The Wildlife Learning Center, a zoological park based in Sylmar California, has always been about education and wildlife conservation. It all started when founder David Riherd and his co-founder Paul Hahn started bringing animals into kindergarten classrooms to explain simple biology concepts to children. What began with just a tortoise, a frog, and a few other rescues blossomed into a contract with Los Angeles United School District, one of the biggest districts in the country. As the desire for their programs grew, the partners were able to take in more and more wildlife until they bought the old olive grove that now serves as the WLC’s center of operations.
Many of the animals who live at the Wildlife Learning Center were born in the wild but can’t return to their habitats due to injury or socialization, or they were bred and raised as pets. In one of the enclosures lives a raven named Ophelia who has two broken wings that prevent her from flying. Before coming to the WLC, her home was in a caring vet tech’s chicken coop where she picked up a habit of clucking. In another enclosure nearby, a coterie of prairie dogs finds their new home after the field in Texas where they once lived was developed into a Wal-Mart and a rehabilitator with a passion came to the rescue. “They developed a way to vacuum them out of the tunnels,” David says. Often, prairie dogs are seen as pests and nuisances and can be exterminated without a thought. Now, this colony can live a full life at the WLC. “They’re so interesting,” he says. “They have different vocalizations for different predators. They can even distinguish between a person with a gun and a person without a gun.”
The center has been running at its current site since 2007, with a little help from a few generous patrons like Betty White and Pauley Perrette who are passionate about the work they do for wildlife conservation.
Not Every Animal Is A Pet
One of the first enclosures visitors see upon entering the center is a found family of vibrant, playful squirrel monkeys that each represent the backgrounds of many WLC animals. Two were “dropped,” or abandoned, by their mothers, one was a rescue from the zoo at the iconic Playboy Mansion, one came from a shuttered ophthalmology lab, and the last was a surrendered pet from Oregon.
The laws for owning exotic animals differ wildly state-to-state, but several states like Oregon allow for the import and ownership of wild animals like monkeys, small cats, foxes and even sloths as pets. Several of the animals now in the WLC’s care were former “pets” of celebrities and influencers who only realized too late that they were in over their heads. David says keeping wild animals in a home isn’t a good idea for either the animal or the owner. He cites so many cases where buyers surrendered their “pets” after constant screeching, destruction, urination, and everything else you would imagine a wild animal would do to a home. Meanwhile, domestic vets are often not equipped to treat these more exotic animals and can easily make a mistake that can cost the animal its health or even its life. “My wife is board certified in zoo medicine,” David says. “The amount of experience she has to have to treat all these animals [is immense], and she still has to research things all the time because there could be exceptions. For example, there’s a de-wormer that’s completely safe for reptiles except for one species of snake it could kill. You’ve got to know that there’s the possibility that something could be harmful and you don’t just jump into it.”
He says diet is another crucial aspect that can be easily overlooked by collectors or buyers. The WLC utilizes a zoo nutritionist specially trained in exotic animal nutrition who designs every animal’s diet. He says sloths are particularly tricky to keep well fed, but other animals like monkeys can also quickly face problems if they aren’t fed properly. “There’s a really high incidence of diabetes in pet monkeys. [Owners] may have read that monkeys eat fruit and feed them fruit, but the sugar content in our fruit versus wild fruit is so different.”
One of the Wildlife Learning Center’s missions is teaching an appreciation for these wild animals and educating about wildlife conservation while highlighting the reasons they don’t make good pets. David says this is very intentional; he doesn’t want any visitor seeing a member of staff interacting with one of their animals and getting a false impression. “They see that we have a relationship with them and a lot of people want that, so it’s something we really have to make a point of discouraging.” He wants to show people that he and his staff care about and respect these animals deeply while still emphasizing that they are never pets. “What I like to tell people when they’re presenting animals is, ‘be specific about why it wouldn’t make a good pet when people ask.'” For instance, a visitor might be charmed by a fennec fox’s beautiful fur, giant ears and cute face but find their perspective widened when they also learn that the animals can smell, screech, and have a passion for digging. This education could help lessen the appeal of exotic pets, thus reducing demand that leads to animals being surrendered to centers like the WLC in the first place. David says many countries have banned the exportation of wildlife, but there are still places where baby sloths are pulled from their mothers. “I’ve seen sloths in the wild and I can’t imagine someone going up there and tearing it off a tree.”
See the Animals, Love the Animals.
One of Wildlife Learning Center’s favorite tools for education is their ambassador animals. David says these animals, who have temperaments that allow them to participate in classes or interactions, can help people connect to nature, and understand the need for wildlife conservation, in a new way. He says these interactions can show visitors why these animals are so special. “You can get people to want them to continue to exist. Just for that reason alone, just because you think it’s beautiful or interesting.” He says that the WLC’s two sloths, Sid and Pauley, are the crowd favorites. “Sloths are just a beloved animal,” he says. “People will come in and meet the sloth and they’ll cry.” He shares that the center recently hosted a virtual meeting with the sloths and one of the attendees commented afterward that it made her want to save them. “That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to hear,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder, are we really making an impression with people? That comment was everything we could have hoped for from someone meeting one of the animals.”
David says they’re careful about the animals that become ambassadors; the choice is made for each animal’s temperament rather than by species. He says the WLC’s armadillos, hedgehogs, hawks and owls have all excelled in ambassador roles. His staff always asks whether it would cause the animal any stress to do an interaction, prioritizing their animals’ wellness above any other factor. For instance, one of the WLC’s grey foxes, Kina, is naturally tame and friendly. She was brought into an animal rehabilitation center as a baby with plans to return her to the wild. “But despite all their efforts, like not letting her associate food with people or even see people at all, she was still too tame!” In Kina’s case, being an ambassador animal means “going to classrooms, being in programs, and she can come out and sit on a table while we do a talk about her, as opposed to just being an exhibit animal.”
The WLC and Wildlife Conservation
In addition to helping guests get passionate about the fight for wildlife conservation, the WLC also actively contributes to helping certain species survive. The Wildlife Learning Center participates in several SSPs, or Species Survival Plans, which help ensure that certain at-risk species are able to live on through selective breeding programs. “Probably the best known SSP in California is the Condor Recovery Effort,” David says. “That one was highly successful because not only do they have a zoological population but they were able to return them to the wild.” The LA Zoo, the Santa Barbara Zoo and the San Diego Zoo all contributed to bringing back condors from the brink of extinction. He says the program was so successful because it didn’t just breed condors for zoo exhibition, but began reintroducing them to the wild and providing treatment to chicks in the field. He also points to the mountain yellow legged frog, a species native to California that has been critically endangered. Just this past year, while it was closed due to COVID-19, the LA Zoo was able to release 1,000 tadpoles into the wild from the insurance colony they were tasked with creating in 2014.
One of the WLC’s own SSP animals, a North American Porcupine named Barbara, is headed to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheville to further preservation efforts there. “We’ve been a significant part of the porcupine SSP because we’ve been really successful in breeding them.” He says he’d love to work to bring back the porcupine population in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where their numbers have been declining. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the Sierras hiking and I’ve always wanted to see [a porcupine] and never have. I would love to be a part of bringing their numbers back up and repopulating them.” He says it’s an honor to be a part of wildlife conservation on a larger scale. “Yes, it’s great to provide a home for an individual animal, but if you can be a part of protecting a species as opposed to an individual, that to me is more meaningful work, especially to a small organization like ours.” He says that breeding isn’t always the endgame for SSPs; a geneticist will make recommendations for diversity and make pairing suggestions, sort of like a dating service for zoo animals, but sometimes participating is as simple as holding a place for endangered animals. “No one institution can maintain a whole population, but if you have a lot of organizations participating you can grow the population.” Sometimes it can even be a temporary arrangement; David says sometimes institutions will reach out seeking placement for animals while they’re renovating enclosures or doing construction.
If centers like the Wildlife Learning Center give you a passion for wildlife conservation, it doesn’t have to end at the door. There are always ways to help the local native species living in your own backyard; you just have to know where to look. For instance, David talks about the mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains. Locally, California just signed a bill to ban anticoagulant rodenticides that are poisoning rodents and therefore the mountain lions that eat them. “It needed a lot of support to pass. If people realize or really appreciate our biodiversity then it can lead to protections like that.” He points to another effort in Los Angeles to build a wildlife overpass over the 101 Freeway to help mountain lions access a greater stretch of wild land. Trapped on what is essentially an island surrounded by highways, aggressively territorial mountain lions push out newer males into potentially fatal traffic. “To find its own territory it’s going to have to cross one of these major highways. That’s what happened to P-22.” He references the locally famous mountain lion sometimes spotted in the Hollywood Hills. “What makes him so remarkable is that he survived crossing the 405 and then the 101, crossed through Sherman Oaks, the Hollywood Hills, and ending up in Griffith Park. Most don’t successfully cross. I think for male mountain lions the two biggest causes for mortality are getting struck by cars or other males. They’re in a quandary. They have to risk moving somewhere that’s dangerous or being killed by another male.” The bridge would help connect this population to the Simi Hills and the Los Padres, a huge wilderness area with plenty of new territory for ousted males. The big cats would be freer to disperse and it would give them more genetic variability to avoid dangerous levels of inbreeding. Fighting for measures like the bridge can be a huge step in allowing animals like the mountain lions to exist peacefully and reduce conflict and unnecessary death.
For David, the act of wildlife conservation and education comes from the purest place. “Our main goal is to have people walk away with a greater appreciation for wildlife and our biodiversity. I think that’s the biggest thing we can do— these animals are so interesting. There are so many fascinating animals that we share our planet with. If you can value them that much more because of your time spent here then I think we’ve achieved a significant goal. It’s because of my exposure to nature that I really care about it.”
He describes his trip to the Amazon where the rainforest is being threatened by oil drilling. “To me, there’s always all this talk that we have to save it because what affects the environment and affects animals eventually affects people.” While he says this is totally valid, he thinks that saving animals doesn’t always need additional motivation. “I see these as treasures, as historic buildings or famous paintings or music. These are living treasures that should be maintained for that reason alone. You don’t get it back. Sure, if we destroy the earth and its inhabitants it’s going to affect us, yes, but I think it can be more than that. The biodiversity of this planet is extraordinary. It’s an incredible thing and we should value it for that reason alone.”
He says he hopes that places like the Wildlife Learning Center can be a bridge to people who can’t see animals like this in the wild, helping them get engaged in the fight for wildlife conservation. “If you’re not lucky enough to go out into wilderness and see it, you can gain that appreciation that people that work here have. Why would you ever want to lose sloths? You don’t want to look at it in a book and say. ‘This used to exist,’ like the dodo or the Tasmanian tiger.”
Looking around at what the Wildlife Learning Center has become, it’s not hard to see that it all started with a passion for animals, and a drive to share that passion with others. “I just like to talk about it,” David says, looking around the center. “I think this is cool. Don’t you think this is cool?”
For more information about the Wildlife Learning Center, please visit their website.