Each year, thousands of birds and other wild creatures are injured or killed in Orange County, victims of inexorable growth. Rampant development has claimed irreplaceable open space and has harmed the dwindling wildlife species that inhabited it.

Among the animals injured or poisoned, the lucky ones are taken home by caring people who try to nurse them back to health.

Until now, there has been no one facility in the county with the expressed mission of caring for the large number of injured animals found each year. Early in 1992, that will change with the opening of the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach.

The facility, which will be on Southern California Edison Co. property at Pacific Coast Highway and Newland Street, is believed to be the first of its kind in Southern California. It will be dedicated solely to wild animal care. It will be staffed by volunteers and will depend on community donations and grants from the private sector. The utility, for example, is leasing the land to the county for just $400 a year.

The nonprofit care center is a much-needed and welcome addition to the effort to preserve the county's environmental assets. The Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy and the Alliance for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education in Costa Mesa were instrumental in setting it up. The center expects to treat about 5,000 birds and animals in its first year.

County officials, trying to consolidate piecemeal conservation efforts, see the center as part of an effort to preserve wetlands and wild lands. That includes a nesting island for least terns in Sunset Harbor and county regional trails.

Many wetlands and wild animals have been lost as the county has become increasingly urbanized. We need to preserve the natural habitat for ourselves and generations to come. This kind of effort comes late, but better late than never.

The new care center is the least we can do for the pelicans, grebes, raccoons, coyotes, gulls, opossums and other wildlife we encroach upon.

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