changes in the types of animals and injuries they are treating.

With the drought, the center is receiving a higher-than-normal number of starving red-tailed hawks and underweight coyote pups.

Animals that live underground and can escape the heat are doing OK, Upton said. And animals that prey on burrowing critters that come out at night, such as owls, are also finding enough to feed on.

But daytime feeders are struggling, she said.

A handful of red-tailed hawks being rehabilitated can’t be released in the Tahoe area where they were found because there is no prey for them to hunt and they will likely starve to death.

"Markleeville was a prime place for us to release hawks, and now it’s gone (because of the Tamarack Fire)," Upton said. "It’s getting tougher and tougher since it’s burning here, there and everywhere."

Last month, the center took in a bear burned in the Tamarack Fire. A Markleeville, California homeowner, returning home after evacuation, found the bear walking on his elbows, his paws burned by the fire.

The center issued a plea to the public this week to help locate the cub after he escaped from his rehabilitation enclosure and tunneled under an electric fence. Officials said Thursday he was spotted with a bandaged paw clinging to a tree in the South Tahoe area and they are optimistic he will be rescued again.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife requires animals be relocated within a 70-mile radius of where they were found, Upton said. According to the department, roughly 70 percent of animals relocated farther away do not survive.

In Nevada, animals cannot be transported across state lines without permission from the Nevada Department of Wildlife. But there are only three licensed rescue facilities in Nevada, and two of them work exclusively with migratory birds. In 2018, NDOW relied on Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care for help after a botulism outbreak among waterfowl.

About 50 to 60 calls come in to the center per day, in addition to people who drive up to with injured animals.

Sometimes the calls, or the drop-offs, aren’t related to injured wildlife.

There was the man who wouldn’t go in his house because there was a bat in the bedroom. Or the man whose chihuahua had died at home, and he didn’t know what to do with the body.

So far this year, the center has received three parakeets, one parrot and one Russian tortoise.

"You never know what you’re gonna get when the phone rings," said Upton, who has worked with the center since 1995.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care was founded by Cheryl and Tom Millham in their backyard. In 2016, construction started on the center’s new facility, located at 1551 Al Tahoe Blvd. In 2019, staff, volunteers and animals moved to their new location.

Seven buildings have been erected on site to house the animals, including a large flight center for birds, and about 60 cameras are stationed throughout the center to monitor the wildlife.

The site improvements have been funded by donations — the nonprofit center runs on a $325,000 annual budget. The center has five paid employees, including Upton, and about five dozen volunteers.

A main office with a hospital and offices is still awaiting construction, and the goal is to eventually build an $8 million animal sanctuary for long-term animal housing and public outreach.

Animals like Porky the porcupine, who was found injured when he was only a day old, and Em the bald eagle, who is missing half of a wing, cannot be returned to the wild. They live on-site and serve as ambassadors for the outdoor center during educational programming.

Until the animal sanctuary is built, hourlong talks will be offered through September at the campus’ new outdoor learning center by reservation only and will feature a rotating schedule of topics and expert presentations. All will include information about what to do if you encounter a bear and what to do if you come across an orphaned or injured wild animal.