- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

BEND, Ore. (AP) - A couple hundred animals are tucked into and around a modest house just east of Bend.

They include a flying squirrel whose feet were burned off by a wildfire, a porcupine with nerve damage after it was hit by a car, and a bald eagle found near Wickiup Reservoir with a wing wounded by an electric shock. Volunteers at High Desert Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation tend to the animals, small and big, with hopes of eventually releasing them. About 50 percent of the animals cared for there recover and return to the wild.

The fledgling nonprofit has quickly increased the number of animals it cares for each year, and its founders have hopes for expansion. Jeff Cooney, 59, president and resident veterinarian, said he’d like to have an animal hospital and education center by the small house someday.

“My goal has always been since vet school to come to Central Oregon and build a very nice center,” he said last week.

Cooney and his partner, Jeannette Bonomo, 41, founded High Desert in March 2013 after initially caring for wildlife in the Bend home they share. Before starting the group, the couple treated wild animals independently, and Bonomo said they were housing as many as about 40 animals, mostly small birds. They were running out of space and wanted a place where volunteers could come to help with the animals and where people could bring in animals at any hour.

A man donated the house and surrounding 4 acres of land at the corner of Erickson and Neff roads a month after they started High Desert, Cooney said. Bonomo said volunteers cleaned and fixed up the place.

The volunteers at High Desert are just some of the people giving their time to help rehabilitate wildlife, said Corey Heath, district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend. Other volunteers around Central Oregon work out of their homes. Wherever they work, the goal is the same.

“The purpose of the rehab program is not to make pets out of these animals,” Heath said. “. These animals are to be rehabilitated back into the wild.”

Wildlife rehabilitators must have state and possibly federal permits, depending on what kind of animals they treat.

Along with the bald eagle found in July by Wickiup, which may need a full year to recover, High Desert has helped other animals that ended up in the news. They include Grace the goose and a baby rockchuck. Grace was found in late 2013 along the Deschutes River in Bend with a fishing lure stuck in her tongue. She now lives with her mate, Chuck, at Lake Aspen next to the Sunriver Nature Center. The baby rockchuck, found in May with head trauma after likely being hit by a car near the Old Mill District, did not recover from its injuries and died.

The number of animals High Desert helps has grown each year. In 2013 it was more than 200 animals; in 2014, it was more than 900 animals, and so far this year it has helped more than 1,000 animals.

“This year we are headed toward 1,500,” Cooney said.

As the number of animals increases, so does the need for volunteers.

High Desert has about 20 volunteers, most who do four-hour shifts. The work is not glamorous, with the main chore cleaning cages, said Laura Angell, 35, of Bend, a regular volunteer with the nonprofit.

“You have to have a willingness to get dirty,” Angell said. “This is not a clean job.”

Angell found the baby rockchuck this spring and scooped the injured animal up in her best friend’s bridesmaid dress, the only thing she had in her car to carry it. She coordinates volunteers for High Desert and said ideally it would have three to four people there every day. The more volunteers, the quicker the cleaning and feeding goes.

“Getting new people in here is really important,” she said.

Current volunteers include people such as Chris Wright, 20, of Bend, a recent Portland Community College graduate who studied the biology and management of zoo animals. He said he may want to run his own rehabilitation center someday and is at High Desert to learn how one operates, as well as to help the animals.

Food for the animals includes dog kibble, salad greens mixed with cream cheese, live crickets and dead rodents. Diets vary by species. While donors often give food, Cooney said, High Desert still spends about $1,500 a month to keep the animals fed.

The house brims with wildlife, as seen during a Wednesday visit. Walking through the front door leads to a reception room, where High Desert keeps some iguanas and a boa constrictor in cages. While not native animals to Central Oregon, the reptiles either escaped, were released into the backcountry by people or were given up by their owners.

Back to the right is the “baby room,” full of young recovering birds kept in small boxes. The temperature is warm there, and containers with tortoises and more exotic pets are on the floor next to the walls.

The kitchen serves as the hub for High Desert. There, volunteers prepare food daily. There is also an operating table where Cooney treats the most critically injured animals. Crates around the dining room hold the bald eagle, as well as a crow, flicker and red-tailed hawk.

Out in the garage there is more wildlife, mainly birds. The animals in the garage included pigeons, doves, quail and nighthawk. Not all of the space in the house is filled with wildlife. There is also a small office for Cooney and Bonomo, a veterinary tech who was at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Colorado before moving to Bend, as well as a bedroom. Injured animals may come in at all hours of the day or night, so volunteers may need to rest up in the bedroom.

Behind the house enclosures, cages and small buildings hold more wildlife. Flight pens, where rehabilitated birds can test their wings before being released, are nearing completion.

Born in Salem and raised in Lake Oswego, Cooney would come to Sunriver with his family when he was younger. At age 12 he volunteered at the Sunriver Nature Center. He loved working with animals and decided to eventually go to veterinary school.

As his inspiration and mentors, he lists three of the most well-known names when it comes to wildlife in Central Oregon: Jim Anderson, a naturalist in Sisters; Jay Bowerman, principal researcher at Sunriver Nature Center; and Donald Kerr, one of the founders of the High Desert Museum.

Cooney hopes High Desert Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation could eventually be a facility on the same level as the museum south of Bend.

Having studied veterinary medicine at Oregon State and Washington State universities in the 1980s, Cooney did a residency at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. In college and at the center he focused on raptor medicine and surgery. He came to Central Oregon in 1995 and taught at Central Oregon Community College for 19 years before retiring last year. While teaching, he continued to rehabilitate wildlife and practiced raptor medicine in his spare time, using facilities at veterinary clinics in Bend.

Rehabilitating raptors, such as eagles and hawks, can have its dangers. On Labor Day, the bald eagle from Wickiup bit Cooney’s lip as he was examining it. Despite a trip to the emergency room and an appointment with a plastic surgeon to address his wound, Cooney said he is not discouraged from helping wildlife.

While domestic animals may become accustomed to veterinary care, injured wild animals often are experiencing close contact with people for the first time.

“When they come to us they are very stressed and very scared, and they have no idea what is going on,” he said.

As High Desert continues to grow from the small house, it could become a place even better suited for wildlife care. “Bend really needs a big wildlife rehabilitation center,” Cooney said.


Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com

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