Through the chain-link enclosure, Kevin Hansen pointed out the tiny gray and brown fox curled up in the tree branches at the Southwest Wildlife Foundation east of Scottsdale.
“Foxes are the only wild dog that regularly climbs trees,” said Hansen, education director of the foundation. “They have curved claws like a cat. They even hunt in trees.”
The gray fox is just one of 350 native mammals at the 10-acre wildlife shelter near 156th Street and Rio Verde Drive. Others include mountain lions, porcupines, bears, coyotes, wolves, raccoons and bobcats.
For the past 12 years, the non-profit foundation has been rescuing and rehabilitating Arizona native wildlife. Now the goal is to evolve into something more like a zoo that focuses on education and rehabilitation.
Foundation officials want to expand educational efforts by offering more tours, teaching new classes and expanding the facility by adding a reptile house and gift shop.
“Educating people is one of the most important thing we can do to protect native wildlife,” Hansen said. “The best way to do that is to get people to come here and see the animals up close.”
As urban growth invades animal territories, an increasing number of people are finding themselves coming into contact with predators on a daily basis, Hansen said.
The majority of the animals brought to the foundation are suffering from injuries caused by humans, said Mike Senn, assistant director of field operations for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Two three-legged javelinas — which Hansen calls “tripods” — inhabit one pen. They were brought in after one was shot and the other was hit by a car.
While the foundation’s veterinarians were able to save their lives, they could not save their legs.
Other animals at the facility had been confiscated from people who owned them illegally.
“Wildlife in general don’t make good pets,” Senn said. “Almost invariably, sooner or later, people who take them in get bitten or attacked.”
Or the animals become acclimated to humans and unfit to go back into the wild, he said. Those animals will most likely remain at the facility for the rest of their lives.
The foundation also takes in hybrid pets, which are legal to own in Arizona.
“One of the biggest problems we deal with is people mating coyotes and wolves with domestic dogs,” Hansen said, while standing near a pen containing a wolf/dog mix dropped off after his owner could no longer handle him. “This is almost always a bad idea because you get an animal that doesn’t behave like a dog.”
Through education, Hansen hopes some of the problems that cause the animals to be brought to the foundation can be avoided. While education efforts are growing, the Southwest Wildlife Foundation still works primarily to rehabilitate and release as many of the native animals as possible. About 20 percent of the animals they take in are quarantined and returned to the wild.
“It’s really neat when you get to put one back,” said Hillary Williams, the foundation’s wildlife educator. “It feels like you’re making a difference.”