The raccoon, barely 2 weeks old, is just beginning to open its eyes. With one gloved hand Jerry Gillaspie holds the little animal steady; in the other hand he holds a small baby bottle. He gently nudges the raccoon's mouth with the nipple.
Comfortably resting tiny black paws on Gillaspie's hand, the animal makes a clicking sound and jerks its head in the direction of the bottle. Finally, the raccoon latches onto the nipple and begins to suck. "There you go," Gillaspie murmurs.
Every spring and summer, thousands of feathered and furry infants like this little raccoon are brought to the Wildlife Waystation in the Angeles National Forest north of the San Fernando Valley. The 160-acre nonprofit animal refuge provides shelter and care for abandoned, abused, ill, injured and orphaned native and exotic wildlife.
Gillaspie, 44, a Duarte computer analyst, spends his weekends volunteering for the facility. He cleans cages, clears brush, assists with clerical tasks and pitches in alongside dozens of fellow volunteers wherever his help is needed. During the months of the year known at the Waystation as "baby season," he volunteers as a "baby feeder," helping newborn animals survive long enough to make it on their own in the big wild world.
"This is something special," he says. "It is something I couldn't do anywhere else. Initially, I was very nervous about feeding the animals, but now I am more confident. I look forward to it."
Instead of being comfortably burrowed underground with their moms or snuggled in a treetop nest, hundreds of baby animals are housed in the Wildlife Waystation nursery. The room is warm, immaculately clean and, except for the incessant chirps of baby birds, absolutely silent. To prevent the animals from becoming attached to human voices, no conversation is allowed.
Cages, stacked from floor to ceiling, are covered with sheets and towels. They hold a menagerie of baby owls, sparrows, vultures, quail, ravens and tortoises. Raccoons, so small they can fit in the palm of a hand, huddle together. A newborn possum, no bigger than a finger, is asleep. A young turtle nibbles on a leaf. Scruffy-looking starlings, beaks gaping open, scream for food. A tissue-lined plastic margarine container serves as a makeshift nest for a tiny dove covered with soft yellow down. Newborn sparrows, pink, fragile and featherless, nestle in a paper cup.
"It's a wonderful experience, being surrounded by all these critters," says volunteer Shannon Lindstrom, an Eagle Rock 17-year-old who turns down parties and outings with her friends to work at the Wildlife Waystation. "It's sad because the animals don't belong here, but it's wonderful to have the chance to save their lives."
Volunteers struggle to keep up with the hectic feeding schedules for the hundreds of babies. Baby mammals get hungry every two hours. Baby birds eat every 20 minutes, and care must be taken to neither underfeed nor overfeed them. Given the opportunity, fledglings will gorge themselves to death.
Volunteer baby feeders admit they are nervous about having so many tiny mouths depending on them for sustenance. Newly hatched birds are especially difficult, according to Gillaspie. "They are so delicate," he says. "I definitely prefer the mammals."
Each species has its own diet, from dog food, beef, egg yolks and vitamin supplements ground together for birds, to a milk and cereal formula for deer. Some animals eat from a bottle; others are fed from a tube or syringe; some are spoon fed. At half the size of a human pinky fingernail, baby hummingbirds are so small a microscope must be used while they are fed.
To keep the feeding process running smoothly, the Wildlife Waystation has instituted a tightly organized system. Days are divided into three shifts, with three to six volunteers working each shift. They are directed by a crew chief who divvies up assignments. A training manual has been put together for volunteers, and classes on baby feeding are offered. Recipes for feeding formula are posted in the nursery.
But keeping little tummies full is just half the job, according to volunteer Isabel Gray, an international film distributor.
"It's genuinely hard work," she says. "It's as much a job of washing up, scrubbing floors, cleaning cages and changing water and food dishes as it is hand-feeding. But you get out and you dig in and you do it. I work in such an ego-driven industry, and this is a perfect place to get away from all the egos."
Gray, who lives in West Hollywood and has volunteered at the Wildlife Waystation for the past three years, especially enjoys feeding the "very, very tiny" birds.
"It's marvelous to see the crop fill up," she says, referring to the saclike craw where birds store food before it is digested. "And baby hummingbirds have such huge beaks, and they open them so wide."
Volunteers must be careful that animals do not become attached to them. "If the animals are 'imprinted,' that is, if they lose their fear of humans, they cannot be released," explains Martine Colette, president and founder of the Wildlife Waystation.
The Waystation takes extraordinary precautions to ensure that baby animals stay wild and socialized to their own kind. Baby deer live in a pen surrounded by other deer and nurse from a bottle that protrudes from the udder of a painted wooden "mama" deer. Surrogate parents are provided to animals whenever possible. Fledgling birds of prey are fed by a human wearing a bird mask.
Baby feeders may not talk, kiss or cuddle the animals--but they sometimes can't help falling in love with the tiny, helpless creatures. "We aren't there to pet or play with them," Gillaspie says, "but you can't get away from the fact that they are so cute."
"I get attached to these little guys," Lindstrom adds. "But no matter how much I want to cuddle a raccoon, I know they don't belong with me. Wild animals belong wild. I care for them and respect them."
As the babies grow bigger and stronger, they are exposed to progressively less human contact. When they are able to eat without assistance, they are moved from the nursery to an outdoor self-feeding area. From there they are transferred to cages in a remote canyon, where they stay until they are ready to be released.
"The best part is when I don't see an animal I have been feeding, and I ask where it is, and I'm told it's been released in the wild," Lindstrom says. "That is the best feeling."
This summer the nursery will be relocated to a five-room, 65-by-12-foot trailer, which was purchased used and is being installed with plumbing and receiving final touch-ups.
The new nursery, which had been used as a storage area by its previous owner, will include separate rooms for small and large mammals and birds. Adjacent cages open into each other for animals needing more room. Each cage is equipped with electric lights that simulate sunlight. An outdoor patio will serve as the transitional area for youngsters who have learned to feed themselves.
The new nursery is just one more way to give every animal the best possible shot at survival.
"Each day that passes, the animals are one day closer to being rehabilitated," Gray says. "Each day that passes, the animals are safer. And each day that passes, the animals are better able to cope for themselves.
"They wouldn't have a chance if we weren't doing this. That is why we stay as volunteers. That is the magic of the Wildlife Waystation."
Wildlife Waystation is located at 14831 Little Tujunga Canyon Road, in the Angeles National Forest north of the San Fernando Valley.
Free volunteer orientations are offered on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Walking tours of the compound are offered on the first and third Sunday of each month. Hours vary. $4.50 for adults; $2 for children under 12.
Call the Waystation at (818) 899-5201 for information on volunteering, tours or animal rescue services.