Wildlife Images in Grants Pass makes for a wilddestination

January 30, 2007 11:00 pm

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

If you sit in the woods for a while, you might be able to boast of a close encounter with some of our wild neighbors — black bears, mountain lions, eagles. Maybe a vulture, if you sit long enough.

You'll probably enjoy a more pleasant meeting, though, at Wildlife Images.

The facility in Merlin, Ore., has rescued and cared for injured and abandoned animals since 1981. Every day, tour guides tell the tales of the animals that find a home on the 24-acre haven, tucked in the forested mountains near the Rogue River.

Many are confiscated pets — including two bobcats, a black bear and a mountain lion, as well as a Eurasian lynx picked up from a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The facility also hosts a few reptiles, including a gopher snake, bearded dragon lizard, red-tailed boa and a sinaloan milk snake often mistaken for the venomous coral snake. Most of those, too, are confiscated or abandoned pets, such as the 8-foot ball python found in a motel by a screaming maid.

Other animals have sustained injuries that keep them from returning to the wild — a vulture hit by a car, a gray fox with deformed legs, a bald eagle that shattered her wings after falling from the nest as a baby. One mountain lion had a lung removed after being shot by a hunter.

Residents warrant warnings — don't get too close to fences where bear, mountain lion or badger claws can reach out, for instance. The bobcats tend to warn off intruders by urinating and have perfected their aim to hit targets several feet away.

"If one more person gets eaten on one of my tours, they're gonna fire me," guide Rhody Malone jokes at the start of the tour that runs about an hour and a half.

The green-eyed mountain lions, long-legged wolves, burly black bears and two Kodiak Grizzlies remain the stars of the place, prowling and posing in their forested enclosures.

But all of the animals offer a view into the natural world that visiting humans may know less about than they realize.

A few odd facts:

•Vultures can projectile vomit.

•Female birds of prey measure about 30 percent larger than males and build the nests.

•Raccoons can live for three months on their body fat and have semi-opposable thumbs — the better to open trash cans and untie knots with.

•Owls' eye color tends to match their hunting habits, darker for nocturnal ones and lighter for those that hunt at dusk. Besides the upper and lower eyelids, a third membrane protects their eyes during sweeps through dark forests.

•The Eurasian Eagle Owl is the world's largest owl species, weighing about five pounds and measuring 27 inches tall with a four-foot wingspan and talons about the size of a human hand.

"It's like gettin' whacked with a four-by-four full of nails," Malone said of an encounter.

•The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on the planet, clocking a 255 mph dive that it can pull out of about 60 feet from the ground.

•Otters can swim about 15 mph.

•Mountain lions purr.

Ssshhhh...

This year, the facility has encouraged the bears to hibernate, taking them off the tour circuit until spring.

"Putting them into a normal, wild rhythm is always best for their physiology," said executive director Dave Siddon.

The effort also aims to prompt the overweight creatures to lose a few pounds.

In the wild, bears will gorge themselves in late fall, then head to higher ground and burrow into caves to sleep all winter.

"It's really a good way for them to work, very efficient," Siddon said.

To replicate caves, staff members added steel dens, littered with soft pine needles, to the bears' section.

"Like a big, giant piece of pipe," Siddon said, noting bears' tendency to crush things. "They're like having a pet backhoe. They can destroy anything."

To mimic the bear's natural routine, staff members give the bears extra food, cordone off the area to copy winter's peace and quiet, then stop feeding them — a process that mirrors the human equivalent of a big turkey dinner's aftermath.

The bears' reaction?

"Oh, let's go konk out," Siddon said.

A wild life

Wildlife Images garnered international attention in the 1990s after a 650-pound Grizzly named Griz befriended an orange tabby kitten who had poked its way into the bear's enclosure.

At the main building, a binder full of newspaper clips details the history of the the nonprofit center and the work that Siddon's father, J. David Siddon, started in the 1970s.

Wildlife Images now boasts a nature facility, a clinic and a building for birds. The center aims to build a bird conservatory and an educational facility where visitors can better watch the bears. Work has already started on habitat for small mammals and a park where visitors can see them.

And in the wood lodge-like gift shop, the facility features the following quote from nature writer Henry Beston's "The Outermost House":

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Reach Hilary Corrigan at

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Trippin'

Directions: Take U.S. Highway 199 toward Grants Pass. After Cave Junction, go left on River Banks Road before the Applegate River, at the same turnoff for Griffin Park. Cross Robertson Bridge over the Rogue River

Drive time: About an hour and a half

Cost: Free — reservations required, donations requested

Contact: Call (541) 476-0222 or visit www.wildlifeimages.org

Tip: Animals are most alert during morning tours

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Side trippin'

The winter drive alone makes the trip worthwhile — 199's quiet, twisting path through forests along the Smith and Rogue rivers.

The route also includes general stores and taverns. Cave Junction provides a good stop, with a few coffee stands, a diner and grilled sandwiches at River Valley Restaurant.

Stop on the banks of the Rogue River at nearby Griffin, Matson and Whitehorse parks to eat lunch or watch fly fishermen casting lines.