By Leslie Lopez
Wildhaven Ranch: the place where bears, bobcats, raccoons and other furry and feathered creatures go for rehab. No, these aren’t celebrity animals with their own reality show, but wild animals caught in precarious situations that require a helping hand. That’s where the lovely folks at Wildhaven Ranch come in. They take in various types of lost and injured animals, recoup them and send them on their way. On the Cedar Glen property just outside Lake Arrowhead, they have a rehab facility and a wild animal exhibit.
Lately though, their service to wildlife has come under serious scrutiny. Serious enough to have the rehab portion of their facility shut down. You might be asking, “What evil conspirators (I didn’t say that, you did.) would do such a thing as to shut down a good cause?” Well, the California Department of Fish and Game.
And they might not be so evil after all. You decide.
It’s customary for Fish and Game to make on-the-spot visits to different sanctuaries. Often, these drop-in visits allow them to witness a real representation of how an organization is running its business.
Well, on the day of their unexpected pop-in at Wildhaven this past August, they say they witnessed events that were so severe in nature, (wild nature, in fact) that they had to deny a renewal of Wildhaven’s rehab facility license. Wildhaven didn’t even have a history of code violations, but apparently that didn’t matter.
“They felt a history wasn’t necessary. These allegations were serious enough on their own to shut her down,” says Andrew Hughan with Fish and Game.
Diane Dragotto Williams, owner of Wildhaven, felt this was an unfair imposition.
“A Fish and Game lieutenant and three wardens came right at the worst possible time,” she tells the Weekly. “It was the night of our biggest fundraiser event of the year . . . It would be like someone showing up for a tour when you’re getting ready for your wedding.”
Once a year Wildhaven holds a fundraiser gala to raise money for their non-profit. They run solely off of personal donations, so gearing up for the event is a huge production with over 150 people in attendance.
“It was unfortunate really,” Williams says. “I feel it was a disservice . . . All four [Fish and Game inspectors] separated and talked to volunteers that didn’t know what was going on and observed things they didn’t understand.”
Hughan said it was a coincidence that state officials dropped by on the night of a gala and that on-the-spot inspections are standard.
In fact, he says, the department was compelled to visit because of complaints.
“There had been a number of concerns and complaints before they [lieutenant and wardens] showed up,” Hughan says. “There wasn’t a single incident that triggered them to come out there. It was a series of events.”
He did reveal that neighbors were concerned that a bear enclosure was too big, which raised safety concerns. However, after inspection, that specific area met required codes.
But Fish and Game produced a long laundry list of code violations, which included cages that were too small for some foxes and bobcats and improper paperwork on seven animals. In fact, some animals were deceased for years, but were still present on Wildhaven’s permit.
Williams’ response? “We considered it minor paperwork that wasn’t in perfect condition. We do hundreds of animals a year. We had most files there, except four or six at the most.”
In addition F&G stated that Wildhaven’s triage enclosure for injured animals was too low and didn’t meet minimum height requirements. This code violation allowed a wild black bear to gain entrance into the enclosure and remained there until it was removed by staff.
Something else that was troubling to F&G was the observation of wild animals that were “imprinted.” When wild animals are brought in for rehab, minimal human contact is paramount for re-release. If they get accustomed to human interaction, once back in the wild, survival could be more difficult and—even worse—they could harm humans because they no longer fear them. This was observed in several raccoons who readily ate out of the hands of volunteers and showed no signs of fear towards humans.
Was it fair to shut down Wildhaven’s rehab facility after one visit on the day of their biggest fundraiser event? Did they get their facts straight?
“We just want to make sure that the animals are taken care of and we just felt [that] with the evidence, she wasn’t complying with the permit,” says Hughan.
Williams is filing an appeal with the F&G commission, which will take several months to review. “Ninety-five percent will be able to be explained that there was miscommunication completely,” says Williams.
In the meantime she has released all her rehab animals to surrounding facilities such as the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center and San Dimas Canyon Nature Center Association.