Bear cub anesthesized before being returned to the wild, Jan. 24, 2013. Photo courtesy Tom Millham
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CA - A beloved Lake Tahoe wildlife center is having one of its busiest years - ever. Animals in need have been arriving almost non-stop for weeks. The couple that runs the place is doing their best to keep up. They've got some great success stories - but the center needs a new home.
It's a picture perfect winter day at Lake Tahoe - but not everyone is healthy enough to enjoy it. Some of the locals are sick - or injured - or orphaned.
"We are giving every single one of these birds and animals a second chance at life," said Tom Millham, who with his wife Cheryl. One of their most recent guests - a sick bobcat. They're not sure what's wrong with her.
"We've given her some fluids and some vitamins," said Tom.
In the next room, there's a great horned owl.
"He's recovering from a broken wing," said Tom.
The owl had surgery recently. Now the challenge is to keep him calm and discourage him from flapping his wing while it mends.
The wildlife center is actually part of the Millhams' home. Their garage is packed with food for the animals , the backyard filled with cabins built for a wide range of creatures - from river otters to bald eagles.
"See the right wing, how it is kind of dragging a little bit lower than the left? That's why we have him," said Tom, describing an eagle. The vet believes the eagle's wing is just bruised. So all he needs is a few weeks to heal in a safe place.
The wildlife center has a record number of orphaned bear cubs this season. They're all healthy and will be released in a safe place as soon as they're big enough.
A volunteer shot video of a baby bobcat brought in last summer - one of thousands of animals the Millhams have cared for over the last 35 years.
At first, they learned from experienced wildlife rehabbers. Now they teach others to do it.
"I am a nurse by profession, which helps," Cheryl said. "Not only to do you have to feed them properly, build them up, you have to know where's the best place to release them."
The Millhams get help from volunteers, but it still costs about $120,000 a year to do all this - paid for with private donations.
When they first moved to this spot there was hardly anyone here. Now a neighborhood has grown up around them. So their non-profit organization is trying to raise enough money to move to a larger sanctuary where they can help more wild animals - and educate the public.
"We feel it's just incredibly important, not just for our locals, but for our tourists when they come in to get that education, be able to see these animals," said Sue Novasel, vice president of
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
That would mean more happy endings for animals like a peregrine falcon. After a couple of months of rest, his hurt wing has healed - and he's about to be released.
"All I'm doing now is just getting him tired a little bit so he'll come down," said Tom, who's finally able to gently grab the bird.
"He looks fantastic. He's flying very well."
A few minutes later, the falcon is in a cardboard box, ready for the big moment.
Tom: "Alright, here we go, buddy. That's a great release. We've released 14,000 animals back into wild. This one was really special. He just did exactly what we were hoping he would do and that's fly and just keep flying because that's what they love to do."
"If I had wings, I'd fly too," said Cheryl, laughing.
There is constant fundraising to feed and care for the animals - and to build that new home for the wildlife center. Donations by PayPal, credit card, phone, email or mail can be made here.