The outside of the Toronto Wildlife Centre‘s decades-old North York building may appear large and unassuming, but inside a dedicated team is using top-notch technology and techniques in their fight to save thousands of injured animals from across the GTA.
“Fundamentally the Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC) is about helping people and wildlife coexist in our communities,” Nathalie Karvonen, the charitable organization’s executive director, told Global News during a tour of the facility.
“There’s a lot of conflict that ends up with wild animals being sick, injured or orphaned through just a huge variety of different causes.”
Two high-profile animal injury cases this week saw animals being treated at the wildlife centre. Two coyotes, one in Mississauga and the other in Fort Erie, were wounded after being caught in snares put out in public places. Staff at the TWC had to perform emergency surgery on both coyotes. In King City, a fox (which later died) was brought to TWC after ingesting poison believed to have been deliberately placed outside.
Those cases are just a few of the approximately 30,000 calls a year the TWC, which was founded in 1993, receives to its emergency hotline. Karvonen said the treatment of wildlife comes with a unique set of challenges compared to a veterinary hospital that treats domesticated pets.
“Unlike a shelter for dogs and cats, we’re not admitting stray wildlife. These are all animals that have something wrong with them. They need help in some way, so we have to determine what’s going on with that animal,” she said.
“We don’t typically have an owner to give us the history. You know, ‘Little Fluffy hasn’t been eating for two weeks,’ we don’t have that information. Typically the information we have is, ‘I found it on the road this morning’ – that’s all we have.”
WATCH: Nathalie Karvonen discusses animals being treated by staff, volunteers
At the centre, staff have all the capabilities of a regular veterinary hospital — a surgical suite, a digital X-ray machine, a blood lab, oxygen caging, incubators, fluid pumps and other lab services.
Seemingly, there are few limits to the types of animals the TWC will attempt to save. During the tour, Global News saw staff treat a wide variety of animals, such as an eastern screech owl that had a fractured wing after being hit by a car, a Canada goose in respiratory distress and a weakened beaver with an abscess near its right hip.
“Sometimes animals like the little brown snake we saw need surgery. In that case, he needed surgery on the tip of his tail,” Karvonen said, referencing a small, recovering brown snake found in a Toronto basement that also needed to be hand-fed anti-parasitic medicine.
“Sometimes surgery is much, much more extensive. If it involves things like broken bones or maybe it’s a bird that swallowed a fishing hook, those can be very difficult medical procedures.”
Global News witnessed the intake process for an injured mourning dove. The bird was injured March 31 at a residential property but was kept for a few days before being turned in to the TWC. After gently lifting the bird out of a Girl Guide cardboard box, a staff member gave the dove anesthesia using a small mask just big enough to cover its head before placing it on a table to be X-rayed and securing its wings with staff. It was determined that there was a bone issue in its left wing and that further assessment was needed.
WATCH: Mourning dove receives anesthesia, examination after wing injury
Karvonen noted wildlife treatment is a specialization that veterinarians don’t typically focus on in school, often requiring professionals to attend conferences, seek out literature and liaise with zoos.
She said that while there are paid veterinary staff, there are medical professionals who will occasionally come in to help on special cases. For instance, a veterinary ophthalmologist can be called upon if there’s a difficult eye case.
So what are the most common types of injuries the TWC team treats? Karvonen said it depends on the time of year. In the spring and fall, she said migratory birds are prone to head and eye trauma.
“Some years we get over 1,000 birds during spring and fall migration combined that come in primarily from hitting windows. Occasionally they’re hitting power lines and things like that,” Karvonen said, referencing a golden-crowned kinglet that was being treated for a head injury and abrasions to its cornea.
Throughout the year, she said animals being hit by vehicles are a major source of calls, as are other injuries caused by humans.
“We do get animals with some regularity that are shot either with pellets or arrows. Unfortunately we see a lot of birds and turtles especially that come in with fishing hooks, and fishing line and fishing lures either caught on their body or that they have swallowed,” Karvonen said.
“We do see a number of water birds, especially, with environmental toxins and lead poisoning from eating buckshot. But you never know what the day is going to bring with animals here.”
In addition to providing hospital services, TWC also has an intensive rehabilitation program to prepare the animals to be released back into the wild.
“Either their treatment itself takes a long time, but more commonly it’s an animal where we get them all ready for release but then now it’s late fall or winter and it’s an animal that’s not active … in this area,” Karvonen said.
“For example, we’ve had a lot of bats here over winter waiting for the weather to get warmer. We’re just now starting to fly them in preparation for release because their flight muscles need to be in good shape, so every day there’s bat flying going on — we just let them fly, and fly, and fly as much as possible until they get tired.”
There are two other fundamental pillars of the TWC’s mandate: conducting animal rescues and providing wildlife education services. Karvonen said there are a lot of misconceptions and myths when it comes to wild animals.
“We work with almost 300 different species, so whether it’s thinking bats are going to fly into your hair or red foxes have rabies. We get a lot of calls about snakes where the call is simply, ‘I’ve seen a snake,’ and that’s it,” she said.
“They think that the snake is a deadly pit viper and it’s going to hurt them or their children and they’re all hiding in the house. And we just need to teach them that there are no dangerous snakes in their neighbourhood.”
When asked about things people can do to protect wildlife, Karvonen said there are two common themes the centre sees.
“Keep cats inside … Cats are actually the number one cause of songbird mortality in the entire country. It’s one of the main reasons birds and small mammals come into wildlife hospitals is because of cats, including pet cats, that go out and injure these animals,” she said while also encouraging people to check the TWC’s website about trapping wild animals in and around their homes.
“The adult has a very low chance of survival if you move it out of its home territory and two, the babies virtually have no chance of survival if you take their mother away.”
New Toronto Wildlife Centre headquarters being planned
TWC has been located on the Downsview Park grounds since 1997, operating out of two different buildings. However, ongoing redevelopment plans mean time is ticking for the organization. The TWC is run almost exclusively on charitable donations.
“There’s a lot of development going on in the park and this is an old building and it’s showing its age. This building will be demolished along with some of the plans with the park,” Karvonen said, adding that park management has been accommodating and working with the group.
For the past several years, TWC has been working toward establishing a much larger facility — one that would be able to accommodate the dozens of staff and volunteers who can be on duty at any given time.
The centre recently received rezoning approval from the City of Toronto for a site on Steeles Avenue East in the Rouge National Urban Park.
“There’s a lot of steps to go to make that dream a reality. But if we can, it will be great,” Karvonen said.
“It means we have a larger facility and a more specialized facility to do the work that we do, as well as we’ll have a lot of outdoor space to treat more animals and to treat some of the larger animals that we have difficulty working with at the hospital now, like adult whitetail deer, for example.”