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Returning animals to the wild

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Last weekend, Dan Famini drove two gray foxes to Dillon Beach, where he set them free. One had been delivered to the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Center in June with two broken legs. It was paired with a second rescued fox to increase their odds of surviving.

Days like that are the best part of Kristen Reeder's job. As education outreach director for the Petaluma-based center, she said that returning animals to their original habitat is something special.

"If we get an animal that doesn't have a lot of hope, people think they won't make it," she said. "But when they do, it's the most rewarding thing to release them back into the wild."

So far this year, nearly 50 foxes have been cared for at the group's Mecham Road facility. The one most recently released was found near Dillon Beach in June after suffering with its injuries for several weeks in the wild.

Veterinarian Dan Famini said the fox was involved in some sort of high-impact accident, perhaps hit by a passing car.

Russ Gurevitch of Petaluma, a veterinarian and orthopedic surgeon, was called in to help with its care, performing two rounds of surgery on the young fox to insert plates, pins and wire.

After 13 weeks of rehabilitation, it was well enough to set free.

Each year the Wildlife Rescue Center takes in about 1,500 animals, including raccoons, skunks, coyotes, birds, bats and even otters.

Although geared specifically to serving Sonoma County, it often accepts animals from Lake and Mendocino County as well. It is primarily funded by donations, but also applies for grants from Fish and Wildlife Services when it needs extra funding for larger projects.

It was established in 1981 and is run by four full-time employees and about 100 volunteers. All dedicate their time to helping animals that are sick, injured or orphaned because of conflict with humans.

Employees perform simple medical care on animals when they can, while the volunteers help with feeding and foster care. When animals' needs call for more expertise, Famini of the Heritage Veterinary Hospital of Santa Rosa is often called.

Famini was born and raised in Santa Rosa, participated in 4-H as a kid and earned a degree in veterinary medicine from UC Davis. He has been volunteering his time and knowledge to the Wildlife Rescue for nearly five years.

Gray foxes are the only members of the dog family that can climb trees and, unlike red foxes, they prefer rocks, hollow logs and brush to agricultural areas.

The small omnivores usually weigh about 10 pounds and survive on berries, nuts, birds, insects and rodents. Bobcats and dogs kill a few every year, but humans are their biggest enemy.

Contrary to what some may believe, gray foxes are not as big a threat to ranch animals as coyotes, dogs or raccoons. The agency works to bridge that information gap between the misunderstood animals and their human neighbors.

Wildlife Rescue operates an Educational Outreach Program that teaches people about local wildlife and the ever growing impact we have upon their environment and survival.

"It is absolutely possible to successfully co-exist with the native wildlife," Famini says. "The most important thing is to prevent adverse wildlife interactions."

He strongly encourages people never to leave cat or dog food outside, which can lure wildlife into places they don't belong.

Famini also suggests visiting the Wildlife Rescue Center at 403 Mecham Road, where tours are available. Staff also is available to do in-class presentations at schools.

"Even growing up in the area, I still had no idea all of the animals that were right under our noses and in our backyards," he said. "It's pretty amazing."

The Wildlife Rescue also is on the forefront of identifying a new disease they have nicknamed "hopping fox disease" that is showing up in the local area.

After encountering several young foxes who were unable to use their back legs, agency staff began working with the California Department of Fish and Game and several universities to figure out what's causing it and how to cure it.

People interested in visiting the center can also see other native species such as bobcats and a three-legged, orphaned mountain lion that was saved from hunters who were later prosecuted for animal cruelty.

For more information, call 992-0274 or visit scwildliferescue.org.

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