Facing a large puffy owl with big orange eyes, 9-year-old Mateo Laserna leans in.
“I’m trying to do a stare contest. I think I can beat him.”
Cathy Garner, founder of Fresno Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Service, smiles with amusement and delight.
“You think so!?”
Mateo proclaims triumph – twice – to buddy Kai Preisendorf, 10, during this educational “meet and greet” with Kohgee and six other owls last week at a carnival at Oak Grove Elementary School in Visalia.
Around the same time, the school’s owl mascot walks quickly and sheepishly through the backside of the gymnasium. No one seems to notice the costumed human in a graduation cap.
The owls are used for educational purposes by Fresno Wildlife, which hosts these meet and greets for free. Volunteers work to help injured and orphaned animals and return them to the wild, but some have permanent injuries and must remain with caretakers.
The nonprofit has helped between 400 and 1,200 animals every year since the group was founded in 1974.
Garner, 68, first applied for permits to do the wildlife rehabilitation after Fresno Chaffee Zoo and The Discovery Center stopped rehabilitating native animals at their facilities. She was volunteering as a zoo docent at the time.
“She’s warm and loving,” says volunteer Susan Stiltz of Garner, adding that she routinely gets emergency calls in the middle of the night and drives hours with her husband to pick up injured animals. “She’s kind of like an earth mother. She loves everybody and she always has a smile on her face. No matter how tired she is, she wants to include everybody in everything that’s going on. She’s just a wonderful person.”
Fresno Wildlife primarily serves the Central Valley and foothills. The group specializes in caring for birds of prey, hummingbirds and water birds. It doesn’t have enough volunteers to help songbirds. It also rehabilitates mammals, with the exception of bears, mountain lions and coyotes.
Fresno Wildlife recently moved into a new office at Bullard and Minnewawa avenues in Clovis. It will host an open house Nov. 13 complete with many educational birds, including owls, vultures, hawks and falcons.
The animals aren’t normally in the rented office. Veterinarians and other members volunteer to treat, rehabilitate and care for the creatures at their homes until they are healed. They have around 35 “hard-core” volunteers, Garner says, and about 400 on their mailing list.
Garner has hopes for a permanent facility. They’ve raised around $90,000 so far. Garner estimates they’d need at least $200,000 to construct the shell of a building.
Along with healing injured animals, Garner hopes Fresno Wildlife makes a small “dent” in influencing people to think twice before harming wildlife or living in a way that could harm them.
The educational owls seem to be making headway on Friday at Oak Grove Elementary.
“It’s exciting to be able to see them in person and not just in books and pictures,” says 10-year-old Ammerie Calvo. “They are really unique and they help the farmers with eating their gophers and the mice.”
Five-year-old Gianni Noguera, dressed in a “special forces” camouflage outfit for Halloween, is more emphatic.
“Owls can move his wings – owls can! Because they are owls! And some owls can turn to camouflage. It can move everywhere in the whole entire world because it’s an owl!”
Kai likes that owls “can like see further than any regular human.” Mateo adds, “And some would be fine if dust would get in their eyes. They could just close their eyes and be fine.”
The boys agree: Fresno Wildlife is cool.
“They are protecting the wildlife,” Mateo says. “It makes me feel good and safe about the wildlife.”
Kai says, “It’s really cool because we heard about a vulture in a fire and then one of the ladies took it in.”
Sara Lyle, a mother among the crowd, says, with a sly smile, “This makes coming to the carnival worth it.”
“In this part of the country, where we have so many animals, I think it’s nice we have a wildlife rehab,” she says. “I didn’t know they were there.”
Garner hopes Fresno Wildlife will continue long after she’s gone.
“The greatest joy I have now is watching our young people come up in our organization because my husband and I, we’re not babies anymore. … It’s really important that they move on and grow the organization so it doesn’t just fade into nothingness. … We’ve got to do it.”
Torin Taylor, 18, a handler for one of the permanently injured owls, is among the group’s youngest volunteers.
What does she enjoy most? “I mean, I’ve got an owl on my hand,” she says with a laugh, looking at Beau the barred owl.
The Fresno City College student is planning to transfer to University of California, Davis, where she’ll major in animal science with the hope of becoming a zookeeper one day.
In high school, she raised three great horned owls with Fresno Wildlife.
“Being able to physically help them and release them into the wild and watch them fly away. … It makes you cry,” she says. “It’s really amazing to watch that.”
How to help
Open house: The nonprofit will host a free open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, at its new office at 80 W. Bullard, No. 103, Clovis. A number of animals used for educational purposes will be on display.
Donate money or time: Donations can be made online at fresnowildlife.org or by mailing a check to FWRRS, P.O. Box 2605, Clovis, CA 93613. Information about volunteering is available on their website or by calling 559-298-3276.