Call of the Wild: Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care has more than 40 years helping wildlife
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — A porcupine waddles behind some volunteers doing their feeding rounds. Squirrels and chipmunks scurry up and down trees while birds squawk in the background. An eagle who is missing part of one of his wings jumps around as his handler watches.
This is a typical day at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, a nonprofit whose mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and release orphaned and injured wildlife.
They currently are rehabbing several black bears, a bobcat, porcupines, birds of prey, and many others of Lake Tahoe’s natural wildlife.
LTWC is located in a quiet corner of Al Tahoe Boulevard and Pioneer Trail in South Lake Tahoe. It’s tucked into the woods so, except for a sign on Al Tahoe, it’d be easy to miss, which is perfect for the animals that need a quiet place to recover.
But this surreal estate wasn’t always the place wildlife went to heal. In fact, for most of LTWC’s existence, the animals were all located in a fairly small building in the middle of a residential area.
The idea for LTWC was planted in March 1978, after Cheryl Millham saw a photo of a woman holding a baby raccoon in an issue of Woman’s Day magazine.
According to LTWC’s website, “The woman, Jinny Collins, was one of the founders of Wildlife Rescue, a wildlife rehabilitation organization in Los Altos, California.”
The article reported that Wildlife Rescue was preparing to hold a training seminar to teach local citizens how to care for orphaned and injured wild birds and animals. So, in April 1978, Millham called Collins and signed up for the class.
Millham, along with her husband Tom, their daughter Connie and their friend B.J. headed to the training seminar.
“When they returned to South Lake Tahoe, they began contacting entities that would come in contact with orphaned and injured wildlife, informed them of their plan to raise and rehabilitate these animals, and asked for their help,” LTWC’s website said.
For about 37 years, the couple operated out of their home and backyard on a 0.75 acre property on Cherry Hills Circle.
Denise Upton is the Animal Care Director for LTWC. She started in 1995 as a volunteer and has been with them since. She remembers working at the Cherry Hills location.
“We basically figured out a way to take almost everything,” Upton said. “I was just looking at an old newsletter and we had 14 bears at one point. I don’t know where we put them. We had small enclosures but we were the only bear rehab in California for many many years so we just had to take whatever they had.”
LTWC holds permits to take in almost any of Lake Tahoe’s wildlife except for adult deer, mountain lions, or elk but while they were the only ones able to care for bears, there are nearly 100 other rehab facilities in California, so if they ran out of space, they’d contact one of the other facilities to take care of the animals.
In addition to limiting how many animals they could take in, the small space also made it more difficult to rehabilitate the animals.
Since one of their main goals is to rerelease the animals, they want to simulate their natural environment as much as possible.
“The old place didn’t have outdoor enclosures, so it was really hard to get the animals used to the outdoor areas and the sounds and everything and even the weather. We want them to be able to thrive,” Upton said.
Also, being so close to predators was stressful for the prey animals. Upton remembers a baby beaver they once cared for that would have a meltdown every time he was put out in the pen. They soon discovered it was because he could smell the bears from their enclosure whenever he was outside.
Despite those difficulties, during their time in the old location, they cared for more than 24,000 injured or displaced animals and birds and more than 14,000 of those animals have been successfully returned to the wild.
Still, in 2012, the Millhams realized it was time to move and expand.
The New Location
Although the idea to move came in 2012, it wasn’t until 2014 that the perfect location was found. The 27 acre lot at the corner of Al Tahoe and Pioneer Trail is owned by the Springmeyer Family Partnership. A relationship with the Springmeyer family, in addition to a donation from the estate of Barbara Hartoonian allowed the Millhams to make their dreams come true.
In July 2015, LTWC finally broke ground on their new home.
The larger space has allowed them to spread the animals out and given them more space. Upton said this has definitely helped the animals have better recoveries.
“It has definitely upped our game,” Upton said. They currently have a 63% release rate, which is a stat they are proud of.
As of April 2022, they have eight enclosures that they’ve built, with four more on the way. They have a large flight area for the birds they’re rehabbing and each enclosure also has outdoor space for the animals to get some fresh air.
In theory, the buildings are animal specific but in reality, the facility is meant to be flexible.
“Nothing we do here is black and white. Right now, we’ve got mice, squirrels and porcupines in the otter/beaver building,” Upton said.
Upton said it’s all about being flexible.
They also recently broke ground on the main building, which will hold an animal hospital, staff offices and an apartment, if staff need to care for animals overnight or if they have interns from out of the area. The building is expected to open in Spring 2023.
They also recently completed building an outdoor learning center that will allow them to hold classes during the summer. The main building will also hold a multi-purpose room for education in the winter.
While the new building and the educational component is exciting and important, everything LTWC does is really about the animals.
Over her more than 20 years with the organization, Upton has cared for a lot of animals and she has lots of thoughts and memories of the animals.
One animal that has really stuck out in her mind is a little bear named Azuza. They began getting reports of a bear that was literally walking up to people on the trail and jumping up into people’s arms.
“He was like a teddy bear, he wasn’t right. So, we worked real hard and we found placement for him,” Upton said. He’s currently thriving at a facility called In the Company of Wolves, where he lives happily with a three-legged bear named Woody.
She also remembers a mountain beaver that was found in the Harrah’s parking lot. She got a call that a beaver was stuck in a drainage ditch.
When Upton showed up, she realized that it was a mountain beaver, which is very different from a beaver.
“I’ve never seen a live one and go figure, there’s one in the parking lot of Harrah’s,” Upton said. “It really goes to show that we have a lot of wildlife around us even if it’s in Heavenly Village.”
Of all the animals Upton has cared for, she says coyotes are the most difficult to rehab. They are constantly stressed and she said she’s had coyotes dig their way out of enclosures.
“They’re very, very difficult and so if they’re mobile we leave them out,” Upton said.
Up until recently, beavers were Upton’s favorite animal to take care of but that was before she met Porky the Porcupine.
“It was beavers because I had raised baby beavers quite a few times, until we got a baby porcupine. They are like baby beavers with quills and they’re so flipping interesting,” Upton said.
Porky has become too used to humans so he is now a permanent resident of LTWC. When they leave him out of his enclosure, he walks around like he owns the place.
He is very similar to a dog, he’ll just follow the volunteers and staff around and is constantly expecting to be given peanuts, which are his favorite treat.
In addition to Porky, LTWC has several other permanent residents. They are two small owls and two kestrels that are currently staying at Upton’s house for the winter.
They also have Em, the one-winged eagle. Em is taken outside everyday, where he walks around the campus and spreads his wings. Even though he can’t fly, he gets plenty of attention and food so he’s happy.
The public is not allowed in the facility because they want to limit the amount of interaction the animals have with humans. So, the outdoor learning center, along with the main building, will allow them to be more “user friendly,” as Upton says.
Upton does say she has dreams of one day opening a sanctuary on the property, to allow the public to see the local wildlife.
“There’s a huge need for that here,” Upton said. “I’d rather have people see a bear that can’t be released in an enclosed setting than throwing rice krispie treats out their car window so they can get a picture.”
Education is an integral piece of what LTWC does. Upton is constantly fielding calls from visitors who haven’t encountered that kind of wildlife before and don’t know what to do. Or people bring them animals that didn’t actually need to be rescued.
They are always doing outreach about how to peacefully coexist with wildlife, so the learning center and a possible sanctuary go a long way for that purpose.
Em, along with the kestrels, are frequently used in education settings, since they are so comfortable around people.
The owls are more cautious, so LTWC is building them an enclosure near the learning center, so people can still view them.
For all the rest of the animals that can’t be viewed in person, LTWC has an active Instagram account where videos are posted almost daily of the animals acting naturally.
There are videos of bears playing with each other, coyotes zooming around their enclosure and cute porcupine butts waddling around.
Allowing the public to interact with the animals, whether in person or remotely, is so important. Everything LTWC does is made possible by donations, so letting people see where their money is going is vital.
The donations don’t only help in construction of new buildings, but also for veterinary equipment, like the new x-ray machine they were able to use to monitor a bobcat whose leg they performed surgery on. Donations are also used to purchase food, because wild animals eat a lot of food. In 2020 alone, they spent nearly $30,000 on bird and animal food.
They recently hired Heidi Volkhardt Allstead as their first ever Executive Director. She is looking towards the future of LTWC.
“I know Denise is working on a bigger educational program so that’ll be part of it, really increasing those educational needs, and beyond that I mean just offering the best animal care that we can give,” Allstead said.
The current facility is spread over five of the 27 acres, so they have a lot of space to expand.
“One of the things at the board will be looking at late summer as we go onto the next season and then when the building is done, we are really looking at what are the needs… what other kinds of staff do we need, do we need a veterinarian on staff, for me those are all things we’re going to determine between now and next March,” Allstead said.
Currently, most of LTWC’s work is done by volunteers, including the veterinary services.
“I’m excited to see where LTWC is going and just how amazing this facility is and the amazing staff that work here and the rehabbers, I’m just excited to see the level of professionalism and expertise that we have here just increase more and more,” Allstead said.
To learn more, visit https://ltwc.org/ or visit https://www.instagram.com/lake.tahoe.wildlife.care/ to see all of their animals.
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