At the Wildlife Waystation, a refuge for native and exotic animals in Angeles National Forest, there are no unimportant jobs.
"You might start out with a little bit of involvement, but once you see the need, there is so much to do here," said Caryol Smith of Sun Valley, who started volunteering at the way station almost five years ago after raising money for the group in the Los Angeles Marathon in 1990.
Smith is now the outreach chairwoman who coordinates private tours of the 160-acre facility that has cared for 4,000 wild animals a year since it opened in 1976.
"All jobs need to be done," said Martine Colette, the refuge's founder and president.
The 40 full-time and 175 part-time volunteers share the workload, taking turns from the menial jobs such as clearing brush or parking cars for visitors on Sunday tours to the constant feeding of baby animals.
"Usually I spend 10 to 12 hours a day, and several days a week," said Rosella Takata, about her work in the spring as a volunteer for almost 11 years. She takes satisfaction in working in the way station's Baby Animal Trailer--dubbed a BATmobile--a converted mobile home that is busiest in the spring and summer when thousands of baby animals must be given nearly constant feedings to keep them alive.
"It's very rewarding when you see them released," said Takata, a Monterey Park resident who has also cleaned cages, helped in the animal hospital, raked the property and helped assemble cages. She said she does it "because I like being around the animals."
The way station is home to lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions, jaguars, bobcats, bears and more. Many have been rescued from zoos that had closed, or had been kept as pets around the world and around the country. Many people will acquire the exotic animals as pets, wrongly believing that if they get them young enough, and "love them enough" they will be docile, Colette said.
Only later do they realize their mistake.
"These are dangerous animals," Colette said, and the problems in caring for them are much bigger than a private owner can anticipate.
Some of the animals at the way station have had their teeth and claws removed, or otherwise handicapped, as a way to control them.
"They're not perfect, but they do have the right to exist," said Smith, who has seen the animals have a dramatic effect on developmentally disabled children when they have toured the facility.
"You can tell you're making an impression on them because they have never had an experience like this," Smith said. "Mostly, they're in awe of being able to be so close to the animal."
Aside from educating the public about the needs of exotic and wild animals, the goal of the way station is to release those animals who can still survive in the wild, and find homes for others in zoos when space is available. But that has become a difficult task with limited zoo space.
Volunteers also help make animal toys and treats like "Fishicles"--made of ice, honey, berries and fish--or pine cones stuffed with peanut butter or honey for the bears. As the volunteers receive more and more training, they eventually become qualified for the animal handling program, in which they take animals on walks.
But every volunteer must keep in mind that the animal's well-being comes first, Colette said.
"As long as they keep that as their focus," they can do well as volunteers, Colette said. For more information about volunteering or to learn more about the way station, call (818) 899-5201.
The American Cancer Society, San Fernando Valley Unit, needs donations of non-perishable foods, "gently used" toys and clothing and other items for its fourth annual holiday party for the families of cancer patients at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. Deadline for donations is Dec. 12. For information, call (818) 989-5555.