Jesusita Wildfire Animal Rescue
A fawn and bobcat kitten get cozy. Credit Lisa Mathiasen/ Animal Rescue Team
Over the past two weeks, the Jesusita wildfire raged near Santa Barbara, California, 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, consuming over 8,700 acres of land and forest, and destroying or damaging nearly 100 homes. Some 30,000 people, over half the city’s population, were forced to evacuate their homes. While thousands of firefighters devoted their time to containing the blaze, one group of rescue workers gets scant media attention - animal rescue teams that work around the clock to help displaced pets and wildlife and save as many lives as they can.
“Don’t you dare!” I hear Julia Di Sieno say gently to someone in the background as I speak to her on the phone. She is Co-founder and Director of Animal Rescue Team, a nonprofit organization which has been inundated with animals they’ve rescued and calls for help since the fire broke out last week. Her organization specializes in wild animals, particularly fawns and mammals, while domestic pets they rescue get sent to the local Humane Society. Out of curiosity, I ask who she’s talking to, figuring it’s one of her animals. “It’s the bobcat! She was trying to pee on me!”
Di Sieno helped rescue the bobcat kitten in the photo a week before, near Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Ranch, where it was dehydrated and near death. Di Sieno nurtured it back to health. They rescued the fawn during last week's wildfire. Although wild animals, especially of separate species, are never placed together due to regulations, in this emergency situation, they had no choice. During the mayhem of the fire, they were forced to put animals anywhere they could, since they had run out of crates large enough for the fawn. The kitten ran to the fawn, and it was instant bonding.
Most wildlife knows instinctively to flee fires - to fly away, burrow, or run - but some don’t make it out in time. Rescue workers walk near the fire line with nets, searching for any injured animals or young separated from their parents. “Burn victims go to the local care hospital,” says Di Sieno. “We rescued bunnies, squirrels, two fawns. We’ve rescued I don’t know how many geese, chickens ducks, cats, birds, turkeys, and a baby owl and a baby raptor.”
Another local nonprofit, Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, specializes in songbirds and seabirds, but during emergencies rescue workers help any animal that needs it. “All rehab centers in California work together as a team to help wildlife who are in need of care due to injuries often caused by man, dogs, cats, cars, etc,” explains Julia Parker, Director of Animal Affairs at WCN.
California currently faces severe drought conditions, which increases the chance of wildfires breaking out, and of spreading out of control. Just last year this same region had the Goleta Gap fire and the Montecita Tea Fire. During these fires, which can escalate and spread rapidly due to shifting winds, pets sometimes run from their homes, or alternately get stuck at home when a fire spreads rapidly and desperate homeowners can’t get to their homes.
All of these Santa Barbara area animal rescue organizations have put out a national plea for donations because of the overwhelming need for animal food, medicines, and space to house displaced animals. ART currently leases a 1.5-acre plot of land that houses rescued animals in enclosures on the property, which require around-the-clock care, and the organization is desperate to purchase the land. The morning after Di Sieno – along with an insanely cute bobcat cub and fawn photo – appeared on the Ellen Degeneres show – the landowner decided he needed to sell it and she’s concerned for the future of the animals she and her fellow workers just rescued. The WCN also seeks funds for their Oiled and Injured Seabird Rehab Center, and receive no City, State or federal funding. One of their volunteers, Nancy Callahan, runs W.I.L.D.E. Services which focuses on raccoons and opossums, had her home and facility burnt to the ground and must start over from scratch. After rehabilitation, the groups reintroduce rescued animals to the wild.