ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Debbie Wayns and the rest of the crew at Orange County Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center are waiting for the babies to arrive.
Many already have, but the staff expects more. After all, it is baby season.
Starting in January each year, abandoned ducklings, raccoons, possums and assorted other wildlife are dropped at the center's door. Usually, the wave of newborns ends in October — except for two years ago, when baby wild animals were delivered to them the whole year.
“If there’s any chance of survival, they’re going to come here,” said Wayns, the operations manager.
The animals usually come in batches, with late summer being one of the busier times for staff. And this busy period is ramping up.
The second wave of possums just arrived, and staff awaits the second wave of baby squirrels. Plus, surprise deliveries of ducklings in shoe boxes can land at any moment.
Open every day, the center isn't a refuge for wild animals or a zoo, but rather a hospital — complete with X-ray equipment, blood test machines and a veterinarian who can handle more involved procedures.
Once the animals are mature enough or healthy enough, they are returned to the wild. For the babies, they need to be completely raised, which requires weeks, often months of attention and care.
Among the test equipment are cages full of baby possums, some with five little creatures bundled together under blankets. Little dishes of cat food await the slumbering animals. Next to them are empty cages, cleaned and ready to go for the new arrivals Wayns knows will come.
Other cages are full of chirping mallard ducklings too little to stay outside during the day. There are also mourning doves, some puffing up their feathers as a kind of ornithological "hello."
The hospital isn’t for pets, and any marine animals or raptors that arrive are sent to hospitals more suited for their care.
With 200 volunteers and six full-time staff, the center is the largest of its kind around, which means it’s usually the busiest. Whether it’s a forest fire or oil spill, the hospital is often the go-to landing spot for animals in distress.
This past year, with much of the world shut down, the center was at its busiest. In 2020, it admitted 5,582 animals (231 different species), an almost 5% increase from the year before.
Wayns herself is a relative newcomer to the center. Five years ago, she worked as a paralegal in family law, prayed for a change and got connected with the hospital by someone in her church. Her first week on the job was a reminder that her life had changed.
Wayns walked into the examination room, where a duckling was waking up after it had been sedated for a check-up. The technician gently compressed the chest and carefully stretched the wings. Then the breathing stopped, and the tech reached for a needle that looked far too large for a bird so small.
"It was like that scene out of 'Pulp Fiction,'" she said.
In plunged the needle, and the little bird resumed breathing.
Life at the hospital isn’t always so dramatic. The hospital runs as a nonprofit and gets all of its donations from fundraising events and community members who understand the value of its work.
Not everyone understands, however. Some callers to the offices want advice on how to care for the baby squirrel they found. Wayns’ answer is always the same: Wild animals are not pets. One man asked if the hospital could take a possum he had raised for three years. No, Wayns said, the animal is no longer suitable for release.
"I told him, 'Now you have a pet possum,'" she said.
People have the best intentions, Wayns insisted, but those intentions can result in disruption to the normal life cycle of an animal that can cause problems for the creature or the people who live around it. Her work is about maintaining order and caring for animals in a way that doesn’t change their behavior.
Outside the main building in a warehouse exist other essentials of a hospital, including a full kitchen, cardboard boxes full of assorted greens and fruits, and a washer and dryer. Large wash stations of metal troughs stand at the ready to rinse animals covered in oil. Next to it are dozens of bottles of Dawn soap. While large oil spills are few and far between, oil-covered animals do arrive several times a month.
Along with the equipment sit cages for older, larger animals such as mature possums and a well-known white goose who lives in Huntington Beach Central Park.
“People have been calling about her. There’s a group of regulars who feed her,” Wayns said, shaking her head.
The job has its rewards, but one of them can’t be a continued attachment to the animals. They come in, they’re cared for, and then they’re released back into the wild. Any kind of comfort with humans can be dangerous for animals or people.
But every day, the staff is reminded of their contribution. That reminder comes in the form of a snowy egret called Mooch.
On a recent overcast day, Mooch was perched on a table just outside the warehouse. He was standing on his long thin legs, his feathers fluffed. He doesn’t receive food, nor is he allowed inside for a visit.
“He’s been coming here every day ever since I’ve been here,” Wayns said.
That’s at least five years, a constant reminder of one life successfully saved.
“That’s our mission,” Wayns said.