In 2014, Napa Wildlife Rescue was introduced to photographer John Comisky during a wildlife release. Now, nine years later, John is stepping down as Board President at the end of this month. This would be heartbreaking news if it was not for Carol Poole, previously Vice President, stepping up to lead the organization, as well as John’s generous offer to stay on as a Board Member. Tom Clark will succeed Carol as Vice President, and into 2022 we go! 

John spoke with social media coordinator, Kelly Gray, about his time at NWR and where he sees the organization headed next. Read on for insights into the critical role that storytelling, best practices and community networking plays in the longevity of Napa Wildlife Rescue. 

KG: Through your photography and work with Napa Wildlife Rescue, it’s clear that you love wildlife. How did your love of wildlife begin? 

John: There have been so many intersections with wildlife so, I’ll go back to one of earliest that caused a deep impact.  I was out in the wild, helping to look for a runaway horse. We were far out in open land among low rolling hills when something caused me to turn and unexpectedly encounter the steady gaze of a mountain lion from the crest of the next hill over. Between his hill and mine was a deep ravine, but it felt like we were horizontally close, and because there was nothing but low grass around each of us, we were both completely evident to each other.

As our eyes locked there was a deep and penetrating connection, an absorption.  No fear, no intent, just a mutual consideration of another presence. It went on for what seemed like a long time but was probably a minute before it broke off. The lion moved away in a smooth, almost buttery motion, which became part of my definition of beauty from then on. I always feel like I was just there when I think of it.

John: That’s an incredible experience to have. These days, so many people are not able to interact with much wildlife in a spontaneous way, let alone an apex predator. It seems as if we have been taught to fear animals, especially predators, and yet there you were, allowing it to define your sense of beauty. Have you found opportunities at Napa Wildlife Rescue to redefine people’s experiences with wildlife? Are there specific challenges in connecting people to wildlife that especially motivate you?

John: I didn’t do wildlife photography before coming to Napa Wildlife Rescue. Part of my introduction to NWR included an invitation to photograph a release. From that moment on, I was hooked on photographing wildlife, and it is the majority of what I shoot now. Storytelling, through words and images, is my favorite and most effective way of going after one of the biggest challenges of connecting people to wildlife – the common notion that we are different, superior, more important.  A women named Helen Terwilliger once said, “Teach people to love nature.  People take care of what they love.”  I believe that, and it is an underlying principle of our social media and outreach programs.

KG: When you first came to Napa Wildlife, what was it like? Is it the same organization now?

John: When I first came to NWR, it was called the Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County.  Our facilities were comprised of a 28′ x 10′ well used trailer and a few outside aviaries on about an acre of land leased to the organization in the Napa County Materials yard.  We had one paid employee and lots of volunteers.  We shipped pretty much all our raptors out of the County to be rehabbed elsewhere, before being returned for release, and cared for most mammals off site. Funding wise, we were always pretty much on the edge.

We now own two properties, the Shafer Sanctuary on the trail where we complete the final stage of rehab for raptors and corvids, as well as our main Clinic facility in the Carneros area.  We have 5 employees, a hospital with 10 times the under-roof space, two outbuildings with a combined square footage of over 4,000 to develop, 2.2 acres and several new species-specific structures.  For the last few years, we have handled all our raptors and most mammals on site.  Our finances are better than any time in our 30 years history, although that’s an area where there is always room to grow.  We historically cared for approximately 1200 patients a year.  Last year we treated 1527 and this year the number has already cleared 1600.

KG: That’s phenomenal growth. What’s the future for Napa Wildlife Rescue and wildlife rehabilitation centers across the country? 

John: Despite our historic progress, we’re still pretty much in catch-up mode.  Our current 5 paid employees have greatly improved our base of skill, knowledge, and schedule stability, but we remain the smallest paid team in the Bay Area for other similar organizations, and struggle at times to meet demand.  We have a great new home which has gone through an amazing transition to the best wildlife rehab facility in our history despite challenging circumstances, but there is a long list of projects yet to be accomplished.  In 2019, we developed an initial in-school wildlife series of classes based on the scientific principles of education which had a great start and growing subscriptions in 2020 until the pandemic closed the schools and we had to refocus all resources on rehabilitation.  We are working to get that back up and running as we speak.

I think that a lot of NWR’s role in leadership for wildlife rehabilitation will focus on identifying best practices from other organizations, thus reinforcing examples of the right way to do things.  Our Barn Owl Maintenance Program is an illustrative case. Sonoma Wildlife Rescue had refined their program to what we think of as ‘State of the Art.’  With their permission we implemented it in Napa to great success. So much so that we are partnering with them and Humboldt State in a coalition that allows others to do the same. Another example is currently under construction. We needed a new, large flight aviary for raptors to build strength in their final stage of rehabilitation.  Our beginning design was going to be very expensive and resource intense, with a long timeline. Carol Poole, our current Vice President and incoming President, went into research mode and found that another center in Oregon has creatively and successfully utilized greenhouse technology, greatly cutting the cost in time and money, and instead of waiting a year, we expect it will come to fruition in January 2022.  This kind of planning, where we use all the brains we can borrow as well as the ones we have, can greatly improve the output and the benefit to our patients and those of other wildlife centers.