The sound of faint squawking from a bird pen and a faded sign are the only indications that the rusty turquoise trailers in a vacant lot in Anaheim house something unusual.
One whiff of the pungent odors, however, is a convincing reminder that the Avian and Exotic Animal Practice clinic is literally a zoo--and home to a variety of parrots, snakes, lizards, birds, monkeys, raccoons, skunks, opossums, deer, coyotes, cougars, bobcats and foxes.
The facility on La Palma Avenue is one of the country's few treatment centers for native American wildlife and exotic animals. Thousands of abandoned, abused or confiscated birds and mammals are brought to the clinic each year for free treatment and rehabilitation.
In addition, the clinic serves as a training ground for students in the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program who are interested in pursuing careers in animal care and control.
Program instructor Greg Hickman oversees the day-to-day workings of the NOCROP center. When he isn't teaching a class, performing surgery or feeding the snakes, he can occasionally be found in his cluttered office, which he shares with a tortoise, a tank of fish and two stuffed hawks. His battered desk is laden with reptile vitamins, an air cleaner and extra-strength aspirin.
The aspirin is essential, Hickman says, especially during the busy "wildlife season," which runs from February through mid-August. Supplies run short and the hours run long as dozens of animals and birds are brought to the center for treatment seven days a week. It is a job often filled with headaches and heartaches.
"You have to have a tremendous amount of patience to understand the fear of abandoned, starving animals and to be able to reduce the shock and stress to keep them alive," Hickman said, settling in behind his desk and lighting up an Old Gold.
On one wall of his office, peeling bamboo-patterned wallpaper serves as a backdrop to a checkerboard of awards and certificates marking his career in animal care.
Although he is only 37, Hickman has spent more than 25 years working with wildlife. His interest in "critters," as he likes to refer to them, started at 6, when he got his first snake. At 10 he went to work for an animal importer in Garden Grove. At 14 he was assistant manager in a pet shop. He began collecting animals and trading with zoos. He traveled the world and trained animals for movies. He owned pet shops in Orange and Newport Beach and worked for Lion County Safari as a nutritionist and curator.
With his deep tan, aviator glasses, cotton shirt and khaki shorts, he looks as though he's on his way to a safari.
"In wildlife season we usually get hummingbirds and owls first," Hickman explained, rocking back in his chair. "The opossums start in March. Birds come in by the thousands. We've had raccoons, foxes, bobcats, skunks, deer, cougar--everything but bear, thank God."
Hickman recalled with pride the time a few years ago when two very young eagles were brought to the compound. "They (had been) practically starved to death. We put a few pounds on them and gave them to specialists who are working with them in breeding projects on Catalina Island and in Arizona," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the din of birds shrieking in the next room.
"Oh, that's Edgar," said Hickman, gesturing toward a raven that was fluttering freely about in the adjoining room, inciting a riot of squawking among several caged parrots. "He could leave any time, but he knows which side his bread is buttered on. He stays around to greet everybody and beg."
Job Placement Goal
In addition to his work with wildlife, Hickman said, his ultimate goal is to find jobs for people through NOCROP.
He trains students to become zookeepers, animal control officers and veterinary assistants. Hickman estimated that about 40% of the students are adults returning to the job market or changing careers.
So far, job placement has not been a problem. Sixty-five percent of the students who complete the program find employment in the animal care field, said David Smith, chief executive of NOCROP.
"These animals turn a lot of people back on to school. That's why we hang in there. To help the kids," he said.
Knott's Berry Farm was quick to hire four of Hickman's recent graduates to work at its petting zoo.
"(NOCROP) is really a good program. The kids have that extra sense of caring for the animals and tend to be more conscientious. Working here is not just a job; it has meaning for them, and I will probably hire more from there in the future," said Jim Pickerell, supervisor of Knott's pig pen petting zoo.
Christina Williams, 18 years old and a recent graduate of the program, was thrilled to land a job running the horse and pony rides at Knott's. "It's so much fun," she said. "But I will probably be back to take courses again because you learn so much every day by working with a variety of animals."