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Wildlife Images needs a hand

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Defiance, an American bald eagle at Wildlife Images, epitomizes defying the odds.

Once an endangered species, bald eagles have rebounded dramatically in the last 30 years. Removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007, bald eagles are now a common sight along the Rogue River, thanks in part to efforts of animal rescue and rehabilitation centers such as Wildlife Images.

Defiance could also sum up Wildlife Images’ efforts to overcome a budget shortfall that has threatened its mission of saving wild mammals, birds and reptiles.

Wildlife Images’ proximity to this summer’s Taylor Creek and Klondike fires was the latest in a series of natural disasters the wildlife rehabilitation and education center has weathered the past five years.

Executive Director Dave Siddon Jr. said five years of winter and summer disasters forced the 37-year-old nonprofit facility 12 miles west of Grants Pass to rethink its business plan. Siddon reported an income shortfall of about $300,000 for the year, or “three months short of what we need,” he said.

Like the hundreds of sick, injured and orphaned animals the center takes in each year, Wildlife Images itself needed rehab.

Like many other Southern Oregon tourist attractions, Wildlife Images saw ticket sales plummet when thick smoke from wildfires in Oregon and California hovered over the valley for weeks this summer.

And when flames from the Taylor Creek fire devoured the hillsides across the Rogue River a few short miles from the facility, the staff went into Level 1 evacuation mode — not exactly a draw for summer tourists.

Wildlife Images, founded in 1981 by Siddon’s father, David Siddon Sr., relies heavily on summer tourism. Ticket sales are a major source of the center’s annual revenue.

Operating costs to care for animals, and to provide tours, education and close encounters for children are approximately $100,000 every month.

While income was low this summer, the needs of the animals remain high. As of Oct. 7, the clinic had already treated 982 furry and winged patients — nearly as many as the total intake in 2017. All told, 998 patients, including bald eagles, spotted owls, gray foxes and skunks were treated last year.

An ambitious membership recruitment campaign was launched in September with a goal of 4,000 annual individual, family and business memberships. Current membership is just a little over 700.

In an effort to increase membership, the facility has been renovated to accommodate new ways to experience Wildlife Images.

The center is now an open campus. An entry fee allows visitors to stroll the forested 24-acre facility at their own pace without a guide or advanced booking. Whether it’s 45 minutes or three hours, they have time to hang out with wolves, bears, bobcats, otters, bald eagles and a menagerie of other critters.

Guided tours, 60 to 90 minutes long, are still available with advanced reservations.

New interpretive signs identifying the species and relating the animals’ personal stories have been added. An event venue and observation gazebos also have been erected.

New safety features for both animals and visitors have been added, and more are in the works to increase what staff like to call “a walk on the wild side.”

The challenge the center is facing is seen as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, said Siddon.

“It is not insurmountable, but it does mean we need to adjust our business a bit to make up the revenue,” he said. “Pushing membership to 4,000 makes the red ink disappear.”

Without federal or state funding and fewer grant opportunities, Siddon said, community support is crucial.

Enticing members with members-only events, such as animal releases back to the wild, unlimited visits per year, discounts on guided tours, guest passes, and early registration for youth camps, are just a few of the amenities included with membership.

“Increasing the value of a membership is a relative predictor that members will come back,” said Erin Maxson, development director. “(Perpetual) membership then becomes a predictable source of revenue.”

Annual memberships for seniors (65 and older) are $30; individuals, $50; a pair, $90; and families, $150.

Entry fees are $14 daily for adults; $12 for seniors; and $7 for children age 4 to 13.

The recent firestorms are not the only storms to hit Wildlife Images’ budget head-on. Heavy snowfall in winter 2015 severely damaged several animal enclosures. One, dubbed Eagles Flight, was rebuilt with community support and grants. A second aviary is on hold until funding becomes stable.

When the organization is back in the black, future plans include engineering new enclosures so they replicate a species’ natural habitat, said Maxson.

Of the nearly 1,000 animals that pass through Wildlife Images, most are released back into the wild on public land in the vicinity of the rescue, said Maxson.

The motto of the center is “let wildlife be wild.” And for those that cannot return to the wild, the center provides an opportunity for them to educate the public about wildlife preservation.

On average, the facility is home to roughly 115 residents. Some, due to the nature of their injuries or post-traumatic stress, remain in quarantine or sanctuary away from visitors. A couple dozen are on view for tours, such as Ruby Raccoon, thought to be the oldest raccoon in the world.

“She’s 19 years old and has been here since she was a kit,” said Maxson.

In the wild, a raccoon lives two to six years, she explained.

“With the human care, her lifespan has been more than tripled.”

Another favorite on the tour is Nestle the otter. A retired Hollywood “actress” who appeared in movies such as “Evan Almighty,” she’s become “a diva” who occupies a large woodland enclosure with a pond all to herself.

Van Gogh, a one-eyed Western screech owl, is another Wildlife Images mascot and one of a handful that have become animal ambassadors that star in the educational programs the facility hosts.

Like Defiance, he is a survivor thanks to Wildlife Images’ team effort.

For more information, see www.wildlifeimages.org.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune{ } Dave Siddon hugs Argo the grey wolf at Wildlife Images.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune{ } Kodi the grizzly bear walks through his yard at Wildlife Images.