RUSSELL — It took only one quick peek from the small kennel before the barn owl escaped its confines and took flight. It stumbled a bit along the ground for a few feet before it ascended and headed for a row of trees nearby.
“It might be a little disoriented from the car ride,” Brendon McCampbell, director of Western Plains Animal Refuge, said as he eyed the spot where it disappeared into the greenery.
The owl had been transported by volunteer Lina Miller on Monday to Russell from Hill City where licensed wildlife rehabilitator Carrie Newell had cared for it. The owl had been found several days before in a pit at a concrete plant, wet and covered with powdery concrete residue.
Newell bathed the bird, including cleaning its eyes, ears and sinus cavity. Since it was otherwise in good health, it was deemed OK for release.
The barn owl is just one of the many animals WPAR and Newell have cared for this year, and they say the numbers are increasing. That inundation — including more unusual animals — are taxing them in both time and money.
McCampbell — who sub-permits under Newell’s license to care for wildlife — attributes the increase to several factors, including a changing climate.
“I don’t have a ton of science to substantiate it, and I don’t know if the public all would agree, but with global climate change, the more intense storms, the more erratic temperature and precipitation patterns I feel have contributed to a larger number of animals coming into us,” he said.
He acknowledged increased awareness of laws concerning wildlife and awareness of WPAR have contributed as well.
State permits — and for some animals federal permits — are required to possess most species of wild animals.
“People are trying to reach out to some sort of rehabilitator rather than taking care of animals themselves,” he said.
“We have also just made more connections with individuals as well as entities ranging from city governments, animal control officers, police departments as well as (Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism) staff,” he said.
“It seems like every year gets a little bit weirder and busier. We’ve had some kind of unusual animals come in over the years that Carrie hasn’t seen in a long time,” McCampbell said.
Over the last year, Newell and McCampbell have treated a pronghorn antelope fawn, pelican, porcupine and even a trumpeter swan.
That’s in addition to the more common baby birds, rabbits, hawks and owls. WPAR also takes in domestic cats and dogs for adoptions.
“When you’re looking at domestic animals, we primarily work with three species — dogs, cats and rabbits. And that’s pretty easy to get into a groove and having a consistent sort of schedule for animals, a consistent regimen for them,” McCampbell said.
Working with the wildlife takes special training and more time.
“When you get wildlife, you might have five to 10 different species, who all require very different things in terms of care, feeding, habitat. So it just can be a lot more stressful,” he said.
“With wildlife, you have to get trained with every species. They all have their own quirks, their own diets and feeding schedules, so there’s just a lot of training that goes into it,” he said.
With domestic animals, it’s also easier to help them find another rescue group or shelter due to the number of facilities and volunteers available.
“If we turn wildlife away, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Newell said. She is the only state and federally licensed rehabilitator in 28 counties of northwest and north central Kansas.
Volunteers do provide help, but what they can do is limited, McCampbell said.
“We do have other volunteers who are able to help us, but it’s only to a small degree. They can provide temporary, short-term assistance, transport, things of that nature. But as far as long-term care of animals, release and medical evaluation, those animals have to go through Carrie or I,” he said.
Flooding in eastern Kansas has also swamped rehabilitators and volunteers in that part of the state, Newell said, further limiting where wildlife can go.
“They’re saying we’ll only take this or that, because they’re overloaded,” she said.
On the financial side, food is a big part of the costs. McCampbell said WPAR has spent more than $1,000 on frozen mice so far this year to feed raptors and carnivores. Powdered formula to feed baby animals can cost $28 a can, Newell said.
“It goes real fast,” she said. She estimated she had been through five cans this year feeding cottontails and other mammals. That doesn’t include what McCampbell has used.
The addition of PetSense, 2508 Vine, and Tractor Supply Co., 235 W. 48th, in Hays along with Orscheln Farm and Home, 2900 Broadway, has made it easier to get feed for wildlife, however, McCampell said. Formulas for lambs can be used to feed fawns, and rodent pellets for pet mice and rats can be fed to squirrels, for example.
But even just the drive into Hays — from Hill City for Newell and Russell County for McCampbell — takes away from the time they spend caring for the animals.
“Definitely looking for volunteers, whether it’s somebody to even run things back and forth from Russell to here, or to a vet, to Hays, wherever,” Newell said.
And there are hidden costs, as well, Newell said. Her home liability insurance is higher because she takes in wildlife. Her energy bills often run high, especially in winter. Last year, she cared for an injured turkey vulture brought in from Hays that had to stay the winter.
Turkey vultures normally migrate to warmer climates, so she insulated a large chicken coop and installed heat lamps for it to survive the winter.
McCampbell said WPAR has enough funds to pay its bills and get by, and he is looking for grants, but finding time to write applications is difficult around caring for animals.
Both he and Newell also volunteer their time and money for wildlife rehab. McCampbell recently completed a master’s degree and said he was about to start a new job. Newell teaches at Bogue.
Newell wonders if asking city and county governments for assistance is a route the group could take, as many animals are brought in by animal control officers, especially from Hays, or law enforcement. Some, such as a raccoon that was recently brought to Newell, are seized as an illegal pet by law enforcement while executing an unrelated search warrant.
“If we’re dealing with a lot of the nuisance, as some people might call it, or the animal control is calling us for rehab, there really should be some that way too, because the taxpayer dollars help with that,” she said.