As Ash Mcphail enters the enclosure, food in one hand, water in the other, two pairs of wide eyes stare down at her. The ethereal sound of wings flapping is heard overhead as two hawks, grasping the netting with their talons, dangle upsidedown.
Mcphail, who lives in Airdrie, works as a volunteer at the Alberta Institute For Wildlife Conservation, located 20-some kilometres from Airdrie.
"I've always loved wildlife and I've always loved going out looking for wildlife. The idea that I can help out animals that need help really appealed to me," she said.
The Alberta Institute For Wildlife Conservation (AIWC) is a registered charity and non-profit society that has been operating since 1993. The institute takes in injured and orphaned animals and nurses them back to health before releasing them back into their natural habitat. With summer having just begun, the institute is becoming busier and busier. Mcphail says that creates challenges of its own, but there is also the challenge of getting attached.
"Everything has its own personality, and you can get attached even if you're keeping your distance."
The institute has a strict policy of limiting as much human contact with its 'patients' as much as possible; this is after all to make sure the wildlife stays wild.
"You don't want them to get used to humans, because then that's when you start getting a lot more human and wildlife conflict. That's when a lot of animals either get hurt or killed or they end up needing medical attention," Mcphail said.
Although the enclosures are built in such a way to give wildlife as much privacy as possible and while volunteers keep their distance, Mcphail said that there are some wonderful rewards.
"It's always an incredible feeling when an animal that I've worked with gets released. It's that's so rewarding to know that I helped an animal be able to go back to the wild and live the rest of their life," she said.
Mcphail recalled a particular case last summer of a bluejay fledgling.
"We had just gotten this guy in and we hadn't figured out his favourite food yet. As I'm there, they had a little tub of blueberries, and I went to hang it on the tree. Before I even straightened up, he had just flown right onto it and started just gobbling them," Mcphail said. "He was bobbing his little patchy Mohawk up and down, and he was so excited."
That particular bluejay was released but briefly came back for a quick snack of blueberries sometime later. While feeding the animals seems like common sense as part of their recovery, there is a meticulous process that is followed. Inside AIWC's clinic, the kitchen is always bustling. Volunteers carefully arrange meals for each of their wildlife patients, taking great care to make sure each animal is getting exactly what they would if they were in the wild. There are fruits of all sorts, nuts, berries, corn, various kinds of meat for birds of prey, and even live mealworms are seen squirming in a bowl.
When Mcphail goes to see the Mallard ducklings in their pool enclosure, she fetches duckweed from a nearby pond as an extra snack, something the ducklings gobble up instantaneously.
"They really love if there's snails in there too."
Ducklings that have just hatched are kept in a 'brooding' room in the basement of the clinic. The temperature inside the room is adjusted accordingly as tiny Mallard ducklings are placed into small tubs with mesh coverings.
Larger mammals that are at AIWC are off-limits for photographing and for viewing by outsiders for their own safety. A bear cub that was brought in recently, enjoys a large enclosure that is fenced off completely from prying eyes. According to Taz Scully, the Community Engagement Coordinator at AIWC, one of the larger mammals that is harder to nurse back to health is moose calves. Moose calves are extremely attached to their mothers and when they are orphaned they can develop such anxiety that they will no longer eat, which can be fatal to them. Scully said that this is also hard on the volunteers who work tirelessly to make sure that the animals get back to a healthy enough state to be released.
Scully said that upwards of 94 per cent of the animals brought here come as a result of human-wildlife conflict. In 2022 alone, the AIWC had 3159 calls to their hotline, 710 patients admitted and 104 released back into the wild. Scully said that there are 140 volunteers who have clocked 3835 hours of work.
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