Recounting the history of Bidwell Wildlife Rehab wouldn't be complete without outlining the contributions of Marilyn Gamette. Marilyn was a prolific wildlife rehabilitator, was instrumental in the founding of both Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation and the Chico Creek Nature Center, and made a lasting impact our our community with her dedication and love for animals!
Sadly, Marilyn passed away in August 2020. On September 2, 2023, BWR volunteer Shelly had the privilege of sitting down with Marilyn's husband Bob and her son Greg to hear about her amazing life, what it was like growing up with wildlife, and how much she did for the wildlife of the north state and beyond!
Marilyn was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her father was a head mechanic for United Airlines, and his job moved the family to San Mateo when Marilyn was young. Bob: “When she was a small child, her father would come to her and say “Marilyn, put your hand out,” and there would be a worm, or a cricket, or anything! And that’s the way she learned all the animals. A baby bird fell out of the tree one time, and Marilyn said “Dad, what can I do?” He said ‘Let’s go get a book and find out what kinds of things it eats and they learned how to do that. He taught her all of that.” Greg: “She was a self-taught naturalist, really. She wasn’t afraid to pick up a big Jerusalem cricket or anything. She would go and do just about anything for the animals.” Bob & Marilyn met in 1958, and she was already rehabilitating animals. They married in 1960, moved to Chico in 1961, and Marilyn continued rehabbing. Bob: “I was amazed that she liked that kind of thing (wildlife rehabbing). I didn’t know anything about animals, and she was the one who taught me, all animals are important. Her dad taught her that.” Greg: “She really focused on environmental education. She did the outdoor school at Butte Meadows, the Boy Scout camp, she ran the Junior Duck Stamp program at the wildlife refuge, the Snow Goose Festival, pretty much anything around town that had anything to do with birds and wildlife.” Marilyn quickly earned a reputation in Chico (and beyond!) as someone who could help with animals! Bob: “She got calls from all throughout California, Oregon, and other places. People would call from all over.” Greg: “I can remember so many times getting calls in the evening, ‘Oh, we found this bird, what do we do?’ Plus she worked closely with a lot of veterinary offices, and she learned how to pin wings and all that.” Bob: “I’d go out and get the morning paper, and there would be an animal wrapped up on the porch. I’d tell Marilyn, and she’d take it in and take care of it.”
Bob and Greg Gamette in front of the Chico Creek Nature Center September 2, 2023
The Gamettes recall that Marilyn was constantly reading and learning about how to best care for wildlife. Bob: “My wife read constantly. She read everything there was to read about animals. She was a reader, that’s how you learn, by reading what someone else has experienced. That’s how she knew so much. Her dad taught her how to read and he’d find things in the yard, a little animal, and he’d say ‘Well, let’s go get a book and read about what we can do to take care of this animal.’ “ Greg: “As she got more and more involved with the all the education stuff, people at the wildlife refuge in Willows created a position just for her. She had a teaching credential, but she didn’t have a formal biological degree. They created a position for her as a naturalist out there at the wildlife refuge.” Bob: “She was the first one in the government, in the US, to hire a person and give them a title as a ‘wildlife rehabilitator’ or ‘wildlife specialist,’ and she became the first one in the nation, and a little bit later on they went on and soon there were 7 of them throughout the US.” Greg: “I can remember her going on so many different trips with various people from the refuge or people she knew through rehabbing, she went to Costa Rica, she’s been to almost every refuge in the northwest all the way up to Seattle and out to Wyoming, just everywhere.”
The Gamettes have three sons – Greg, Andy, and Geoff. Marilyn continued to rehab wildlife even as she raised three boys and worked as an elementary school teacher, and later working for Blue Diamond Almonds. Greg: “It’s passed on to me and my brothers. We all helped. I’m a fisheries biologist, and I wouldn’t have gotten into any of that if not for her. It wasn’t just birds and animals, it was all the plants as well. She helped me learn every wildflower that grows in the park here. She encouraged that in everybody. At a certain time of year, the phone would ring off the hook and there would be so many baby gray squirrels that we’d be raising. When I brought my daughter up [to visit], as a young girl, she would help bottle feed the babies with Grandma and it was always my brothers and I doing the same thing.” Bob: “Marilyn had a lot of energy. She was a very energized person. She couldn’t sit still very well.”
Marilyn loved and cared for all animals, and had a special place in her heart for owls! Greg: “It was the late 70s, there was a movement of outdoor education, and she knew so many people. I can think of a half a dozen specific birds that we had that weren’t releasing for some reason. We had a screech owl named Admiral that was permanently injured. I can remember one of the other owls that Mom really liked was a short eared owl that we raised and ended up releasing. Bob: “At one time or another, Marilyn worked with every variety of owl in this area. There are 13 different varieties of owls in this area, and she’s worked with every one. All the way from pygmy owls to the great horned owl.” Greg: “We had a little pygmy owl, it was a young one. When we got it it was a fledgling, the full feathers hadn’t come in yet. We had it and I remember her being concerned, she didn’t know if it could hunt on its own because it didn’t have any training from the parent owl. When it got old enough to be released, we took it all the way up the Upper Park Road and hiked out. It came right out of the carrier and flew up to a low branch. Mom said “well, I guess this is going to be okay,” we sat there and watched. It sat there, and I remember Mom saying “I’m worried that it won’t’ know what to do.” The owl looked down and all of a sudden it dropped off the branch and disappeared into the brush. It came flying up, and it ate a little baby blue belly [lizard] right in front of us.”
Marilyn spoke at many schools throughout the area, educating children on how to best care for and coexist with wildlife. Many people who attended school in Chico remember Checkers, the great horned owl that Marilyn would take to classrooms. Bob: “She took Checkers, the great horned owl, to the classrooms and schools and social clubs, and I was the person who would go along and take him out and feed him, I was the helper.” Greg: “Checkers was injured permanently, I think he was missing half a wing. Bob: “The police department called Marilyn, which they did quite often, even in the middle of the night. The police department said, ‘We got a fellow here and he’s scared to death.’ It was a trucker, and a bird flew into his truck and it won’t leave. Could you possibly help him? And I said ‘My wife will, she always does.’ The trucker came with a big truck, could barely make it down our street, and he parked that thing and he hopped out of the cab and said ‘It’s in there! It’s right in there!’ Marilyn looked in there and saw him, it was a great horned owl, and he was pushed up against the door. And she just walked up, put her glove on, put her hand in there, and he grabbed on, and out he came. We had him for quite a long time. That trucker was absolutely frightened to death, and Marilyn wasn’t frightened, she knew what to do. We had him for 28 years. He couldn’t be released.” Greg: “He lived in the aviary in the backyard when he wasn’t going to different places with Mom. When we would get other baby great horned owls or something, she would put them in with Checkers and I think it really helped with their rehab, learning what an adult acts like. He was pretty active, he would jump down and catch mice.” Bob: “Not everyone is allowed to do that [keep wildlife at their home]. In fact, they can get in real big trouble. Marilyn was given permission by the federal government and California state government to work with those animals, and that’s the reason she could do that. Both gave her permits to keep that owl so she could take him to classrooms and show kids what happened to him. They learned about owls that way.” Greg: “Checkers was really an ambassador.” What was it like having animals around the house? Greg: “It seemed normal to me. If friends came over, if it was feeding time, Dad having to cut up (frozen mice). We’d get to go feed the owls or hawks or whatever we had at the time. It just seemed normal to me, but I realize now how awesome it was to be around all that wildlife.” Bob: “We had two aviaries in the yard. We still have them! The main goal was to raise and release the animals. We had Checkers for so long because we couldn’t let him go.” Greg: “The other thing that sticks with me is her being able to make these determinations on what needed to be done with the bird or animal. Was it [an injury] a permanent thing? And if it was permanent, what’s going to be the quality of life for that animal? Is it right to keep it going? I had to learn the hard part was sometimes you had to euthanize some of these animals that were too injured and suffering, and she was all about alleviating the suffering.” Greg: “We raised thousands of gray squirrels, possums, raccoons, we had a fox at one point, a couple of baby deer.” Bob: “At one time or another we had everything you can imagine. I remember somebody bringing Marilyn two golden eagle babies, and we raised them in the aviaries until they got to the point that they were so big, they were going to knock those aviaries down. We took them all the way to Monterey where they went to an eagle sanctuary down there.”
Marilyn will leave a lasting legacy of compassion, care, and love for wildlife and all animals in the north state and beyond! The Gamette family spoke highly of Marilyn’s love for and dedication to animals. Greg: “She had people from the raptor center at UC Davis coming and finding out information from her, and consulting with her. I can remember making trips to UC Davis all the time to drop off birds.” Bob: “She read voluminously. Her mother and father were readers, so she picked up books and read about every animal we ever had, she read every book that could be read.” Greg: “Anytime anybody brought something to the house, she would never miss an opportunity to educate that person on what’s wrong with the bird. She’d do a little triage right there, and help them learn so maybe they would know if it ever happened again, what they could do better, what not to do, that kind of thing.” Bob: “People would call every hour, in the middle of the night, the police would call even. She never turned any animal away. Greg: “It was hard to leave and go anywhere because we had so many animals to take care of. We did a lot of trips, and we brought a lot of animals on trips with us.” Bob: “Marilyn taught me to live lightly on the land. When I was a young man before I met her, I would buy things and throw them away. Marilyn never did that.” Greg: “She was all about always bringing up the web of life. I can remember doing that with school kids, running a string between everybody and seeing how it’s all related. Lose one thing in the web and it falls apart. That was always a big teaching moment for her.”
Thank you Marilyn for all you did for the animals, the people, and the land! We will always remember you.