In the cool morning of what will be a hot day in Southern Oregon, I’m surrounded by wild creatures. A 900-pound grizzly pulls himself to his full height, grunting. A black timber wolf points its nose skyward and howls at my approach, while a sleek, powerful cougar stares unblinking, his gravely purr rising to the hint of a growl. A wolf pup, out for a walk, nuzzles my pockets and lets me run my hands over his silky coat.
These beautiful animals all live at Wildlife Images, a refuge and rehabilitation center in Merlin. Founded in 1981 by J. David Siddon, Wildlife Images sees more than 1,000 injured animals and birds come through its doors every year. Most are kept out of the public eye, rehabilitated and rereleased into the wild. Those that can’t survive on their own live out their lives on Wildlife Images’ 24 wooded acres and, as ambassadors, help educate visitors about how to decrease the impact of humans on wild things. “We take the responsibility of taking care of them for the rest of their lives,” says David Siddon Jr., executive director, who took over after his father passed away in 1996.
Siddon says the ambassador animals, which represent a variety of North American species, ended up at Wildlife Images for various reasons. Two grizzly bears — Kodi and his sister, Yax — came to the center more than 20 years ago when they were orphaned as young cubs. Two adult wolves and two wolf-hybrid pups currently live together in an enclosure. Nearby is Clark, the 180-pound cougar, raised as a pet by some misguided people who gave him up when he got big. Nubs, the tenacious badger, lost his mother and siblings to an automobile on the highway. And Phoenix, the 35-year-old bald eagle, was scooped up in a truck driver’s hat as a ball of fluff off the highway.
Siddon says the goal of the center is to help connect people with wildlife. “If they make that contact with the animals, there’s something that is almost magical. There’s a spark that will happen that can change their lives.” For this visitor, at least, the point is well taken. It’s thrilling to be a few paces from a full-grown grizzly bear. I’m charmed by the keening of the bald eagles and fascinated by the industriousness of the river otter. But it’s impossible to see these wonderful creatures without understanding that if not for their contact with human beings, they’d be living better lives in their natural habitats.
Helping children understand the human factor is a key part of Wildlife Images’ mission. The center plays host to scores of kids through school field trips, as well as spring break and summer camps called Camp EEK (that’s Education, Environment and Kids) for kids ages 7 to 12. Siddon sees the next generation as a solution. “Education is really the future for wildlife. The people who are educated and appreciate the wildlife are going to do a better job of protecting the environment and being better stewards of the environment,” he says. “Making that connection and spreading the word is going to be a huge part of the future.”
Wildlife Images is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from November through April, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through October. The center offers a discount to large groups. In addition to ticket sales, the nonprofit center provides a number of ways for people to support its mission. Become a member, adopt an animal, contribute to the wish list or make a gift in tribute to a loved one. Check out the website for details.