12th Annual Walk for Wildlife

andrew kruse-ross | walk for wildlife | sept. 2017

Generally, when Frankly arrives at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary to discuss the annual Walk for Wildlife, our conversation with curator Lori Bankson takes place in her office, somewhat removed from the hectic pace of the facility's rehabbers working diligently behind the scenes to care for any of the approximately 5,000 injured or orphaned animals that are dropped off at the sanctuary each year. But this year is different. Meeting with us in early August, we find Bankson and intern Rachel Lambert hard at work with one of the sanctuary's newest guests, a red-tailed hawk.

“We are just full of birds of prey right now," says Bankson.

The sanctuary normally sees 100 birds of prey come through the doors during the year. This bird represents the 90th bird of prey to come to the sanctuary thus far. With nearly five months to go till the year's end, 2017 is poised to be a record-breaking year where birds of prey are concerned.

Bankson explains that the unusually rainy weather is to blame. The wet spring and summer has caused an increase in mosquito populations and with them, an increase in cases of West Nile Virus as is believed to be the case with the hawk in question.

“These are the highest West Nile numbers we've seen since 2002," says Bankson.

WNV is a mosquito-borne viral illness that can affect both humans and animals, manifesting in a range of symptoms that vary from mild flu-like symptoms, to brain damage and even death. The virus was first discovered in Uganda in 1937, but the disease has long spread from that location. Today 47 states report confirmed cases of WNV. The first human case of WNV in Wisconsin appeared in 2002.

When infecting a young bird, as is the case with this hawk, the result can be devastating. West Nile is usually an indirect killer; the virus leaves birds weak, confused and unable to hunt effectively. Starving birds take greater risks in an attempt to collect food, often resulting in injury — making the already difficult task of surviving the first months out of the nest that much more daunting.

This hawk has sustained a foot injury, possibly while hunting for food in its weakened condition. It spent two days on the ground at St. Norbert College before arriving at the sanctuary. As Bankson demonstrates by holding a gloved hand before the bird's eyes, the virus has started to affect the bird's nervous system.

“She has a little bit of a nervous twitch," says Bankson. “When trying to focus, she shakes a little bit and that's indicative of West Nile as well."

If all goes to plan, this bird has a fifty percent chance of being released back into the wild. Without the staff and resources of the sanctuary, this bird's prognosis would be grim.

It's been a busy year for the staff at the sanctuary. With the increase in cases such as this, the sanctuary is well on its way to caring for what could be a record number of rehabbed animals. As of early August, the sanctuary has already had 4,000 animals come through the door needing assistance. The remaining month's of 2017 would have to come to a crawl if the sanctuary has any reasonable chance of landing around its usual number of 5,000 animals cared for, but that isn't likely. The busy year makes the sanctuary's primary fundraiser for its rehab program (R-PAWS), the annual Walk for Wildlife, more important than ever.

The event incorporates educational animal stations featuring live animal ambassadors laid out along more than 2.5 miles of sanctuary trails giving animal lovers of all ages a chance to interact with and view wildlife up close. Other activities include live music from the Good News Band, a raffle, refreshments and more. One of the highlights of the event, Bankson and staff will release a rehabbed eagle back into the wild before attendees as well.

Last year, the walk generated nearly $17,000. That money was used to purchase an incubator large enough for fawns, gloves, carriers, food and other equipment necessary to the success of the R-PAWS program.

This year's Walk for Wildlife mascot is the swan, chosen in honor of the sanctuary's three swans, which make their summer home on the sanctuary lagoons. While the goal of rehabbers is always to return injured animals back into the wild, in the case of these swans, their injuries were too severe to allow them to fly and thus left them unable to migrate. Today the sanctuary is their year-round home.

Bankson tells us the tundra swan known to staff as Bella will be at the first animal station during the Walk for Wildlife. Bella's story is one of survival and epitomizes the spirit of animal rehab. She arrived to the sanctuary in what Bankson calls “rough shape," after being felled by gunfire. The extent of her injuries had many questioning her chances and rehabbers were uncertain if Bella would ever recover. Seven years later, the swan is a favorite among sanctuary visitors and can be seen swimming the sanctuary lagoon during warmer months.

For Bankson, Bella's story is symbolic of the sanctuary's work.

“She is such a symbol of what wildlife rehabbers do and what wildlife rehab is and that is never giving up."

After a tour of the rehabbing animals in the Observation Building, our meeting with Bankson comes to a close. We make our goodbyes as an intern informs us that yet another red-tailed hawk is on its way in for care, number 91.

Walk for Wildlife takes place Saturday, September 16 from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Adult registration with t-shirt is $18, kids 12 and under are $8. Without a t-shirt, adults registration is $10, $5 for kids ages 6 – 12. Children 5 and under are free.

Register in advance online at BayBeachWildlife.com or the day or the event at the sanctuary.

--Banner image by D. Fletcher/CC BY 2.0

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