A baby robin pokes his head out of a small shoebox, looking anxiously around at foreign surroundings. He’s the first “patient” of the day at the newly-opened Wildlife Hospital in north Edmonton, brought in by a woman who took him away from neighbourhood children who were playing with him. Kim Blomme calms him with gentle strokes while she checks for injuries, then gets help feeding him formula through a narrow tube attached to a syringe. At about two weeks old, he likely fell out of the nest and, while he’s not hurt, he’s still too young to fend for himself in the wild. So he’s brought to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton’s Spruce Grove facility where he will be cared for with other robin chicks until he’s old enough to be released.
That robin is one of over 1,200 injured, orphaned and ill birds and small animals that will be treated and cared for by the society this year. It was founded 23 years ago by Blomme when she was working as an animal health technologist at the Delton Veterinary Hospital in Edmonton, an avian practice run by a falconer with an Alberta Fish and Wildlife licence to treat injured raptors. But, in the summertime, people started bringing in other wild birds like baby robins and ducklings, and Blomme quickly realized there was a huge gap in knowledge about how to treat them. She also saw how stressful it was in the clinic for wild birds suddenly in captivity around humans, cats and dogs. So Blomme had an idea.
“I talked to my husband about the idea of treating them at our home,” says Blomme, who was also an avid bird watcher. “And both of us, being fairly naïve, thought that was a great idea. We had absolutely no idea what floodgate we were opening at the time.”
They set up in the garage at their acreage in Sherwood Park, with the back end for treatment and the front as an intake area. They also built outdoor pens. Her original idea was to treat owls. But people started bringing her other birds as well. The first year, they treated 150 birds and, each year, that number grew. She started taking birds people brought to the SPCA and surrounding vet clinics.
There was no running water in the garage, so all the dishes had to be brought into the house to be washed and the laundry brought up and down from the basement. People started to offer help and she began hiring summer students through a federal government program. In 1989, she registered the Alberta Bird Rescue Association as a charitable organization and set up a volunteer board. She was now also taking on roles of non-profit manager, employer, bookkeeper, wildlife caregiver, educator and volunteer coordinator, all while raising two young boys and continuing to work full-time at the vet clinic. Eventually, it got to be too much.
“It was still fairly seasonal at that point from May until the end of September,” says Blomme. “And we took a much-needed break over the winter to regroup and plan for the next year. But I remember a fair amount of stress as the spring started to come around because I knew we were just going to get flooded again.”
After five years, Blomme was ready to quit. That’s when veterinarian and animal advocate, Dr. Marianne Yelle, joined the board and was instrumental in securing a new site for the rehabilitation centre at the University of Alberta Bioscience farm. The organization’s first Executive Director was also hired. Blomme continued her work as a volunteer and board member.
On Aug.3, 2005, a train derailment spilled 1.3 million litres of oil across the surface of Wabamun Lake. Volunteers with the now renamed Wildlife Rehabilitation Society were among the first on the scene, treating the more than 200 oil-slicked birds and other wildlife. It was a turning point for the organization. Suddenly, the general public became aware of its existence. And Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel declared the society an essential service.
In 2011, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre was moved to a permanent location in Spruce Grove on 16 acres of a 53-acre parcel of land owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In July of this year, it opened the Wildlife Hospital in the City of Edmonton’s old Animal Control building. It’s the realization of a dream for Blomme.
“Edmonton is actually right on a major flyway. You can see literally 10 thousand birds flying over in one day,” says Blomme. “We get about 55 to 58 species of birds here in the winter. In the summer, that goes up to about 275, and we are considered the waterfowl and Boreal Forest bird nursery. They come here specifically to reproduce.
“Also, most birds don’t survive their first year of life,” she adds. “If we’re talking about an injured adult bald eagle that has survived 4 or 5 years in the wild, it’s already proven itself. That’s an important animal to get back out into the wild again to reproduce so they can continue that strong gene pool.”
The wildlife centre is run by a small staff, all part-time, and volunteers, including six exchange students this summer from Germany who live at the site. Most of its funding is through donations, but the organization does a lot with the small amount it has to work with. The main building that houses office space, examination rooms, a kitchen and pens for smaller birds and animals is in a large camp trailer donated by an oil company through efforts by Mayor Mandel.
Another mandate of the centre is education. That includes getting people to keep their cat indoors in the spring when birds are nesting and if they find an abandoned robin, leave it alone because the mother is nearby.
The society also has a large education program for schools, making students aware of how growing populations affect wildlife, why wildlife is important and how to help protect wildlife habitats. This year alone, they gave more than 170 presentations to nearly 6,000 students in the Edmonton area.
“I just find animals fascinating,” says Blomme. They take us out of our own world, out of our own ego-centricity. They don’t need us to survive, but they need us to make sure we maintain a place for them to live.”
Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series. Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at GlobalTVEdmonton.com