Linwood’s Operation WildLife aiding animals despite challenges
Dale Giar spotted the great horned owl standing on the concrete of a bridge near Giar's Overbrook house. The owl did not move when Giar drove past him on his drive home Sunday .
Giar thought something was wrong with the owl so he went back to the bridge after getting a blanket from his house and was able to round up the small owl.
"If they're healthy, they get away from you," Giar said. "He didn't move."
Giar kept the owl in a kennel Sunday night before taking it to Operation WildLife in Linwood Monday morning. Operation WildLife takes in and rehabilitates injured or ill wild animals.
"I looked online and I thankfully found these guys," Giar said.
Operation WildLife takes in 5,000 animals during its busiest years and brings in an average of 20 to 30 injured or sick animals per day according to the organization's founder Diane Johnson. Operation WildLife's 13 acres rest on Johnson's residential property off Guthrie Road. Animals are brought into the organization either at the Linwood location or at a receiving building in Shawnee at 75th Street and Neiman Road.
Operation WildLife is the largest publicly funded wildlife clinic in Kansas, according to Kansas Wildlife and Parks Statistics. The organization receives thousands of wild animals each year, with release rates averaging 69 percent, 20 percent higher than the national average.
Johnson first took in a wild animal, an injured red-tailed hawk, for rehabilitation in 1989. Back then, she said, she didn't have a federal license to rehabilitate federally protected animals. She was a practicing veterinarian though, and thought she could help the animal. A local game warden, however, noticed the hawk when Johnson was having it fly while attached to a guide wire, and Johnson was cited for keeping an illegal animal. However, the federal agent that ticketed her came back several years later to ask if she wanted to start her own wildlife rehabilitation center. Johnson got her certification and opened Operation WildLife in 1994.
Now, 20 years later, Johnson and the volunteers at Operation WildLife are seeing more and more animals while struggling daily to operate without a state or federal budget. Recently, the well on Johnson's property collapsed and the air conditioning at the center broke. Despite the challenges, Johnson and the team at Operation WildLife are determined to continue to care for the animals.
"It's a daily struggle," Johnson said, "But it's a gratifying one."
Operation WildLife survives solely on donations and the efforts of its core of about 100 volunteers.
Gary Crain has been volunteering for 10 years and has learned to handle almost every type of animal. On Monday, he helped Giar with his great horned owl, grabbing it by its legs and feeling its wings and chest for any fractures.
Crain offered to name the bird Dale after Giar, who brought the bird in. Giar appreciated the offer but said his 6-year-old son had already named the bird Casey.
"I like to name the animals after the people that bring them in, it makes everything more personal," Crain said.
Operation WildLife volunteers like Crain dedicate 6 to 8 hours one day a week to Operation WildLife. Volunteers can be as young as 14 if they are accompanied by an adult, and 16-year-olds can volunteer by themselves. But volunteers must be 18 or older to handle the federally protected animals such as the peregrine falcons.
Volunteers from Kansas and Missouri come to Operation WildLife to help the animals and learn from Johnson, Crain said.
"People from all over the country will call and ask her for advice," Crain said. "She is incredible at what she does."
Volunteers not only help handle the animals at the wildlife center, but they also travel the region to educate youth at schools and conventions. Johnson said some of the animals at the center that are too injured to be returned to the wild visit about 225,000 people per year as part of the organization's educational efforts.
The massive outreach and perpetual welcoming of injured animals is only funded by donations and volunteer time and money. Johnson said Operation WildLife is always struggling to catch up to its expenses. To add to the financial struggle, the center's well collapsed this month, sending sediment into all of the appliances in the center, and had to be rebuilt for $6,000.
Operation WildLife is authorized to rehabilitate 600 species of animals and has to find a way to feed all of the animals that come through its doors. In its sheds and outdoor living are newborn cottontail rabbits, turtles, and falcons along with full-grown eagles, ducks, bobcats and other mammals.
Johnson said Operation WildLife spends $40,000 per year on live food such as mice and rats in addition to the organization's mouse farm. The center also spends $25,000 to $37,000 per year on other food and animal formulas. Animals like Miss Moose, the bald eagle at Operation WildLife, and dozens of baby skunks at the center all need different types of food.
After an animal is brought in, the emergency needs are met and the animal is stabilized, Johnson and her team design a program for rehabilitation. Steps to return an animal to its habitat can include medical treatment, special housing, diet and nutrition supplements, and "siblings" or "foster parents" for young animals. One of the center's young turkeys has been raised with a family of ducks.
Johnson said she and her volunteers are careful not to interact with the animals more than necessary. For the bobcats at Operation WildLife, food is secretly placed into their living area via a type of trap door so that the felines don't associate humans with feeding.
For predators such as bobcats and the carnivorous birds, rehabilitation can take anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the case.
Johnson's life is dedicated to the hundreds of animals in her organization's care, seven days per week and many times 10 to 12 hours per day.
"As people it's our responsibility to be good stewards for these animals," Johnson said. "If we can give them a second chance, we should."
"Casey" may get that second chance after Johnson and Crain never found any broken bones on the owl, just a slow-reacting right eye. "He should be all right," Crain said.
For more information about Operation WildLife, visit www.owl-online.org.