Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Saving wildlife all in a day's work

Love of animals led alum to Edmonton-based wildlife society

Not everyone has the stomach to reach inside a cardboard package marked “owl in box.”

The critter in question, a great horned owl, has an injured wing but it’s still impossible to predict how it will react when face-to-face with a human. Known as the “tiger of the sky” for their hunting abilities, a great horned owl’s talons are razor-sharp and they won’t hesitate to attack if threatened.

When the box flaps open, Kristen King reaches in with extra-thick gloves to produce a magnificent, if slightly confused, owl with brilliant yellow eyes that survey its surroundings.

“You have to have a bit courage but it kind of comes with experience,” explains King (Animal Health Technology ’15), senior wildlife rehabilitator with Wild North in Edmonton. “If you’re handling them properly, you should be OK.”

 

Wild North is a not-for-profit society dedicated to rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife and returning them to their natural habitat. They operate an animal hospital in Edmonton and a rehab centre near Spruce Grove – often the last stop before returning to the wild. About eight staff members and a roster of volunteers run northern Alberta’s only wildlife rehabilitation centre. They play a key role not only in conserving native species but educating school children and the public about the importance of wildlife and mitigating human-caused conflicts.

Conserving native wildlife

The great horned owl is one of nearly 3,000 animals and 150 species treated by Wild North every year – many of them by King, a registered veterinary technologist. This is her eighth year with the organization after starting as a volunteer at the Spruce Grove centre.

“We’ve got literally everything there: owls, hawks, baby squirrels, baby hares, baby skunks, baby porcupines – literally baby everything.”

King is, naturally, an animal person. She had a dog, rabbits, hamsters and gerbils growing up (she’s allergic to cats), volunteered at a vet clinic and even worked at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. She came to NAIT after an undergrad degree in animal biology because she wanted hands-on training that would allow her to make a living working with animals. She landed an internship at Wild North as a student and returned after graduation, first as a volunteer and later as senior wildlife rehabilitator.

“​Our ultimate goal here at Wild North is to release animals back into the wild,” King says. “To see [an animal you treated] heal up and be able to be released back to the wild is very rewarding.”

Her role at Wild North varies depending on the day or time of year, but mostly involves examining and treating animals, administering medications, feeding and general care. She does most of the exams and treatments herself, but often consults with veterinarian volunteers for more complex injuries.

Spring and summer are the busy seasons where Wild North is caring for hundreds of animals at any given time, King says, because that’s when animals have returned from winter migrations and are producing offspring. The society’s hotline receives calls 365 days a year about wildlife found across northern Alberta.

 

Owl found injured near power plant

The great horned owl was found caught in a barbed wire fence, hanging by its wing, near the Keephills power plant about an hour west of Edmonton. Workers donned welding gloves so they could get close enough to cut it free, but the bird was calm the entire time.

“We placed him gently into the box as he never once put up a struggle,” says Ashlea Wagner, who transported the bird to Wild North.

The animal hospital, located in a former city pound in north Edmonton, is where the initial examination and treatment occurs. There are cages for small critters like bats, quail and muskrats, larger pens that allow pigeons to fly and even an enclosed plastic swimming pool for waterfowl. There’s a radiology suite for taking X-rays and even has a surgical room where a handful of veterinarians who volunteer for the society can operate.

The owl is brought to the treatment room in the back. It’s little bigger than a service closet with an exam table, a few shelves for equipment and several cages that house pigeons and bats.

Once the owl is free from the box, it’s weighed. A colleague assists King when it comes time to perform the exam; right away it’s clear the news isn’t good.

The bird’s damaged wing is cold to the touch, meaning there’s no circulation and the tissue will soon die. Wild North only rehabilitates animals that can survive on their own in nature, so King makes the tough call and puts it down. Adopting a wild animal isn’t an option.

“For birds, they need to be able to fly perfectly, basically,” King says. “Sometimes unfortunately, they can’t be released. That’s the hard part of the job, the part we don’t like.”

Flying free

Though this owl can’t be saved, King has had a key role in rehabilitating thousands of animals that have been returned to the wild. Earlier this month, another great horned owl that King treated was released at Gold Bar Park in Edmonton’s river valley, where it was found initially by an employee of the nearby wastewater treatment plant. The bird was on the ground and unable to fly but it didn’t seem to have any broken bones.

“We’re not exactly sure what happened to it, but it could have been hit by a car and got some bruising and was just kind of stunned and couldn't get back in the air,” King says. “That’s kind of common.”

The owl needed a few weeks to recuperate at Wild North’s rehab centre, which has larger flight pens and where its eating and movements can be observed to ensure a successful return to the wild.

It was a warm spring afternoon the day of its release, at the start of mating season. The moment the cage opened, the owl was gone – wings spread across the bright blue sky.

“That’s always the most rewarding part of the job for sure, especially when you’ve seen it come from the beginning.”

3 questions with a wildlife rehabilitator

What do you like most about your job (apart from releasing animals)?

Working with the animals, honestly, is my favourite part. I really enjoy feeding the animals, watching them eat. I don’t know why but I get so much enjoyment out of it. It’s just fun to watch them.

Have you ever been injured treating an animal?

I haven’t had any close calls per se, but you definitely do have to worry about injuries. I’ve been bitten by things, that’s something you have to worry about. The other aspect is diseases. You need to be aware of what diseases are out there that you can catch, like rabies. I do have my rabies vaccine.

Are you ever intimidated by the animals you treat?

To this day, bigger animals like a bald eagle. I know how to handle one but it’s so big that it definitely is intimidating, and just the fact that if it wanted to it could probably cause a lot of damage.


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