Kelly Beffa: Wildlife Rehabilitation Technician’s Reflections from the Field

Kelly Beffa releases a Western Grebe patient back into a rehabilitation pool. Photos: Olivia Jenkins – International Bird Rescue

When a crisis like the recent oil spill arises, Bird Rescue’s team of trained professionals jump into action. More than five years have passed since our last large-scale spill response in 2015’s Refugio Spill. This event was an opportunity for some of our newer staff members to gain field experience.

One such staff member is Kelly Beffa, a wildlife rehabilitation technician and a registered veterinary technician (RVT) at our San Francisco Bay-Delta wildlife center. Bird Rescue was activated for the spill response, and Kelly was brought down to help in search & collection, and later in the clinic caring for birds brought in from the field. We spent some time talking with Kelly about her experience:

Question: How did you feel after being activated to come help with the spill response?

Kelly Beffa: I was really excited, but also had some mixed feelings because oil spills create such a negative impact on the environment and wildlife. I help animals every single day in the clinic, but don’t often get the opportunity to go out and actually capture the animals that are in need of help. I was excited about that new opportunity but hesitant as there were many new skills to put to use. I was thankful to work with new people and had a lot of great teachers around me.

Kelly Beffa feeding grebes at the Los Angeles Center.

Q: How did responding to a spill compare to your regular work in the clinic?

KB: There was a totally different mindset between the two, due to the different goals you are working towards. Working in the clinic can be mentally draining because there are so many different tasks to do and things to keep track of. But in search and recovery, there’s more driving, walking, hiking and navigating unfamiliar territory. There’s also a lot of problem solving – we had to figure out how to access different beaches and parks and gather different information to report back to our field supervisor – more focus on the overall environment than just specific birds and patients. Clinic work has its challenges, as does search and recovery, but being outside for the majority of my day was a refreshing change from the clinic work I do.

Q: Did you have any successful rescues in the field?

KB: Yes – We were able to capture a female Western Grebe out at Sunset Beach. It was a really challenging rescue because there were a lot of members of the public around surfing and visiting the beach. This made it a little difficult for the grebe to beach itself and get comfortable enough for us to get close for capture, so it took some patience. Eventually she came close enough to the shore that my rescue partner and I were able to coordinate a rescue attempt. We had to get our timing right with the waves to be able to capture her. Unfortunately, at the very last moment my phone fell out of my pocket and into the ocean during our rescue attempt. But it was worth it. My phone was destroyed, but we rescued the grebe! We then took the bird for stabilization at Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center and she later came to our center for wash and continued care. I even had the opportunity to care for her post-wash in conditioning before she was released.

Q: How did being a part of that rescue feel?

KB: Terrifying! You really don’t want to mess up, and you have to anticipate the challenges because they can get scared off and there’s a lot at stake. It was worth the hard work and sacrifice, and immensely satisfying, because that animal would otherwise end up dead without you. It was one big action that gets followed up with smaller actions in the clinic that help save that bird.

Q: How was working in the Los Angeles wildlife center compared to the San Francisco Bay-Delta wildlife center?

KB: There are a lot of little differences between the two centers. The San Francisco Bay-Delta center has more outdoor space, so I had to get used to a different layout. Due to the unique characteristics of each center, I have grown more comfortable in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Center but this opportunity showed me there are different ways enclosures can be utilized. It’s challenging not knowing where important things are, and the different lingo used for similar enclosures, this can make communication difficult. You take for granted how well you know your own place. It was really great working with the L.A. staff and getting to know the center.

Q: When a spill happens, members of the public usually want to jump in and help. You’ve had many years of training and experience before working this spill – why do you feel that training was important to have first?

KB: Safety is the biggest thing. Safety around working with oil especially, it’s a caustic material which I think sometimes gets overlooked. You need a lot of training to know how to work in that environment without causing harm to yourself. It’s also very difficult to wash a bird. You can really hurt yourself or the animals if you aren’t prepared. When a spill happens, staffwork in a busy, fast paced environment. This creates a difficult space to train new skills and having the experience and training already completed helps streamline animal care, giving the birds the best chance for success.

Q: Any last things you’d like to share about your experience?

KB: It was just really great working with all of the different organizations in person and in a real-life setting. The staff of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, my rescue teammate from the San Diego Humane Society, and our team at the Los Angeles wildlife center, it was just great to get to know and work with them all. It made me want to take more training about capture techniques in the field. Even though I have a lot of experience, there’s always more to learn.