When Doris Duncan’s daughter was about eight years old, in 1997, she came home from school one day and declared, “I know what I want to be when I grow up – I want to be a Wildlife Specialist!” Little did they know then that this simple statement would change the course of their lives.
To support her daughter’s dream, Duncan, who was working as a preschool teacher at the time, volunteered with her daughter at various wildlife centers in northern California, including Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue. In 2000, Duncan was hired as the first employee of Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, shortly after the organization lost their physical address in Santa Rosa. Instead of putting their property into storage, Duncan volunteered to use her house in the transition, until the organization could find a permanent home. What was supposed to take about two years ended up taking four, and in the interim, Duncan and other volunteers around the county boarded and cared for wild animals in their homes.
“We set up satellite stations all over Sonoma County,” says Duncan. “Volunteers pitched in and took animals into their houses and garages and backyards. I had a lot of animals at my house – I had kennels everywhere with babies during baby season! I would take them all to work with me when I was a preschool teacher and put them in the teacher’s break room, and on my break and lunch I’d feed them all.”
Duncan soon moved up to executive director of the organization, as well as serving as board member for the California Council for Wildlife Rehabilitators and the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee – an appointment by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
After finding a new home in Santa Rosa that only lasted about a year, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue finally found their permanent home on Meacham Road in Petaluma in 2006 and according to Duncan, “it’s been happily ever after.”
Indeed, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue is now the largest wildlife center in California, land-wise, and offers a wide variety of programs besides their core rescue, rehabilitate and release services including classes, wildlife conservation, and sustainability for wildlife. They are also unique in that they are licensed to take any kind of animal. Many facilities do not have all the required licenses, nor the capabilities, to do so and may only focus on one type of animal, such as birds, or reptiles.
“One of the things that is super important for a successful wildlife center is to have the appropriate enclosures,” says Duncan. “You need to have enclosures that are comfortable and appropriate housing for each different species. For example, you could never put a golden eagle in a flight aviary that has wire in it – that would be extremely damaging to its feathers and cause injuries to its feet and talons. You have to have special wooden slats that are spaced the right distance apart with the right kind of material so those birds don’t injure themselves while they’re going through the rehab process. It’s amazing all the things you have to take into consideration.”
Today, the center takes in an average of 1,000 animals per year and releases about 60 percent back into the wild, well above the average 45-55 percent that most wildlife centers accomplish. Duncan credits the high release rate to the excellent medical care the animals receive, courtesy of the 13 good samaritan vet teams that volunteer to help care for the animals, the natural diet they are given, and the exceptional housing the center offers.
The organization now has over 30 wildlife rehabilitation enclosures and eight wildlife exhibit enclosures, a wildlife hospital, an aquatic mammal enclosure, a raptor recovery center, a fruit and vegetable garden, and a new barn for their PEEP program which teaches young people about animal care.
In 2009 Doris Duncan became involved with International Bird Rescue and responded to the BP oil spill in 2010, traveling twice to New Orleans, spending several months finding and cleaning about 800 contaminated pelicans. She recalls her involvement in the effort as one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
“You feel very grateful that you got to be part of the effort to help get the birds out because you really saw that you were making a difference,” says Duncan. “Sometimes you wonder when you put out that kind of effort but while I was there I saw that I made a difference and so did everybody else that I worked with. It was well worth all the hard work.”
After Duncan’s experience in New Orleans, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue became a participating organization with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, an important distinction that would play a critical part if there were ever an oil spill off our local coast. In the event of such a catastrophe, the center is set up, trained, and certified as a triage center until the birds could be transported to a more permanent location with the International Bird Rescue Center.
In 2004, Duncan launched “A Wildlife Exclusion Service” (AWES) to help the public with humane evictions of nuisance wildlife living under homes, in walls, or in attics. The idea materialized out of frustration of having hundreds of animals killed at the hands of homeowners, or exterminators, since it is illegal to trap and relocate wildlife in the state of California. Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue became the first wildlife center in the United States to have an exclusion service. The service offers a humane and life-oriented approach to animal control. Techniques are applied to remove intrusive animals and prevent future use of the building or home by wildlife, such as using one-way doors and sealing points of entry after the animals leave. They also can leave a predator scent (feces of their resident mountain lions) which Duncan says “acts like an eviction notice.” The nuisance animal will leave by its own volition and detract further wild animals from entering. Duncan now helps other wildlife rehabilitation centers start their own exclusion service.
And what became of Doris Duncan’s eight-year-old daughter, Danielle, who was the catalyst for her changing careers? Danielle Mattos is now 28-years-old and acts as the Animal Care Director at Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, much to the delight of her mother.
“It’s so neat when you get up in the morning and you can’t wait to get to work because not only is your child there, your daughter, but also the work that you love,” says Duncan. “It’s so great to finally find something that makes your life really worth living."