Wildlife Images Rehabilitation and Education Center in Merlin, which cares for sick, injured and orphaned wild animals, has always been about dreams. But with the economy in free fall, this is not the best of times for dreamers.
Five years ago, the center broke ground on a longtime, dream exhibit — Critter Creek. Around the same time, Hurricane Katrina came, and the price of building materials shot up. Then the economy tanked, and money became scarce. As a result, Critter Creek is about half-finished.
David Siddon, executive director of Wildlife Images, says his father's inspiration for the center grew out of a boyhood spent surrounded by wildlife — every boy's dream childhood. But that boyhood was spent in California's San Fernando Valley, where concrete was steadily replacing trees and wild animals. Few today would consider it a place of idyllic childhood.
So J. David Siddon moved north to property outside Merlin. As the area grew, he provided a place where wild animals who came in conflict with encroaching civilization could be cared for and hopefully released back into the wild. The animals that could not be released into the wild again were put on exhibit to educate people about their plight. They also were taken to schools and organizations as part of a continuing education plan. He realized that wild animals are important to all of us — especially to children, says Siddon.
Shortly before his death in 1996, J. David Siddon turned his dreams over to his son. Wildlife Images officially opened as a nonprofit in 1981. It is the second-largest tourist attraction in Josephine County, with people coming from all over to experience and learn about the animals, says Siddon. But it always has been a bit of a shoestring operation, relying on donations and numerous volunteers and sticking to a policy of never going into debt.
Now they have the bones of the new Critter Creek exhibit — a 120-foot-long roof supported by large, upright logs covering a 40-foot-wide area hosting a new pool, waterfall and recirculating stream. Eventually, the creek will be home to river otters, with only glass partitions separating them from visitors. It will be a unique chance to get close to these playful mammals. Along the edges of the otter exhibit will be housing that re-creates the natural habitats of other small mammals, including foxes, bobcats, raccoons, badgers, skunks and other animals that are rescued from injury or orphaned.
To complete Critter Creek, Wildlife Images still needs to raise a lot of money, in a time when contributions to charities are going down everywhere. So they have come up with several fundraising projects. One is called "Windows on Wildlife," in which the tempered glass separating animals from visitors can be engraved with family or business names — a permanent memorial sponsorship.
And then there are the bears. Evergreen Bank has contributed nine of the best colorful, fiberglass bruins from Grants Pass' annual Bearfest. The bears currently are exhibited along Critter Creek, but they are available for purchase, as are three hand-carved totem poles more than 9 feet tall, also donated by the bank.
Siddon is open to other ideas for finishing his dream exhibit.
"We are inviting the public to participate any way they wish. If they have ideas, services or whatever to contribute, we are open to that," he says.
Wildlife Images is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 541-476-0222 or see www.wildlifeimages.org.