One evening in 1986, Carol Lee was approached by a neighbor with a young, injured mockingbird the neighbor’s cat had almost gotten for dinner.
Lee who worked part-time at a veterinary clinic at the time, had never rehabilitated an animal before, but looking at that bird, she made the decision to help.
As a result, more than three decades later, Lee is the founder of the South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit organization in Lubbock dedicated to local wildlife.
“I’ve often told people if that bird died, I probably wouldn’t have started the center,” Lee said. “But it was such a neat story. My kids were all still living at home, and the bird, after it was free, it would come back, land on our shoulder and it wanted to come into the safety of the cage at night, and then we’d let it out first thing in the morning, and this went on for 10 days. That was kind of what really started me on this path.”
Today, the mission of the center has grown to be two-fold, Gail Barnes, executive director, said.
One, the staff works to rehabilitate native wildlife and return it back to its native environment. Two, they work to provide environmental education to the community, hosting a junior volunteer program, approximately 110 educational events, a weekly TV segment and other things.
“More and more people are learning about us,” Barnes said. “We have open houses twice a year, and people come here to learn about education and about urban wildlife. We’ve been on Animal Planet and in National Geographic.”
People bring wildlife in to the center or call regarding animals that need rehabilitation, Barnes said. Wildlife need to be cared for at the center to ensure both their safety and the safety of those who find them.
The range of animals and issues seen at the center are diverse, Barnes said. The center cares for mammals, raptors, songbirds, reptiles and more. Reasons for admission include injuries from falling out a nest, being hit by cars, being poisoned, being attacked by other animals, being orphaned.
“We can’t save them all, but we admit over 3,200 wildlife species each year, and each year the number rises and so do our number of interns we take up, not only from Texas Tech but other colleges,” Barnes said.
Looking at the center today and the number of wildlife species it sees, Lee said she never could have envisioned it growing to the size it has. Initially, she did not even have any sense that her decision to nurse the mockingbird was going to grow beyond her kitchen, she said.
Following her successful rehabilitation of the mockingbird, she continued to save animals and care for them in her own home, she said.
“Pretty soon I had birds all over my house and I was getting squirrels and I was getting bunnies, and I realized pretty early on you have to have a state license to take care of birds and mammals, and if you’re going to take care of birds, you also have to have a federal license,” she said.
Lee took the step to obtain those licenses and formally established the South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in 1988 as a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, she said.
Lee said at the time, she was alerted to the growth and necessity of the center when she received a call about a falcon in Levelland even before she had obtained the permit.
“I thought if people in Levelland have my name, how many other people have my name? Because I heard so many people say, ‘Thank God you’re here,’ because you know they feel for these little creatures that get hurt or get rained on or get hailed out of their nest or whatever, and I think that’s probably one of the big top reasons that we’ve been so successful is that people have a plan to bring wildlife.”
Lee continued to run the center almost independently for the next couple of years, she said, until she visited Tech in 1990, beginning a still-existing partnership that sees students from Tech intern at the center.
Emily Newsom, a senior biology major from Houston, is currently an intern at the center. Tech has special topic classes where students can research or intern at places and receive class credit.
She heard about the program from her adviser and from former students who had interned and had only positive things to say, she said.
“I thought what a fun way to get your last few hours at Texas Tech when you’re about to graduate,” she said.
Interning has been an amazing learning experience, she said. It is one thing to learn about animals in class and another to experience them in real life, learning how they react, their personalities and more.
Her favorite parts of the internship are the connections she has made with animals, she said. They all have their own vibrant personalities.
“It’s like getting to know people, you know, and you get to know them,” she said.
Other students should take advantage of the opportunity, Newsom said.
Previous interns have been students from the meat lab at Tech, students studying art and a range of other majors, Lee said. Students who have called the center and said they are interested are directed to staff and faculty at Tech to set up the internship.
The work the interns do alongside the volunteers is essential to the center, Barnes said. The center, aside from one paid manager and intern, is run without pay.
“We’re very unique in how we operate on donations and volunteers unlike other centers,” she said. “So when people donate, the money does go the animals.”
In the many years she worked at the center prior to her retirement, Lee said she has never taken a salary for the extensive work she put in, notably the time spent taking care of baby birds during the summer, in which they had to be fed all day.
“I was on my feet 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and I almost never had time off unless I literally had a bird sitter to come to feed birds,” she said.
The one thing driving her was her love for the work, she said.
“The only thing that motivates you is the love of working with wildlife,” Lee said, “because people think of animals as dogs and cats and furry bunnies and little chicks and ducklings, and they don’t think about the wild owls and hawks and falcons and backyard birds, and also the ground squirrels.”
As the city continues to grow, it is important for the South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center to continue the work it is doing, Barnes said.
“There’s so much we can learn from these animals and they’re part of our ecosystem, and they play a very important part in our ecosystem, and we need to learn to all coexist with wildlife as we encroach on their habitat,” Barnes said. “That’s one of the things we like to teach.”