LYNNWOOD — Wildlife naturalist Kevin Mack stepped slowly toward the young bald eagle in the pen at the PAWS campus, carefully raising the net in his hands.
The eagle had been cared for at the PAWS Wildlife Center since September, when it fell from a nest near Oak Harbor, damaging its upper beak and wings. When brought to the center, the bird had trouble flying.
“It took a little while but since he was a young bird just learning how to fly, he wasn’t that skilled to begin with,” said Mack, who works for PAWS. “But he’s been in our flight pen for many weeks now and he flies beautifully. He’s ready to go.”
Mack and others released the eagle last month in an area near the Green River in Auburn.
The bird soared away.
It’s another success story for PAWS.
Started more than 45 years ago, PAWS has grown from a small nonprofit led by a group of well-meaning women in south Snohomish County to a giant in the Northwest in caring and advocating for animals.
While its initial goal decades ago was to spay and neuter dogs and cats, PAWS’ mission now includes rehabilitating sick and injured wildlife. Its Lynnwood campus is split in half between caring for adoptable pets and for wild animals.
“That’s an insane amount of animals,” said Jennifer Convy, the center’s wildlife director.
Over the years, the organization has waded into controversy, from fighting for the removal of Ivan the gorilla from a Tacoma shopping center to taking in stray dogs from Iran.
Now, PAWS is looking to move from Lynnwood to a larger location in south Snohomish County or north King County.
Wherever it lands, the center — unique in caring for both dogs and cats as well as wildlife — will be needed, said Dan Paul, state director for The Humane Society.
“I don’t believe there are any other shelters in the state that have both those components to them,” he said. “I absolutely adore the organization. We’re very lucky to have them.”
The Progressive Animal Welfare Society got its start in 1967 when a group of women wanted to help end the overpopulation of domestic cats and dogs. The volunteers included longtime Edmonds resident and the society’s first president, Virginia Knouse, who died in 2007. They opened a thrift store to raise money for spaying and neutering.
It wasn’t long after the thrift store opened that people started leaving unwanted pets behind, said Annette Laico, who since 2002 has served as PAWS executive director.
“They were acting like a de facto shelter,” she said. “They realized there was a great need and went about and finally put together the bricks and mortar to create the organization that we are today.”
PAWS bought a house and 7 acres at 15305 44th Ave. W. in Lynnwood where it established its first shelter in 1968. The nonprofit remains at the site. In 1970, it was the first animal shelter in the state to require that every adopted animal be spayed or neutered.
In 2011, the shelter found homes for more than 2,300 cats and dogs and performed 1,922 spay and neuter surgeries.
“It’s pretty amazing when you think back to our beginning,” Laico said. “It’s a reminder of what a few folks who see a need in the community can create.”
Since its beginning, PAWS has survived mostly from donations. The organization in 2011 raised more than $1.3 million in donations and another $1.6 million from bequests, special events, grants and trust funds. The year’s total revenue of $3.6 million also included funds received from contracts with Snohomish County and nine cities in Snohomish and King counties, pet licensing and adoption fees. Snohomish County ended its contract with PAWS to take in stray animals the middle of last year.
Hundreds of volunteers logged more than 50,000 hours in 2011 and were on track in 2012 to clock just as many. Those kind of hours translate into about 23 full-time staff members the organization doesn’t need to hire, Laico said.
“There’s just no way we could do as much as we do without volunteers,” she said.
Lynnwood resident Chuck Springer is one of 250 active volunteers who donates time weekly at the PAWS Companion Animal Shelter. He started volunteering 13 years ago taking care of the cats at the shelter.
He has also helped the nonprofit over the last dozen years by serving as a foster parent to kittens and adult cats. The nonprofit relies on its 200 active foster homes to care temporarily for cats, kittens, dogs and puppies in their homes.
“I like to think I make a difference in the cats getting a home,” Springer said.
By 1981, PAWS regularly received phone calls from people who wanted them to take care of sick or injured wild animals.
Curt Clumpner worked as a manager for the PAWS shelter at the time. When people called about wildlife, he sometimes agreed to transport the animals to wildlife clinics, which were run out of homes in Seattle.
He volunteered to found the PAWS Wildlife Center. He formed a volunteer staff and eventually began earning a salary as the center’s first director.
“It’s hard in the animal welfare world for people to let go of what they started,” said Clumpner, who now lives in Astoria, Ore., and works for International Bird Rescue. “(PAWS has) had tremendously charismatic and dedicated people … One of the things I’m kind of proudest of in terms of PAWS is how many people they have gotten into the field that have worked there at various times.”
PAWS is the only wildlife center in the state that is staffed every day of the year with a full-time in house veterinary and medical team.
“Most organizations are either an animal shelter, or they’re an advocacy or educational organization, or they’re a wildlife center,” Laico said. “We’re all three under one roof.”
In 1986, PAWS began rehabilitating black bears. Since then, the organization has released more than 60 black bears into the wild. Clumpner believes the wildlife center is “one of the most reputable centers in terms of black bear rehabilitation in the world.” Most bears are brought to the center by state departments of fish and wildlife officials in Washington and Oregon.
Among the many bears PAWS cared for was one that in 2008 was found in Renton. State Department of Fish and Wildlife officials were trying to capture the roughly 250-pound black bear when he fell from a tree and fractured his hip. PAWS staff joined other veterinarians at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to perform a complicated surgery on the bear.
“It was certainly the largest bear we’ve had here that we were able to rehabilitate,” said John Huckabee, a PAWS wildlife veterinarian. “It was a great collaboration and we were able to get the bear to the point where he was ready to be on his own again.”
And more than just bears are brought to PAWS, said Patricia Thompson, a state wildlife biologist.
“PAWS admits just about every species, so if it needs to be admitted, it will be,” she said. “They’ve always been very professional. They have good facilities, good directors. They know how to euthanize and when to euthanize; they know how to house animals and when to release them.”
PAWS wildlife rehabilitator Stephanie Herman in November treated a western pond turtle with shell rot. The condition can be caused by bacteria or fungus and breaks down parts of the turtle’s shell and prevents skin from growing normally.
The turtle is part of an effort by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and other organizations to help grow the population of the endangered species, Herman explained.
“She’ll never look quite normal but she’ll at least be able to live her life out OK,” she said. “I think she’s adorable.”
She and other rehabilitators are working to perfect a treatment routine with this turtle in anticipation that others with the condition may be brought in for similar care.
PAWS also works with the NOAA Fisheries Service to care for and release orphaned, sick or injured harbor seals. PAWS and Wolf Hollow on San Juan Island are the only two wildlife centers in the state that are allowed to rehabilitate the federally protected marine mammals.
PAWS has received more than 70 harbor seals including an orphaned seal pup brought in last August. The seal weighed 17 pounds, and gained 50 pounds during its stay at PAWS. The seal was released near Jetty Island in November.
“When people think of PAWS they often think of black bears, seabirds and now harbor seals,” Convy said.
Over the years, PAWS has broadened its efforts to advocate for animals.
In 1985, PAWS started a campaign against the Omak Suicide Race, where riders race their horses down a steep hill. Horses have died from falls. This August, the race will mark its 78th year.
PAWS joined a national movement in 1987 to pressure the B&I Shopping Center in Tacoma to remove Ivan, a western lowland gorilla.
For 25 years, Ivan was alone on display at the shopping center. The owners relented, and in 1994, Ivan was moved to Zoo Atlanta, where he stayed until his death in August.
PAWS has worked in Seattle to stop the killing of Canada geese at city parks, worked at the state level to ban hunting of cougars with hounds and led efforts to protest the Ringling Bros. Circus.
That advocacy continues today. When Iran proposed to ban dogs from cities and suburbs, PAWS in September was one of the shelters that started taking in Iranian animals.
Before becoming director of the PAWS Companion Animal Shelter director in 2002, Kay Joubert lobbied on behalf of the nonprofit. She helped pass a bill to allow animal control agencies and humane societies to spay and neuter animals for low-income households. Joubert and PAWS have also promoted legislation first introduced in 2009 to help fund the cost of spay and neuter surgeries for cats, and for cats and dogs belonging to low-income families.
“That is huge because when animal welfare agencies look at where this population of unwanted pets is coming from, sadly a huge percentage are coming from low-income households,” she said. “It allowed us to directly work on that cycle. We want to stop that flow of unwanted pets.”
PAWS officials are now dreaming about the future.
After 45 years, the nonprofit has outgrown the 7 acres in Lynnwood and is looking for a new site with as many as 20 acres to house its wildlife and companion animal centers.
And PAWS wants a new center to include puppy and dog training classes as well as interpretive trails, Laico said. With so many people curious about how they rehabilitate wild animals, the organization wants to include one-way mirrors, video cameras and other monitors.
“People so often especially on the wildlife side want to see the animals,” she said. “So in our future facilities we will provide opportunities so they’ll be able to look in on some of our work in animal care but the animals won’t know.”
A new home for PAWS is exciting, Mack said.
“Whether it’s dogs and cats or the squirrel in the back yard, I think the vast majority of us can connect,” he said. “I think people are very supportive of attempts to make a positive difference for those animals around them that they enjoy.”