There's nothing that frustrates Michael Chill, the "animal man of Santa Monica" more than the mistreatment of wild animals.
He has seen a red-tailed hawk struggle for life after one of its wings was shot away and he has seen three falcons die from improper feeding. But he is especially saddened when he sees animals that will never survive in the wild because they have been raised in captivity or have lost their fear of man.
When animal control officers on the Westside find an injured wild animal in their jurisdictions, they often turn to Chill, 31, who has become a resident expert of sorts on the rehabilitation of wildlife.
Such was the case earlier this week when Santa Monica animal control officers received a call from residents who had found a great horned owl in a yard. Although perfectly healthy, the owl, with two tufts of feathers on its head that resemble horns, also was perfectly tame.
Chill would prefer to release this stately bird to the wild, but he said the owl probably was illegally raised in captivity and would have little chance of surviving on its own.
'Condemned to Captivity'
"This owl is a sad case," Chill said as the bird wrapped its talons around one of his gloved hands. "She's condemned to a life of captivity. That angers me more than anything else. She has to live on a perch or in a cage for the rest of her life just because of man's stupidity."
Another time, he received a telephone call from a man in Agoura who reported that a fawn, wearing a red bandanna, had jogged up to him.
Chill said the animal's fate would have been far different if the jogger had been a hunter.
Chill, who quit high school in the 10th grade, said he could not remember when or how he fell in love with animals, only that he has been working with them most of his life. He remembers training his dog as a youngster. It wasn't long before he was training his neighbors' dogs, and then he began charging for training when he realized that others were getting paid for what he did for free.
Owns Three Wolves
"I charge for dog training so I can support my wild animal habits," said Chill, who has lived in Santa Monica for eight years.
He was involved with falconry for a time until he decided it was wrong to keep birds of prey in captivity. But he owns three wolves, Cisco, Jinx and Kublai, with the state's permission. Two were born in captivity and the third was confiscated from its owner by fish and game officers, he said. "My wolves and my dog are my family."
With a state "sick-and-injured" permit that allows him to rehabilitate wild animals, Chill has picked up bobcats, deer, foxes, raccoons, opossums, sea lions, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, barn owls, great horned owls and screech owls. "I won't take eagles," he said. "They're too big and too aggressive."
Although he treats animals for shock, minor injuries and parasites, and pins broken bones if necessary, Chill sends seriously injured animals to veterinarians who donate their services.
He returns animals to the wild whenever possible. If they are seriously injured or depend on humans for survival, then Chill must decide whether to have the animals killed or placed with a person, an animal center or a zoo.
Despite his years of experience, Chill said he still feels a pang when he releases an animal to the wild because some will be unable to fend for themselves.
"Every time I let one go, I worry, 'Did you do the right thing?' " Chill said. "The most difficult thing is removing your emotions."
One day, Chill would like to move to a wilderness area and set up a large rehabilitation center for wild animals. For now, he is content with his work in Santa Monica and his dog training business.
Chill does talk to adults about their attitudes toward wildlife, but he concentrates on children. When he lectures on wildlife in elementary schools and day-care centers, he brings Cisco along so the children can see and touch a species that has disappeared from the wild in the United States except for Alaska and a national park in Minnesota.
He'll also bring along a hawk, owl, raccoon or other wild animal if he has one available.
"I'll ask the children what they think a wild animal is, where they think wild animals are found, and then we'll go from there," Chill said. "That's the only way. The kids are the ones who are going to make the laws when they get older."