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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Friday, Nov 1, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugDave Stives is an “animal whisperer” at Placerita, a rare and incredible human being who knows how to handle and care for any wildlife, especially if it is injured and needs help.

He has a special sense of the need that an animal has, even without seeing it directly. He seems to know in advance what its reactions will be and how one should approach it, and he never fails. I have deep appreciation and admiration for him. Many times after I asked a question on the phone, I hang up and say softly. “Dave you are a god!”

I had the opportunity to talk with him about this, and would like to share some of what I learned with you.

* * *

How did you develop this ability, Dave?

davestives1I was born in Pennsylvania, in the small town of Bradford, known for making Zippo lighters. I grew up on a farm, with horses, cows and chickens. We were also surrounded with woods, where I would escape as soon as I was free. The closest house was three miles away, so there were no other kids to play with. I caught every creature you can imagine, and learned how to care for them if they were injured.

My twin brother and I got into lots of mischief. We found a bear cub that we raised and a deer named Peanuts that we kept for many years. I had my first hawk when I was 8 years old. My dad and uncle raised red-tailed hawks, and I learned from their experiences. I was absorbing everything I saw and learning along the way. My whole family was involved with animal rescue, starting with my grandmother.

I learned the ability to care for animals by being around them all the time and observing them. My education is hands-on, and it was an easy decision to start to do rehab for different veterinarians.

I became a plumber to be able to support myself, but I have always had animals at home, often hawks and snakes. On the East Coast, we all had hawks to hunt but certifications did not exist. When I came to the West Coast, it was the beginning of licensing, and I became a master falconer. You have to study the written material then you take a test with Fish and Game. If you succeed, you get a permit to trap the bird.

davestives4I trapped my first bird, a red-tailed hawk, in Palmdale. It has to be a young passage bird with its first plumage. Mine was female, about 6 months old. The bird needed to be trained every day and released to hunt wild game.

How did you come to Placerita for the first time?

I had to do some plumbing work there, and I saw the way they were handling the hawks and the equipment, and I thought, Maybe one day, I could make a difference here. Meanwhile I started to work at Vasquez Rocks for two years and Hart Park for eight years as an animal keeper. It took a few years, but I finally got the job at Placerita 15 years ago, and now I am in charge of animal care for seven parks. I travel from one facility to the next, making sure all are in compliance with state and federal laws governing everything from the diet of the animal to their educational use including permits, handling, housing and first aid. This is all my responsibility as the Park Animal Keeper.

How do we get the animals for the parks?

I work with wildlife animal rehabilitators. If some wildlife cannot be released, they will be euthanized except if they can be placed in a park for animal educational purposes, where they will be properly cared for.

davestives3What do you like about your job?

Working with animals is always interesting.

What do you not like about your job?

I sometimes have problems understanding people when it comes to their ideas about animals.

You are really an animal whisperer. You know how to approach every animal and have them trust you. How is that possible?

It comes down to how you hold yourself. I learned that as a kid, you have to watch for this non-verbal language. That is how you learn to communicate with animals – the way you hold your posture, the way you look at the animal. They recognize and react to those cues, and it is different with each species of animal. So you have to be close to them and observe their behavior.

I get many calls for assistance from Animal Control, county and city parks (departments) and animal rehabilitators when they have a problem. Injured wildlife is a liability, so you have to remove the animal safely and in the best way possible.

I also have a personal life. I have been married for 28 years. I have two daughters and just celebrated the arrival of my first grandchild, Joslin.

I also have two dogs, five chickens and three hawks that I train every day. I like country music, and I am a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.

I keep my rabies shot very up-to-date, and they know me on a first-name basis at the hospital because I have been bitten by rattlesnakes 14 times.

In the 1980s I brought many rattlers to a college research program so they could extract the venom. They would pay me back by giving me rats to feed my hawks. It was a good deal and we all benefitted from this partnership.

davestives2I have rescued any animal that you can think of, and even some that seem dangerous.

The baby bear rescue was easy. Baby bears are taught by the parents to climb in a tree if there is danger and to stay there until the parent comes back. But this time, the parent did not come back. The baby bear was on top of a tree on a golf course, and people were starting to feed him sandwiches. That was not good. The baby was small, so we used a catch-pole to lift him out of the tree, and it was sent to Lake Tahoe to a bear rehabilitating facility.

The bobcat rescue was not as easy. It was caught in a live trap. I had to get him out of the trap to put him into a crate. I used a catch-pole to do that, but there was a certain amount of screeching involved – some was mine – and he was not a happy camper.

* * *

The story of Dave and Apollo is well known and loved in Placerita. Apollo is a Turkey vulture that had been hit by a vehicle in Virginia. A tendon in Apollo’s wing had been damaged, bringing her flying days to an end. Apollo was shipped west for treatment at a private facility in the Antelope Valley, where Dave helped with her care and training. Two years later, when the private facility went under, Apollo was moved to Placerita where she was reunited with Dave. It was love at second sight.

“She remembered me and trusted me, and she still follows me like a puppy dog,” Dave said of the black-feathered, red-headed vulture. “She has a serious crush on me. Works herself into a hormonal tizzy when I am near her enclosure during mating season. The rest of the year, she spins in circles and flaunts her tale doing a courtship dance.”

As you can guess, Apollo was misnamed and it was found much later that she was a female.

Why do you do this job, Dave?

To me that is part of my every day goal: to rescue wildlife and to put it back into the wild. We always have to try to rescue a wounded animal. You can never give up. If you save one animal that can breed next year, then you have done your job. They spend their life trying to survive to be able to reproduce and keep their species alive. We are not playing God; we are just trying to help them along so they can accomplish their mission.

* * *

I hope there still are children living close to the woods who are in the process of learning all that Dave did as a youngster.

Dave is a precious asset to Placerita, and we are grateful for the lives he saves and for sharing his gifts with us.



Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.


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1 Comment

  1. Really a good story enjoyed it a lot. He is a special person for sure!

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