Imagine … it’s a beautiful day, and you go out walking on your favorite route. Suddenly, you spot a large owl hobbling on the ground. The majestic bird looks injured and in pain. What do you do?
I actually had this experience a few years ago when I was living in America. What should I do? I felt helpless. As a nature lover and avid birdwatcher, I feel a strong personal connection with wildlife, and this was an emergency. I decided to call a veterinarian friend for advice. She called the forestry authorities in the area I was in and reported my location. She said to leave the bird there and a ranger would collect it.
Now, I am living in the Algarve, with more time for my beloved birdwatching and observation of nature.
I was thrilled when a friend recently told me about RIAS. In Portuguese, it is the Centro de Recuperação e Investigação de Animais Selvagens (translation: Wild Animal Recovery and Research Center). Essentially a wildlife hospital, it is located in Olhão.
After looking at their Facebook page and other engaging sites online, I decided to write to RIAS and see if I could pay them a visit, with the goal of writing and photographing this article you are now reading. After some time, I did receive a warm reply with an invitation to proceed with my request.
When I arrived at RIAS, the director, Fábia Azevedo, gave me a brief history, and a fascinating tour of the facility. Founded in 2009 as a private non-profit organization, they have treated and released over 10,000 animals back to nature. They have continued to grow in public awareness and service to the Algarve and beyond. “In the beginning, we treated about 700 animals per year,” says Azevedo. “This year, more than 3,000 injured or sick birds, mammals, and reptiles will be brought in for treatment.”
As we walked through a maze of examining and operating rooms, I felt a sense of pride in my adopted home of Portugal. An organization with such reverence for wildlife is dear to my heart. Several clinicians were attending to a small owl, gulls, a dove, a chameleon, a warbler, a terrapin, and a hedgehog. Interns scurried about with towel-covered boxes containing various patients.
After treatment, the animals recuperate in a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces. They are well fed with fruits, vegetables, and meats that are all donated by supermarkets, which spares the center of added costs. The food is served through little doors and openings, so the animals don’t see the source of the food, to prevent them from associating food with people.
“Our goal is to release wild animals so they can survive in their natural habitat.” says Azevedo. “We don’t want them to rely on humans.”
The center has a full-time staff of two veterinarians and five biologists. Also, many interns and volunteers coming from schools and universities serve as a crucial component in the day-to-day operations. “We are always teaching students of biology, veterinary studies, and environmental studies,” says Azevedo. “Here they get to experience first-hand contact with caring for wildlife. The volunteers learn every aspect of what we do. It’s beautiful to see people involved with many forms of wildlife.”
As my walking tour of the center continues, we then look into various outdoor fenced-in spaces. In one space, an ornithologist has a pair of fledgeling swifts that were raised from chicks. Now they are ready to learn how to fly. Tossed up in the air, they instinctively spread their wings. After a few steering mishaps, they begin to gain the ability to navigate around corners and trees. Soon, they are exhausted, and need a rest before the next try. It will be a while before they have built up their endurance.
In another area, a mated pair of Mallard ducks is happily swimming in a small artificial pond. They are permanent residents of the center, and have the important job as “foster parents” for incoming baby ducks who have been rescued. This method is very successful and wonderful to behold.
We move on to another large space with two magnificent recovering Eagle Owls, their stunning orange eyes and patterned plumage as beautiful as only nature can create. They were rescued from separate places but have become close companions. Both had been injured by barbed wire and are now recovered (they were released into the wild during the Birdwatching Festival in Sagres last week).
Next door is a huge, statuesque Griffin Vulture, perched in classic vulture fashion on a gnarly branch. When he flies, the air pushed by his vast, powerful wings can be felt below. He is also recovered and ready to commence his life in the wild.
As the tour continued, a bit of wildlife magic happened. Fábia spotted a lovely chameleon, camouflaged in an oleander bush. She called the staff over to enjoy the beautiful sight. One of Portugal’s most precious creatures is the remarkable Mediterranean chameleon which inhabits the coastal areas of the country’s sun-drenched southern shoreline. The chameleon also happens to be the mascot occuping the RIAS sign and logo, so it was a great way to end my wonderful tour.
What to do if you see an injured wild animal
The RIAS website/blog has instructions for the public to follow:
“If you feel safe enough to handle the animal, approach it cautiously and capture it using a towel, piece of clothing or blanket to cover the animal’s head (this avoids visual stimuli, calming the animal). Pay close attention to the beak/snout and claws to avoid being hurt. Place the animal in a perforated cardboard box, preferably just a little larger than the animal. If you don’t have a box, wrap the towel around the animal to limit its movements, in order to protect you and the animal. Until delivery, keep the animal in a calm, dark and warm place, but remember that you should not keep the animal in your possession for longer than strictly necessary. If you can, transport the animal to RIAS.
“If you are unable to transport the animal to RIAS, deliver it to the local GNR post, where the animal will be collected by ICNF (Park Rangers), through nature guards.
“If you do not feel comfortable handling the animal, monitor it as much as possible to ensure its safety and contact the competent authorities to collect the animal: You can call your local GNR post, or call the nearest ICNF.”
As a non-profit, RIAS is always eager to accept donations to help with their good work. If you wish to donate, please use the following simple methods:
MBWay to RIAS: +351 927 659 313
Bank Transfer: IBAN PT50 0035 0555 0004 8770 8302 8
BIC SWIFT CGDIPTPL (Caixa Geral de Depósitos de Olhão)
Please send proof of transfer by email to [email protected]
By Eric Roth
Eric Roth is a lifelong photojournalist who has recently emigrated from Boston, USA to the Algarve. He loves nature and wildlife. 926 742 687 | [email protected]