A new era at Wolf Hollow as Shona Aitken retires

Shifting into the spring season brings a new era to Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. After 33-plus years with the organization, Education Coordinator Shona Aitken steps into retirement.

“I started volunteering here in 1990, a couple of mornings a week. Before I knew it, [I was volunteering] full time and then I became a member of the staff,” Aitken said. She originally moved to the island with her ex-husband, a marine biologist who worked at the University of Washington Laboratories before becoming involved with Wolf Hollow. Wolf Hollow is a non-profit organization with the mission “To promote the well-being of wildlife and their habitats through rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wildlife, public education and non-invasive research.”

Over time, Aitken has held different titles in the organization and filled different roles. It’s typical for non-profits operating on minimal staff and resources to have employees fill in a variety of gaps. One title for Aitken was the official rehabber, and she has continued to assist with that as needed. Rehabilitating wildlife is tricky. According to Aitken, each animal is difficult to handle in its own way. Some are more physically fragile, while others become stressed more easily. Adult deer are extremely difficult to handle. “We get a lot of calls about injured adult deer. They are tough because they do not do well in a captive situation. We are very limited in what we can do for them, which is difficult to explain to people who see an injured deer and want us to help,” Aitken said. “And we would love to help but they either panic or just give up lay down and die. We are very limited in what we can do.”

Birds can also become easily stressed. Aitken explained if someone encounters an injured bird, the bird should be placed in a box and kept somewhere quiet. “Don’t bring it to us held [tight close to you] because that’s where the little bird is [thinking] `I’m going to die of being caught by a predator!’ Putting it in a box so it’s covered and feels hidden reduces the stress and helps a lot.”

What islanders know Aitken most from is her work as the Education Coordinator, where she has given talks at the library, in schools and essentially lived in Wolf Hollow’s booth for the duration of the fair amongst other events.

“One of the most memorable [experiences] was working with a kindergarten or just very young elementary school kids. We were talking about feathers and I had them close their eyes and I had an owl wing feather that I flapped by their faces. So they could feel the wind it made but they couldn’t hear it because [the feather] is silent. I remember one group, just seeing all these little faces light up with a big smile,” Aitken said. “And I thought, they’ll remember this. That’s the good part, when you do education, you don’t often see immediate results. You hope it will stick with them, that they will get it.”

Being able to help someone understand why an animal they have issues with acts the way it does, and provide that person tips to prevent future problems also makes Aitken feel rewarded. To prevent otters and other critters from moving in during the winter months, for example, homeowners should start looking around under their house in the fall to block any holes. “If we can get the timing right for people to do that kind of thing, then it prevents problems which is an awful lot easier to deal with than when it has already happened,” she said. This sort of information must constantly go out to the public, both as a reminder to long-time residents and to those who have recently moved to the islands.

As the human population has increased over the years, Wolf Hollow has not necessarily seen an increase in calls. However, that does not mean there has not been an impact. “There is no doubt that there is increasing pressure on wild animals here because there is less and less undisturbed habitat. There are more people which means there are more cats, dogs, cars, that kind of thing,” Aitken noted. The impact on wildlife she added, can be direct, like cats, dogs and cars, or it can also be that there may be less of particular types of animals.

Partnering with similar local agencies like the Stewardship Network, or County, State and National Parks has proven to be beneficial for everyone involved.

“It’s so much more effective and good for both parties. We have a place to meet lots of members of the public, and the park, for example, has so many extra activities happening. So that kind of community partnership is really effective. Especially for a small nonprofit. You don’t have a lot of resources to do all the things you would like to do. If you partner with others and create long-term partnerships, you can build some things over the years, improve upon it over the years… strengthening programs rather than reinventing the wheel,” Aitken said. “Don’t try to go at it alone.”

The new Education Coordinator Gabrielle Gilham will be arriving in April. Aitken is remaining on the island and will be spending some training time with her as she is not leaving the island. Aitken has generously offered to be available for Gilham if and when needed.

What next for Aitken and her husband? Enjoying the San Juans. Kayaking. Going to the fair without manning a booth, and taking a trip to Scotland to visit her family.

“Having time to do a bunch of things for us now, traveling or just having a summer enjoying the islands because summer was the busiest time for the education program,” Aitken replied when asked what is next and what she is looking forward to. “Hiking, spending time in the garden. That is our plan at the moment, just to have time to enjoy these things at a more relaxed pace and decide what’s next.”