All the cages are empty at Tom and Cheryl Millham's Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Center, but the house and property is still bustling with activity. It won't be long before the bear cubs, owls, hawks, eagles, coyotes, river otters, squirrels and porcupines start to arrive.
But the countless injured and orphaned wildlife species that find their way to the Millham's each year may soon have a different destination. The husband-and-wife team has been maintaining the center out of their home for 34 years and it's time for a change, they said.
"We've hit our limit," Cheryl Millham said. "We can't do any more expanding."
The Millhams have wanted to expand the center for decades. After years of searching and inquiring about properties, they may have found a suitable place in Meyers, though their options are still open. They hope to raise funds to buy the property.
"We are studying every possible option based on what the needs are for Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care," said El Dorado County supervisor Norma Santiago, who's been involved with LTWC since early in her time as supervisor. "By keeping it where it is, they're very limited."
After a training class in Palo Alto, the Millhams started caring for wildlife in 1978. They began approaching anyone who had any involvement with wildlife and told them about their dream of running a care center. Slowly, they began receiving and caring for animals. They bought their home and current LTWC location off Elks Club Drive in 1982 and the surrounding lots in subsequent years.
Now, they've treated more than 24,000 animals and returned more than 14,000 to the wild. They've become the only certified bear rehabilitation center in the state. Their backyard has a half-dozen pens, including an elaborate series of tanks for the river otters, an aviary and a larger netted space for birds of prey.
Inside their home, much of the space is dedicated to the care center. The living room is stacked with Cheryl Millham's extensive collection of wildlife books. They had to move their annual training classes after they became too popular to hold in the house.
"Someone asked me once if I foresaw all of this. No way," said Cheryl Millham. "When I first started, I didn't know it would take over our lives. And it has. But that's okay. It's been our choice."
The master plan for the expanded wildlife care center includes spaces for education, wildlife rehabilitation and a sanctuary for wildlife that can't be returned to the wild. To buy the new 16-acre site would cost at least $1.9 million, Tom Millham said.
"We've had a dream of having something larger for the last 25 years," said Tom Millham. "After eight or 10 years, we thought it would be nice to do something with a park or an educational center."
The Millhams want the new location to be a place where the public can visit and see wildlife. Their current location is too small to offer tours and much of the wildlife at the center is in rehabilitation and cannot be disturbed.
"It's incredibly important for not just our local residents, but nationally and internationally it's important for people to understand what our wildlife is here in Lake Tahoe," said LTWC board vice president Sue Novasel.
Santiago has been helping the Millhams understand all the options for LTWC. She wants to see the center have the space they need to grow, she said.
"We want to make sure we accommodate them the best we can because the entire community will benefit," she said.