Lila Travis’s voicemail message is 56 seconds long. And instead of just telling you to leave a message, it instructs you, if you’ve found an abandoned baby animal, to put it in a safe box, with a heating pad if possible. Her voicemail warns you that unfortunately, due to lack of capacity, she cannot take in adult mammals or birds.
If you choose to email her, though, you might get a reply back that was sent by her “iFawn.”
Travis is the powerhouse behind the Yggdrasil Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and if it seems like animals have seeped into every aspect of her life, it’s because, well, they have. She and her late husband founded Yggdrasil in 2001. The center takes in orphaned baby animals—especially squirrels, opossums and deer—fosters them, and cares for them until they’re ready to return to the wild. They take in close to 200 Bay Area animals every year. Right now, the middle of the springtime rush of animal births, is Yggdrasil’s busiest season.
“They have a very long childhood, so the moms get really overworked,” says Travis, referring to squirrels, their most frequent clients. “And it’s pretty common, unfortunately, for the moms to get hit by a car or attacked by dogs. Or tree-trimmers will cut down the branch with the nest in it and the moms will get injured and separated from their babies.”
Yggdrasil used to operate out of a house in the Oakland hills. Once they finished adapting the place—leveling the land, building enclosures—they were able to care for about 700 animals per year. They were able to take in injured adults, not only orphaned babies.
But in 2011 they were evicted, or “Ellis Acted,” says Travis. The Ellis Act is a California state law that allows landlords to evict tenants in order for landlords to go out of the rental business, or to change a building’s use. Now Yggdrasil operates out of the backyards of its volunteers—especially Travis’s own backyard.
Teetering atop a winding San Francisco street, where cars are parked perpendicular to the slope for fear of them rolling down the hill, is Travis’s own mini wildlife refuge. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her son, having returned to San Francisco to be closer to family. Outside her room is an alcove sprouting with greenery, from a cherry blossom tree to what Talcott-Travis calls a “hummingbird-encouraging tree.” A hummingbird hovers above a branch, sipping nectar from little red flowers that dot the foliage like slender bells.
“I try not to take hummingbirds in, because they have to be fed every 30 minutes,” says Travis, squinting up at the helicopter-like bird. Their constant need for calories is a little much even for her.
In her yard, two large enclosures stand against opposing walls, one of them where an old trailer used to be parked. (Travis smashed it apart to make space). These are pre-release enclosures, where rescued squirrels learn important squirrel skills—like jumping, cracking apart nuts, playing with each other–before they are released back into the wild.
“They have essentially everything that they need that they would get in the wild in an enclosed, protected space, where if they mess up they get a second chance instead of dying and getting eaten right away by a predator,” says Travis.
Inside another enclosure, three red fox squirrels and one Eastern grey squirrel bound around, jumping between cat posts and cat trees that were donated by animal-loving individuals and organizations, in particular by Pet Food Express. When Travis enters the enclosure, she too becomes an honorary tree, and the squirrels scurry under her wavy blonde hair and spring off her shoulders.
Rescued animals pass through a succession of Yggdrasil-approved steps before they are ready to be released into the wild. In their first few days of life, squirrels, for example, need to be fed formula “round the clock,” says Travis. Once their umbilical cords fall off, feedings decrease in frequency. During these first few stages, Travis will carry squirrels around in a little mesh cage or in her bra—for warmth—until, about five weeks into life, their eyes open and they’re ready to graduate to an indoor play cage. After this comes the pre-release enclosure, and then, once they are deemed ready, they are returned to the wild, within three miles from where they were originally found.
Travis and her team receive calls from all over the Bay Area, sometimes from animal control agencies that have an orphaned animal in their possession, and sometimes directly from animal-lovers who have found these babies. When you Google “squirrel help in Oakland,” Yggdrasil is the first site that pops up. Travis recalls receiving a call from a little girl who found a baby squirrel trapped in nylon mesh, which its mother had used to line her nest. Despite it being a rather grizzly sight, the girl “had the presence of mind to see this horrific scene of the little baby squirrel limping along” and called Yggdrasil. After some emergency surgery, the mesh was removed and the squirrel recovered, though the fur grew in differently, helping Travis’s team to track the creature after it was released back into the wild.
“I’ve tracked squirrels that we’ve released for many years, so they do survive. Not all of them, but a large number of them do survive, and it’s pretty amazing,” says Travis.
The origin story of Yggdrasil—name after the tree of life in Norse mythology, which connects all nine worlds—involves a squirrel. Back in 2001, a raven had knocked a nest of baby squirrels out of Travis’s neighbor’s eucalyptus tree. With cats circling, the mother squirrel raced back and forth, carrying her fallen babies to a back-up nest, with Travis standing guard. But the mother missed one. And didn’t return for it.
Travis took the remaining squirrel baby, pink from the cold, into her home, and while she warmed it up, she tried to look online for information about what to do. A quick Internet search told her to bring the animal to a wildlife center, where trained experts could better raise the animal. “And then I found that there wasn’t a wildlife center in the Oakland-Berkeley area,” says Travis. “And I thought this was crazy.”
By California law, animal shelters must either take wild animals they receive to a wildlife center or euthanize them. Travis was concerned that too many animals would be euthanized, so she and her husband decided to found a wildlife center of their own.
As Travis sits inside one of the pre-release enclosures, she suddenly lets out a little cry. Echo, the lone eastern grey squirrel, has gotten a little too close to her eye in his climbing escapades, leaving a little mark above her cheekbone. There are hazards to her work, says Travis. One reason she no longer takes in raccoons is because, aside from the fact that they are a handful for care-givers, they will often carry a roundworm. While the roundworm is not a great danger for healthy adults, if a child were to accidentally eat raccoon poop, it could be fateful. As the mother of an eight-year-old, she has to take precautions.
And while Travis has plenty of energy to direct towards the animals under her care, Yggdrasil can’t function as a one-woman operation. On a recent Wednesday, Travis and her fellow Yggdrasil colleagues held a volunteer orientation at Lake Merritt’s Rotary Nature Center to recruit others to their team. Volunteers can sign up to foster the animals, transport them or just be general helpers.
A motley crew of 30 or 40 seated themselves in the nature center, a tall-ceilinged room with images of wildlife in all directions. Stuffed birds line the right wall, and murals in the front of the room illustrate scenes of Lake Merritt at different hours of the day. Travis hovered next to the stuffed American badger, its face frozen into a smug beam.
She welcomed her crowd, telling them about her organization and what they’ve signed up for. “The whole thing started because a squirrel nest was knocked out of a tree by crows,” she began.
As Travis told Yggdrasil’s origin story, she started to shrug her shoulders and adjust the beige over-dress she was wearing. Nonchalantly, she dipped her hand underneath the front of her shirt and pulled out—from her “special pouch” as she calls it—a tiny little sliver of a creature, looking more like a rat than anything else. A murmur of surprised laughter rippled through the crowd. It is not a rat, she told her giggling trainees, but a baby squirrel—you can differentiate baby squirrels from their rodent cousins by their black fingernails, she showed them.
“The reason I keep him in my ‘special pouch,’” she said, to more laughter, “is that they need to be kept at about 90 degrees, and they need to be fed every hour and a half or two hours at this age.”
Constance Taylor hovered at the edge of the crowd. Taylor is a co-founder of the California Center for Natural History, who is also trying to re-vitalize the Rotary Nature Center as a wildlife education center, She herself has been a squirrel fosterer with Yggdrasil.
“It was a sole focus,” said Taylor, who cared for squirrels at an age when they needed to be fed every four hours. “Everything else in my life was secondary. The only thing was ‘Make sure the squirrels don’t die, make sure the squirrels are healthy,’ for probably about two months.”
This hands-on approach to fostering is what sets Yggdrasil apart, she said. “A lot of places really promote this hands-off approach,” she said, because of concerns that too much human contact means “you are going to screw up their lives forever, and they’re going to not make it because you were interested in them. And that’s a really dangerous thing.” Fostering helps establish a more intimate connection between people and wild animals, she’s said—people are already so disconnected from wildlife that they no longer empathize when wild animals are killed by rat poison or hit by cars.
There are other roles, though, for people who can’t commit to fostering. Nancy Jean, a woman in the front row who had been steadily knitting throughout the meeting, advocated for people to join the transport team.
“It’s very fun,” she says, a veteran transporter herself. “Who gets to go pick up a fawn and drive a baby faun up to Nicasio, to whom I call the fawn queen?” (Nicasio is home to the Greener Pastures Equine Care Facility, a ranch and wildlife sanctuary run by another volunteer.)
Jean is one of about nine people on the transport team. After someone finds an orphaned animal and calls in to Travis’s hotline, Travis will send out a group text to the team. The first available member will claim the task, drive over to pick up the animal and take it to a temporary holding spot at another volunteer’s home, until a foster family can take it.
Being on the job for many years has taught Jean things that a less-experienced volunteer might not know. For example, when transporting a fawn, which is the size of a small dog, she needs to use a cat carrier, or the animal will bounce around dangerously. Or, if you find a dead possum on the street, you should check its pouch, because, as California’s only marsupial, possums will carry their babies in a pouch and these babies may still be alive.
Jean, who bottle-feeds abandoned kittens as well (Yggdrasil doesn’t officially take kittens, but if any are found, they’re sent to Jean), comes back year after year to volunteer. “Seeing the little babies, and getting to help them have a better life, or a chance at life, I love that part,” she said.
The time and personal and emotional resources that Travis has committed to wildlife rescue is enormous, says Taylor. “It’s a giant commitment and she has absolutely committed herself,” she says. “I know that she has really poured her heart and soul into it, and it shows.”