Posted March 14, 2017 12:54 pm - Updated March 15, 2017 05:21 pm

On a Mission to Save Wildlife: South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (SPWRC) in Lubbock, Texas nurtures injured and orphaned animals with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. Carol Mitchell Lee founded SPWRC in 1988 as a non-profit organization that receives no funding from regulatory state and federal agencies. We met with Gail Barnes, Executive Director and state and federal rehabilitator, who told us more about the center, their mission & goals, the rehabilitation process, and how climate variability affects the animals.  

SPWRC takes in any native wildlife such as birds of all sorts, bunnies, snakes, squirrels, turtles, deer, bobcats, foxes, and more. They do not take domesticated pets such as cats and dogs, or farm animals. SPWRC’s mission is to provide care and rehabilitate orphaned, ill, injured, and displaced wildlife and release these animals back to the wild whenever possible. They are also committed to provide environmental education by teaching appreciation and conservation of natural resources to future generations.

In 2016, SPWRC brought in 3,163 animals, a record high. SPWRC receives wildlife from across Texas. This past year they nurtured a pronghorn deer, whose release was featured on an episode of Lone Star Law on Animal Planet. Animals that can’t be released become “ambassadors” for the centers environmental outreach education. There are several large predator birds who call SPWRC their home, including hawks, turkey vultures, a Peregrine Falcon, an American Kestrel, and owls with wing or eye injuries. Long-time residents “Percy” the pelican and “Bobby” the bobcat were recently lost to old age.

Most of the staff at SPWRC are still volunteers, logging in over 16,000 hours last year. The only paid positions are for the Operations Manager, and a part time intern from Texas Tech. There were 25 other unpaid interns in 2016 and currently they have 16 interns for the Spring 2017 semester, along with many other volunteers from all walks of life. Some come in to work off court ordered community service hours, and some of those continue working there after their service hours have been met. In the summer, SPWRC has a Junior Volunteer Program that allows volunteers under 18 to get involved.  

If you are looking for the SPWRC facility, look for a large mural on the east side of Indiana Ave, just north of 98th Street. Behind that wall, there is a shed with small cages where you can leave a sick or injured animal if there is no one at the center to accept it.

The rest of the facility is not open to the public except for special events. We were lucky enough to get a personal tour of the property. There are a few older small buildings, but the pride of SPWRC is the new, big, renovated red barn and duck hut. They have new rooms for triage and isolation as well as a new food prep area and space for the incubators and young animal cages. Upstairs are rooms for the larger birds, either the ambassadors when they need to be brought in from the cold or for injury rehabilitation. Outside, there is a deer yard and large outdoor cages for the bigger animals, such as bobcats and foxes. There are smaller flight cages for the songbirds and a large flight cage big enough for the birds of prey to practice foraging before they are released back to the wild. The large “ambassador” birdcages are in a row next to a small amphitheater for presentations.

If you find a baby bird that you suspect is hurt or orphaned, go to the Baby Birds 101 page on SPWRC’s website before you pick it up. This page provides instructions on what to do and how to determine when a bird needs rescuing. If you do find a sick or injured animal, a volunteer can do the intake during SPWRC's business hours, after hours you can drop it off at the shed that is open 24 hours where you will also need to fill out an admission slip. Detailed information is requested as to the time and location the animal was found. Many species of birds, such as waterfowl, eagles and barn owls have mates who will wait up to 3 years for their return, and SPWRC makes every effort to reunite species. They also need to know what you have done to try to help an animal, so they can make an accurate assessment and determine what to do next.

Once SPWRC has the animal they will diagnose the problem. They have medications to treat the animal on site or, for more serious cases, they may take it to the one of several local vets who can diagnose and recommend treatment. A broken wing can take up to six weeks of physical therapy.  Time in the flight cage will determine if a bird can fly and catch prey before release. Many orphaned babies are admitted along with animals with injuries from gunshot wounds, being hit by a car, lead poisoning and other hazards. Some protected species of birds need to be reported to Texas Parks and Wildlife or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator such as SPWRC. A game warden may investigate when a protected species is harmed, which can result in a fine and/or jail time.

SPWRC generally can save about 60 to 70% of the birds that are brought in. The smallest baby birds and mammals are put into incubators to keep them warm and are hand fed every few hours. Once they can regulate their body temperature, they go into small cages. When the songbirds are flight ready, they go into a larger flight cage where the door can be left open to the outside for a “soft release”. The birds can come back to the safety and easy food supply of the cage until they are ready to move on.

SPWRC has over 110 outreach events each year that are held at their center and locations throughout the panhandle. They host a come and go open house twice a year in June and December to give the community a chance to witness first hand some of the amazing animals in SPWRC and learn how they are rehabilitated. SPWRC attends school events to talk about environmental education and to discuss the natural history of the animals they treat.

Each year, the variety, number of animals, and timing of their arrival, change based on the weather that year. A record high 3,163 animals were brought into SPWRC in 2016, in contrast to 1,879 animals in 2010, the worst year of the recent drought. When vegetation dries up from heat and lack of rain, less food is available, lowering breeding and nesting levels. When the temperatures get too hot, turtles cope by going into estivation, a hot weather hibernation, and wait to come out when it is cooler.

An unseasonably warm winter, such as we have had this year, brings in early babies. Most years babies don’t come till later in the spring, but a baby bobcat came in November this year and baby bunnies and squirrels started arriving in late February. Barn owls are now breeding year round because the winters have been so warm.

The timing and range of migration patterns have changed with the warming climate as well. Birds return to summer breeding areas earlier when the winter is warm, and wildlife are generally shifting their ranges further north. The Chuck-will’s-widow is one species that has only recently been seen in the Lubbock area, even though its range has historically ended further south. Most birds still come to the area but they will arrive earlier or later due to the birds adjusting their migratory pattern because of the climate conditions. 

SPWRC receives no government funds and depends on donations for their continued work. Volunteer and donation information can be found at spwrc.org as well as a “wish list” of needed supplies. You will also find them on Facebook for some great photos, videos and stories of some of their animals.

This blog was produced by TTU Climate Science Center and was written by Susan Gillette, Breanna McKercher, Kylie Naughton, and Gail Barnes. All pictures are credited to South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center's Facebook Page.