Jessy Gill shows the songbird habitat at the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)
Jessy Gill was raised taking in injured animals. She watched as people brought over birds and small mammals with broken bones and other ailments for her mother to mend.
“When I had friends come over, I had to set aside an hour just to take them around the house and show them all the animals,” Gill said.
Those years groomed her for the only career she could ever envision having. Gill runs the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center, a nonprofit in the vineyard-pocked south end of Salem. The center was started by her mother, Mary Bliss, in 2005 and takes in all kinds of animals with the goal of releasing them back into the wild once they’ve recovered.
Jessy Gill gives a tour of the center, showing the different housing for different species, such as song birds, birds of prey and mammals. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)
Bliss has since retired and Gill runs the center with Charles Harmansky-Johnson. The two also get help from volunteers, interns and veterinarians.
Harmansky-Johnson said in 2017 the center took in about 1,600 animals, and in 2018 that jumped to about 2,000. Mammals, such as raccoons, made up 39 percent, while 6 percent were birds of prey and 55 percent were other birds. On Thursday, the center was housing 43 animals.
Jesse Gill puts her hands out for turkeys Mashed Potato and Matilda to peck at. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)
The center is funded by individual donors, though it also receives medical supplies from organizations. The Marion-Polk Food Share donates meat deemed unsuitable for human consumption to help feed the veracious appetites of the raccoons, of which there are often more than 100 in the summer. People who drop off an animal often give a donation for its rehabilitation.
That’s the busy season. As babies are born, they can get separated from parents or take a tumble and fracture a bone. About 70 percent of Turtle Ridge’s annual intake comes in the spring and summer months.
Charles Harmansky-Johnson greets the turkeys, chickens and peacocks living at the center. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)
Instructions posted outside the main building allow people to drop off animals 24 hours a day. Gill lives on the property and gets a text message when an animal is brought in. She puts the animal in a cage and allows it to calm down, then usually sedates it while she does an initial assessment. If needed, a full surgical room is set up next door.
Gill does not have a background in veterinary work, but through her years of hands-on training and her partnership with vet Erica Lipanovich of the Compass Veterinary Clinic in Lake Oswego, she is certified at the federal, state and county level to do things like reset broken bones, she said. More advanced surgeries, such as when a beaver needed an eyeball removed, require Lipanovich to step in.
“I don’t do intensive surgeries I am not trained in,” Gill said.
Jessy Gill shows the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center operating room, where staff can take blood samples and reset broken bones. For more major surgeries such as neutering, a licensed veterinarian comes in. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)
If an animal is too hurt, it is euthanized. The facility does have some permanent animal residents, often because they imprinted on humans when young and can’t be released. But Gill said the goal is to mend and release the animals. Usually, they don't stay past five months, Gill said.
“People that do this, we’re all really compassionate,” Gill said. “It’s really hard to make those decisions. A lot of people with really good intentions will keep them because they don’t want to kill them. They feel like that is the best for them.”
Gill said she’s seen this happen at other similar facilities. When animals are kept, the owners can charge to show them for entertainment and educational purposes. Gill said that’s not what’s best for the animals.
Gill and Harmansky-Johnson have informational boards set up for public visits, such as this one out side of crows Ziggy and Cawner's habitat. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)
Turtle Ridge doesn’t completely keep the public out. It allows the public to come in certain days and see the animals, and Gill and Harmansky-Johnson sometimes take an animal to a classroom to show students. Next year, the two plan to visit more classrooms and in two years they hope to allow fieldtrips to come to the center.
They use some of their permanent stays, such as Aztec, a golden eagle with one wing, or the crows imprinted on humans as an educational opportunity.
Aztec, the golden eagle, is the center's largest bird. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)
The job can be intense and sometimes misunderstood, Gill said. Often they get calls from people asking them to remove an animal like a skunk from their yard. They have to explain why that animal is a benefit rather than a nuisance.
The days are also long – sometimes lasting more than 13 hours – said Gill. But she wouldn’t give it up for anything.
“We are just madly in love with what we do,” she said.
Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.