Elizabeth Melnick was just a young girl when she and her mom awoke one morning to find a small scruffy dog in the bathtub of their Vancouver home.
Someone had deposited the creature through the open bathroom window.
It didn’t strike Elizabeth as unusual at the time. She had become known around the neighbourhood as someone who rescued strays and, if she couldn’t find their homes, raised them herself.
Her residence on East 27th Street had become a refuge for pets of all sorts, including dogs, cats, canaries, budgies and goldfish.
Her mom, a single parent, had a soft heart and could never say no when her daughter brought home another creature.
Even Elizabeth’s doll buggy served as a pet “ambulance,” and she often pushed it down the street containing whatever cat or dog would cooperate.
Elizabeth never questioned this passion. It had just always been there.
She was equally as impassioned about the medical field. While other children were reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew series, she devoured medical books.
There seemed to be no more obvious a career choice for Elizabeth than a veterinarian, but the nearest vet school was in Saskatchewan.
Elizabeth often said she and her mom were “as poor as church mice,” and in the days before government student loans, veterinary school was not a viable option.
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One day in 1986, Elizabeth could hear a loud banging coming from the neighbourhood. She looked out the front window of her home on Nanaimo Crescent in Abbotsford, and it was her next-door neighbour boarding up a hole in his roof.
Elizabeth was livid. There was a nest of birds inside.
“You’re going to board it up with the babies!” she yelled at the neighbour.
“Yes, and then they’ll all die,” he responded.
“If I climb up on the roof, can I get the babies?”
“I don’t care. Do what you want,” the man said.
Elizabeth climbed gingerly up the man’s ladder, delicately scooped up the tiny birds and awkwardly made her way back down to safety, remembering that she’s afraid of heights as she did so.
She brought the baby birds into her home, where she reared them until they could survive on their own.
Thus, Elizabeth’s Wildlife Center was born.
She obtained the necessary wildlife rehabilitation permits and let local vets know that she was accepting small animals that needed care.
Opossums, squirrels, bunnies, ducks, geese, sparrows, finches and crows were among the creatures that came through her doors, soon crowding the home she shared with her husband and their twin son and daughter.
There were no classes or workshops or conferences – like there are now – that Elizabeth could attend to learn proper feeding techniques and care, so she sought the advice of a woman in North Vancouver who was doing similar work.
“It’s all trial and error, dear,” the woman would say.
Over the years, Elizabeth had obtained a degree in licensed practical nursing, and later as a registered nurse, spending 11 years working at the former MSA Hospital.
She applied her medical knowledge to the care of the animals, which often sported broken or injured limbs, had wounds from being attacked by other animals, or were having breathing difficulties.
The care was expensive, and Elizabeth continued to work at her nursing job, relying on volunteers to foster the animals and feed them throughout the day. At the end of her 12-hour shift, she would make house calls to tend to any of the creatures’ medical needs.
It was a gruelling schedule, but there was nowhere else for the animals to go, and Elizabeth would not entertain the thought that they should perish.
“I don’t feel I have the power to decide who’s going to live and who’s going to die,” she would tell those who questioned her work.
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Elizabeth’s Wildlife Center has now been running for 27 years, moving to a new property in 2002. Elizabeth prefers not to make the address public because she wants people to call her first, rather than just dropping off animals at her door.
The site features several outbuildings, including a clinic, a nursery, and several “pre-release” cages that are filled with animals – most significantly in the period from March to September.
It has become more than a full-time job for Elizabeth, whose husband passed away in 2003 from lung cancer. She devotes every waking minute to the care of the creatures – for example, baby birds require feeding every 15 minutes – and to the administration of the center.
The goal is always to nurse them back to health and release them back into the wild – as often as possible into the environment from where they came.
Funding challenges are constant, and Elizabeth must rely on donations and the support of volunteers to keep going. But the rewards are worth whatever stresses she faces along the way, she says.
“When you can release an animal, there’s no bigger reward than that. There’s no money that can replace that. There’s no greater feeling.”
For more information about Elizabeth’s Wildlife Center, visit elizabethswildlifecenter.org or call 604-852-9173.