Written by Zak Hansen • Photos courtesy Stick House Sanctuary
The nonprofit, vegan wildlife rehabilitation facility Stick House Sanctuary, on El Paso’s west side, has since 2008 rescued, rehabilitated, released, or placed in forever homes tens of thousands of birds, mammals, exotic and farm animals, the feathered and featherless, under the dedicated watch of husband-and-wife founders and wildlife rehabilitators Julie Ito Morales and Jaime Morales.
Though the sanctuary has been in operation a little more than a decade, Julie’s lifelong dedication to the humane treatment of animals dates back to her earliest years. She was raised steeped in the hunting culture and farming and meat industries of Wisconsin and Iowa along the Mississippi River, an upbringing she said had “a huge impact on [her] decision to become vegan . . . for the animals, not for me.”
A piece of family lore recorded in her baby book recalls a months-old Julie who, offered meat for the first time, flatly refused. She was too young to remember that, but another portentous childhood moment still stands out in Julie’s mind: picking chickens with her grandmother in Wisconsin. “As a child I thought we were going to take them home as companions,” Julie recalled. “I made my choice, the prettiest, only to have her head chopped off in front of me. It made me realize many do not validate the life of an animal. That chicken did not want to die, and I felt responsible.” She’d spend a lifetime since trying to do exactly what others did not: validate the lives of animals. Fast forward to 2008, when Julie and Jaime, teachers by trade, began taking in wildlife to rehabilitate.
They first took on ducks and chickens; word of their compassion traveled fast. “Because we already had our permit to house chickens and ducks on our property,” Julie said, “we expanded it to become an animal welfare organization. We became the chicken/duck rescue by default and loved it.” Soon, they’d modified the property to better serve domestics and rescues alike; the property would have wildlife in one area and domestics in the other, separated by the federally required privacy fencing. They’ve steadily expanded their efforts since and, in their 12 years, hosted quite the menagerie. They are licensed for songbirds, migratory birds, waterfowl, and shore birds, including herons, egrets, ravens, and crows. Stick House has also taken on a number of mammals, such as cottontails, jack rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, voles, and chipmunks. On several occasions, they cared for flocks of roosters — as many as 168 — confiscated from local cockfighting rings and housed in the El Paso County Coliseum.
Many still injured and bleeding from a fight the night before, some with gaffes still strapped to their legs, the roosters were cared for and fed by the shelter, and placement was arranged for when they were released by the courts. “These animals needed someone to speak for them,” Julie said. “In the history of El Paso, fighting roosters had been held as evidence, and then euthanized. We wanted them to live the life they deserved. All roosters who survived were placed in a vegan sanctuary north of San Antonio, never to have the threat of being mistreated or being used for fighting again.” Stick House also takes in domestic and exotic birds lost in the community, while their owners are found or a new home is arranged; rescue chickens from the kaporos ceremonies in New York, through a collaborative effort with other activists and vegan rescues; chickens from a closed chicken factory in Colorado, which was shuttered with the remaining chickens left without food, water, or other care; and a kit of 25 abandoned domestic pigeons transported from the San Jose, California, Animal Services. It’s also the only local facility to rehabilitate rabies-vector mammals — skunks, raccoons and foxes. Stick House has also welcomed two opossums, which hitchhiked on semis loaded in central Texas; both were given travel arrangements back home, one with a nursing litter of 11 in tow.
Each spring, the shelter takes in a glut of quickly abandoned Easter rabbits, ensuring they’re spayed/neutered before adoption to safe forever homes. For their efforts reducing this sad annual occurrence, Stick House was recognized by a Florida organization with a light-up billboard along Interstate 10 amplifying a simple message: #notjustforeaster. Another mammalian member of Stick House’s alumni is Tessie, an eastern red fox squirrel, who came to the shelter with compromised vision from head trauma. During her stay, Tessie was cared for by many volunteers, among them the family members of a certain El Paso politician who told Tessie’s story on the campaign trail during a 2018 senatorial bid. “Tessie was welcome to stay as long as needed,” Julie said, “But she regained her sight enough to be released on the sanctuary property, and occassionally she will make her presence known.” Each year, the sanctuary is required to submit a federal wildlife count; the past few years, Stick House has reliably taken in up to 3,000 wildlife and 100 fowl annually. Stick House’s onsite veterinarian and exoticanimal specialist, Dr. Marc Slipa, stays at the ready, devoting much of his time away from his own practice for the sanctuary, and Dr. Roger Freund also chips in, providing the necessary x-rays, labs, and surgeries. Of the good doctors, Julie says, “We are so grateful to both of them for their sincere concern and care they provide to the wildlife and domestic animals we bring to them.” Caring for animals is just one part of Julie and Jaime’s work; as teachers, they offer a monthly educational event for adults featuring expert guest speakers from the community, immediately followed by a children’s program complete with an animal-oriented craft project, along with presentations in the community and area schools, when not in the midst of busy season.
They also partner with utility companies to address the particular needs of animals, striving for solutions that create a better community for wildlife and mankind alike. All of this is done on a completely volunteer basis — no one is paid — and with a small crew at that: Julie and Jaime, aided by a few long-term volunteers and community members who attend the sanctuary’s onceweekly volunteer days. Their responsibilities run the gamut — according to Julie, it’s “90 percent cleaning, preparing diets, cleaning, painting, book work, cleaning, building, rebuilding — did I mention cleaning? — researching species and reaching out to other organizations, and 10 percent direct animal care.” Wildlife interaction is kept to the absolute minimum, to prevent imprinting. All domestics can be socialized, if the animal wants to be socialized with; it is, as Julie says, “always the animal’s choice — not ours.” None of this would be possible, of course, without that last, critical component: you, the community. “We are grateful to our followers on our Facebook page who always provide what we need, to the foundations and private citizens, who award us the funds so we may continue to grow and provide the best care possible for these animals, and our volunteers who are here in a second when help is needed,” Julie said.
Those interested in donating should visit facebook.com/epwildliferescue to find updates on immediate needs; those needs can change daily depending on the species being served. Of course, Julie said, Stick House “will always need cleaning supplies, Kleenex for baby bird nests, paper towels, printing paper, computer ink, and large towels.” Volunteers are always needed to manage the large garden for the wildlife, which allows the sanctuary to be self-sustaining with its wildlife produce needs. Cash donations from the public are always appreciated and needed, and all donations are tax deductible as Stick House is a 501(c)(3).
Even more than donating time, money, or supplies, the public plays another critical role. “Ninety-five percent of our intakes are human caused,” Julie says. “To prevent wildlife from ending up in a facility such as ours, please always call a wildlife rehabilitator before you intervene, unless the species is in danger. Many times the animal does not need help, or persons with ‘good intentions’ keep wildlife, feeding an inappropriate diet, which causes more harm, causing the wildlife to now be taken in. Once an animal is in care, the community can help by spreading the words of education we post on our page and donating and shopping from our Amazon wish list [https://amzn.to/34icoSU] to provide the needs of the animals.”