Furry friends get helping hand

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Malibu’s Coast & Canyon Wildlife specializes in raising orphaned squirrels, skunks, chimunks and opossums and then releasing them back into the wild. Photo by Kim Barker

Coast and Canyon Wildlife founder Marcia Rybak offers a save haven to hundreds of native baby mammals at a home-based facility on her Malibu property.

By Jimy Tallal / Special to The Malibu Times

Every year, Marcia Rybak hears the pitter-patter of 600-700 tiny paws at her home in Malibu. They belong to hundreds of orphaned squirrels, skunks, chipmunks and opossums at Coast & Canyon Wildlife (CCW), which Rybak founded in 2008. The organization specializes in raising injured or orphaned mammals and then releasing them back to the wild.

Rybak is still recovering from the busy spring “baby season” for tree squirrels that usually begins sometime in January and lasts until about the end of April. Tree squirrels live and build their nests in trees, and many baby squirrels are found and brought in when tree trimmers chop down their nests. Strong Santa Ana winds can also blow nests down. Sometimes the mother squirrel gets hit by a car, and the orphans are found when they come down the tree looking for food.

Rybak’s word of advice on ground squirrels is that, “If you see baby ground squirrels running about and can catch them, then they’re probably without a mom and need to be brought in.”

Baby mammals brought to CCW are examined for any illness or injuries, then placed with a small group of others the same size in a cage or incubator, and hand fed with formula in syringes up to six times a day. As they get older, they’re eventually weaned and moved to outside cages prior to release. The state requires the animals to be released back where they were found whenever possible.

Although a computer consultant by trade, Rybak’s interest in animals eventually won out. She started off specializing in reptiles years ago, but since moving to Malibu in the 90’s with husband Steve Uhring, set her sights on learning about mammals through study and volunteer work.

“Everyone has a story when they bring me an animal, because most people have never seen a baby squirrel before,” Rybak said. “People find an orphaned animal and don’t know what to do. First, it takes them some effort to find anyone. Then, they’re so happy when a qualified person takes this huge responsibility off their shoulders. Many people are in tears when they call or come over.”

At the beginning of May, CCW starts getting more baby skunks, opossums and ground squirrels (squirrels that live in burrows). In the fall, usually beginning in August, a second round of baby tree squirrels will come in, because some species breed twice a year in Southern California.

The hundreds of little charges under Rybak’s care come from many sources. Sometimes, people that find small orphan mammals in their yards or streets discover CCW on the Internet. Others are referred by wildlife groups, agencies or veterinarians. Many times, people take their finds to the Los Angeles County animal shelters, which then contact Rybak or other licensed groups. If not for CCW and others, the shelters would euthanize wildlife.

To keep that from happening, local wildlife rescue groups collaborate extensively based on expertise. CCW refers injured animals to the California Wildlife Center just a few miles away. In return, they refer many small orphans to CCW.

Cathy Case, head of Shadow Oaks Wildlife Care in Thousand Oaks, said she sends baby squirrels her group comes across to CCW, and lauded the collaborative relationships many local animal rescue organizations have built.

“Because ground squirrels must be raised and released in groups, we appreciate being able to send them on to Marcia to be placed with others in her care,” Case said.

Coast and Canyon Wildlife raises money through its Facebook page and also from one of the more ingenious fundraising ideas to come along in the computer era.

“We have two webcams operating 24/7 that focus on baby animals in the incubators, in cages and even an outside feeder,” Rybak said. “CCW has an international audience with many people in Europe following our webcams. We even made the Czechoslovakian evening news.”

Otherwise, the organization depends on a healthy dose of volunteerism.

“Volunteering at CCW has been life changing,” said Kim Barker of Pacific Palisades of her time at the clinic. “When you walk into the baby room and see rows of incubators with little squirrel faces peeking out, and when you see that Marcia devotes her life to caring for these babies, you want to help. There’s nothing like seeing helpless orphans arrive in need, then months later be returned to where they came from as healthy, wild animals. Every life matters at Coast & Canyon.”

For more information or to view the Coast and Canyon Wildlife webcams, go to www.coastandcanyonwildlife.org. If you find injured or orphaned wildlife, call Marcia Rybak at 310-480-1760.