Sam Huselton care-fully perches the 2-foot lizard across her gloved hand and gently pulls the flakes of shedding skin off its beadlike back. She seems remarkably calm for someone holding a gila monster, which is highly poisonous.
"Boy, your face is a mess. You got egg on you," she coos, wiping the creature's face clean like a mother with a toddler.All the while, the grouchy lizard opens its black mouth wide exposing the gums that rest over its talon-shaped little teeth. But Huselton, an assistant at the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, doesn't seem to mind.
"Give me back your little paw," she says as the lizard's sharply clawed feet scratch the air.
This particular gila monster and a number of others arrived at Adobe Mountain because new housing developments were going in over their rocky homes. Gila monsters cannot be placed farther than a half mile from their original area with much expectation of survival, so the ones at Adobe Mountain are destined to remain in captivity.
The rapid development of the entire state is keeping Huselton, two other state employees and a legion of volunteers busy nursing mistreated and uprooted wildlife at the center in the northern fringe of the city.
Adobe Mountain is state-run, making it an anomaly. Most wildlife rehabilitation centers nationwide are run by nonprofit groups.
The center opened in 1985 at the prompting of then-Gov. Bruce Bab-bitt, who now heads the Interior Department. It was built attached to the Adobe Mountain juvenile detention center as part of a program that allowed detained youths to work at the rehab center as a reward for good behavior.
Huselton said it was good program, but the funding dried up. The center is now run strictly by the state employees and volunteers.
Most animals that come through the center - 767 last year - are nursed back to health and returned to the wild.
"People like to have a place to take injured birds. It's so sad. You don't want it to die. They provide an important service to the community," said Janet Witzeman of the Maricopa Audubon Society.
Some of the animals that come into Adobe Mountain are too badly injured to have a fighting chance in the wild, and they are used instead for presentations at schools and other educational events.
"Inner-city kids never see these animals," Huselton says. "It's nice to be able to show them these. Then, when we talk about the environment, they can see `Oh, that's what they are talking about.' "
In some cases, the animals that arrive at Adobe Mountain are badly traumatized.
One great horned owl was taken from its nest as a juvenile by a man who kept her in his backyard, feeding her hot dogs, hamburgers and bologna.
The poor diet stunted the owl's physical and mental development. She coos during the day instead of at night. The owl, which is hunched over from a bone disease, is given chicken eggs to sit on to satisfy her maternal instinct.
"We could have her sit on anything. We could give her plastic Easter eggs and she would be happy," Huselton said.
Most of the animals that come to the center, brought by concerned residents or construction workers, are in much better shape. Some stay as a little as two weeks - just long enough to be checked out, exercised and released.
Peter Galvin, a biologist at the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, applauded the work of wildlife rehabilitators even though the group has often been at odds with the state and federal authorities that handle wildlife.
"The main thing about wildlife rehabilitators, they are extremely compassionate," he said. "This huge effort goes into rehabilitating animals, but we need to look at ways to prevent them from being injured in the first place."
Both he and Huselton agreed that as development continues pushing into untouched desert areas of the state, the number of calls for injured animals will only escalate.
"As a society, we are creating situations where wildlife will have a high mortality. Some of the roads that are being punched into the areas north of Phoenix . . . It's a guarantee of a killing field," Galvin said.