Cry in the Wilderness

Bishop’s School graduate documents impact of human encroachment on wildlife

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Bishop’s School graduate and documentary filmmaker Elliott Kennerson grew up in one of Del Mar’s earliest planned communities, in a condo complex near Torrey Pines State Reserve that was on the cusp of what geographers refer to as an “urban edge”— the boundary where wildlife and human development converge.

Scampering or soaring across the “hard urban edge” of his family’s home were deer, raccoons, rabbits, hawks and a family of foxes that settled into his backyard, eventually prompting a call to animal control. One day, Kennerson returned from school to learn that the foxes had been exterminated, which he said had a profound impact on him.

Too often urban edges create what Kennerson refers to as a “tripwire” for animals, causing them to be injured or in need of human assistance to extricate themselves from precarious, unnatural situations.

To that end, Kennerson hopes a documentary he is producing will help others consider how to coexist harmoniously with local wildlife, as well as options available to people impacted by animals that breach the urban edge. He is currently wrapping up production on the second in his series for KPBS titled, “Animal R&R” (or “rest and rehabilitation”), to air sometime next spring. The first in the series aired in May.

“Animal R&R” focuses on the work of two local nonprofit organizations, Project Wildlife and the Fund for Animals (the latter a Humane Society affiliate). Both rescue and rehabilitate injured, starving or stranded wildlife from urban settings, preparing them for their eventual re-release into the wild.

The next installment will focus on “new patients” that have come into both 
agencies’ care since the first “Animal R&R” installment, including two coyote pups badly burned while fleeing the Poinsettia Fire that scorched through Carlsbad in May. Both were taken to the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona, where they have spent five months recovering.

“The pups were found at different times with really badly burned feet and fur,” Kennerson said, noting that fire season typically occurs in fall when the animals are more mature and better equipped to escape. “We have great footage of these really adorable pups with bandages all four four feet. … We’re filming the process as the bandages come off and they’re running around for the first time together in the open pen.”

Kennerson, who majored in archaeology at Yale and earned a masters in science and natural history filmmaking from the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University, also recorded footage of two black bears that came into the Fund For Animals Wildlife Center.

The first, a matted and malnourished four-month-old cub, was found near its mother after she was hit and killed on a roadway near Lake Tahoe.

The second bear was running rampant in a residential neighborhood near Boron, Calif. (on the western edge of the Mojave Desert).

Kennerson said the Fund For Animals facility, the opening of which is documented in “Animal R&R,” has become a destination for larger animals from across the state in need of rehabilitation.

“It’s the first time there’s been a bear cub rehabilitated in San Diego County,” Kennerson said, noting one of the challenges when rehabilitating wildlife is not to let the animals bond with humans.

“That’s often how they run into trouble in the first place — they don’t have perhaps enough of a fear and a respect of humans,” he said.

Linda Vista-based Project Wildlife focuses on smaller animals, such as the red-tailed hawk, screech owls, bats and osprey on the mend in the forthcoming installment of “Animal R&R.”

Beth Ugoretz, Project Wildlife’s executive director, said the “Animal R&R” series is a great way to highlight the work of its volunteer rehabilitators.

“We appreciate the opportunity to be able to show the public what animal rehabilitation is about,” she said. “They typically don’t get the opportunity to see that because we need to maintain the wildness of our animals by treating them in a very hands-off way. We have to make sure that they maintain their natural fear of humans for their own protection and that they maintain their wild behaviors so that they can feed and protect themselves when they’re released.”

Ugoretz said she hopes footage of Project Wildlife’s bat rehabilitation makes the next series. The winged mammals often get trapped in people’s attics and eaves. Drought conditions have also affected their food and water supply, she said.

“People don’t often see bats here and don’t think of them as part of our landscape but they are critically important to our ecosystem,” she said. “They eat so many insects; they are a natural population control that does not require pesticides or anything unnatural.”

Kennerson said he hopes people come away from “Animal R&R” with a sense of compassion for the diversity of wildlife within their own backyards.

“San Diego is one of the most biodiverse areas in the nation,” Kennerson said. “Most of the species that are on the endangered list in San Diego are not spectacular — you know, they’re not koala bears and pandas; they’re fairy shrimp and small birds and a lot of plants. A lot of the nature that’s precious that we (intersect with) in our daily lives is actually kind of invisible. I want people to understand that that’s precious too and deserves respect and not to be wiped out.”

As with the first installment, the second “Animal R&R” series will be narrated by local wildlife advocate and Zoological Society of San Diego ambassador, Joan Embery.

“I grew up in the ’70s when the Endangered Species Act (of 1973) had just passed, and she was really an idol of mine,” said Kennerson, whose mother, Kathleen Snyder, is a former teacher and librarian at The Bishop’s School.

Kennerson said he hopes to replicate his series, focusing on the local ecosystems of other areas around the country, for which he is currently in talks with other Humane Society affiliates.