Helping wildlife during a wildfire



DEVASTATION—Above, in addition to destroying structures, like this Ventura house, the Thomas Fire killed countless wild animals. The now-famous rabbit at right was rescued by a man who stopped along the road. MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers

DEVASTATION—Above, in addition to destroying structures, like this Ventura house, the Thomas Fire killed countless wild animals. The now-famous rabbit at right was rescued by a man who stopped along the road. MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers

The Thomas Fire is still raging in Santa Barbara County, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate from their homes while firefighters try to contain the blaze.

In the face of an approaching fire, people rush to gather their valuables and leave, but the overlooked victims are the wild animals that live in the areas already burning.

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

The most famous four-legged refugee of the Thomas Fire is a rabbit that was saved near La Conchita by a man fleeing the area. The rescue was captured on a video that went viral, with some praising the action as heroic and others calling it foolish.

The man took the rabbit to the Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, where it was treated and turned over to the California Wildlife Center in Calabasas.

Dr. Duane Tom, director of animal care at the wildlife center, said the rabbit is doing fine and will be released soon.

“The first few days were touch-and-go. We weren’t sure how the burns were going to end up,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t look that bad but maybe the burns are really bad and the tissues start to die off. After a couple of days, the rabbit started getting blisters over its ears and it started getting a lot of open wounds on its footpads, but it seems like the worst has already happened. We’re hopeful.”

Tom said he’s only treated two other animals from the fire, a gray fox, which died from its injuries, and a towhee, which he said was recovering. He said it’s unusual for the center to treat burned animals because people rarely rescue them—either the animals are healthy enough to escape on their own or the fire kills them.

As far as rescuing an animal in the face of a fire, Tom said, it was an unusual case. Even if the blaze hadn’t killed the rabbit, the destruction of the vegetation would have left the animal with nothing to eat.

“We would never advocate someone going into an active burn or fire area. I’m sure the fire department wouldn’t appreciate it,” Tom said. “Once the fire is gone, if people see injured wildlife that can’t get away—if you can catch wildlife it probably needs to come in because something’s wrong with it.”

As the fire spread there was a meme going around social media sites advocating that homeowners leave buckets of water out for wildlife fleeing the blaze, but Tom said that while the advice comes from a good place, it’s not a very good idea because animals could grow accustomed to being fed rather than finding their own food and water.

“We don’t recommend people feeding animals in the wild, but if it’s an injured animal . . . they can call us and we can give them advice over the phone on whether the animal needs to come in,” Tom said. “If it’s a small animal we can walk them through getting it into a box, or if it’s nearby we can go assist them.”

Founded in 1998, the California Wildlife Center only treats native California species. Tom said it’s a matter of staffing. A nonprofit organization, it has limited resources and a limited staff, relying mostly on volunteers to clean crates and help with treatments.

Tom said the facility only treats California species because otherwise it would be inundated with animals. Even with that limitation, Tom said, he’s treated over 4,000 animals this year.