Man Dedicated To Helping Injured Wildlife

By Gwyneth Hyndman
OAKHURST, CA–Eric Wolters almost never leaves home without a pair of thick gloves, a pet carrier, a first aid kit, two bird books and a teddy bear in the back of his truck.

From nine to five, Wolters is a pharmacy tech at Kaiser Permanente.  By night, Wolters is the first person the Oakhurst Area California Highway Patrol calls to the scene in road accidents involving wildlife that have a chance at survival. The calls are so frequent that he now keeps all the emergency supplies he would need–along with CA Fish and Game paperwork–within easy reach in the back of his vehicle. The large, soft teddy bear stays in one of the cages, where it is often the first companion to orphaned fawns.

“It’s my extracurricular activity,” says Wolters with a smile, who acts as the mountain team leader for FresnoWildlife Rehabilitation. It’s a wry way of explaining the phone ringing in the early hours of the morning, asking for him to come to the rescue of injured owls or young deer.

“I get one or two calls a week right now,” he says. “In April and May it’s more like one or two a day.” Spring is when the newborns are just making appearances, Wolters says, testing their wings so to speak.

“A lot of young raptors trying to learn how to fly,” he explains. First storms of the year, he adds, also generate calls when young birds get knocked out of their nests. Most wildlife is taken down to Fresno to recover, though sometimes Wolters will take them home to rehabilitate if he has room.

“We had a baby Barn Owl for awhile–it was the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen,” Wolters remembers, chuckling. The family had it for almost two months before re-releasing it. It’s very distinct call left a memorable impression on the whole household. “It was pretty much a scream,” Wolters says. “This thing screams and cats would go running.”

When releasing any wildlife in his care, Wolters sticks to the three-mile-radius rule: let the animal go within three miles of where it was originally found.

“We need to get it back to where it was from,” he says. That works for just about every animal, he added, with a wider radius for larger and more predatory animals such as mountain lions. Wolters also leaves a three-day window for bad weather. “We don’t release during storms,” he says.

Officer Nancy Kramer of the Oakhurst Area California Highway Patrol has seen Wolters on the scene several times when animals have been hit by vehicles. Two weeks ago, she watched Wolters remove an owl that was trapped in the grille of a pickup truck.

“He’s very gentle, but very knowledgable,” she says. “He really knows what he’s doing.”

Wolters has always had a strong sense of protectiveness with wild animals, an innate responsibility he has taken on since he was young. “It started as a kid,” Wolters says. “People would be out there throwing rocks at snakes and I was trying to pick them up.”

His daughter, Brianna, 16, has the same gift with animals and often accompanies him to pick up injured animals.

“She’s my partner,” Wolters says. “And it’s something we can do together. Brianna’s a great assistant.” Five years ago they attended a forum Fresno Wildlife Rehabilitation had for volunteers and signed up immediately. Though the two had some basic information on vet care, Wolters says that it’s a live and learn job.

“It’s a lot of fine-tuning information,” he says. “Especially as you get more and more trips with the same injuries.”

Sometimes people do show up at Wolters’ work with an injured animal they’ve either found or had a collision with. He once accompanied a woman out to her car in the parking lot to see a young, injured deer she had hit and knocked unconscious. She had managed to get the deer into the car and seatbelt it in. By the time Wolters got to the car, the animal was just regaining consciousness.

“It was almost full grown,” remembers an alarmed Wolters. “I told her to get it out of there before it woke up completely. They’ll kill themselves trying to get free.”

Rhonda Reynolds, co-owner of Hoof n’ Paw veterinary clinic in Oakhurst says that occasionally they do have wild animals brought in, either by Wolters or people in the community.

“We get about six to eight deer a year brought in,” Reynolds says, adding that they will only operate if the animal has a chance of complete recovery.

The trauma of being handled by people and kept in a cage during the recovery period can be almost as damaging as physical injuries for wildlife unused to human contact. In many cases the clinic will opt not to put the animal through further trauma.

“If it’s not going to be completely functional out there then we will usually euthanize them,” Reynolds explains.

Especially for larger, full grown wildlife, rehabilitation sometimes isn’t possible; putting an animal down quickly is often the most humane option. This is, Wolters says, a consequence of a population encroaching on animal life.

“This is where it’s happening,” says Wolters of the Mountain Area. From the Kaiser parking lot, his hand sweeps over the views across the highway, where new buildings appear regularly on the landscape. “This is where you have to be conscious.” –Sierra Star