Yudof pledges

by Emily Dalnodar

The fate of the University’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on the St. Paul campus is not as grave as it had seemed only days ago.
With the threat of eviction from campus looming over their shoulders, center officials received their first piece of good news in more than a year Wednesday when University President Mark Yudof declared the center would be saved.
“They’re not going to be evicted under my watch,” Yudof said at a media briefing.
Yudof also said the University would help resolve issues surrounding a new home for the 19-year-old center and fulfilling student organization criteria that might have ousted the group.
“I think this is an appropriate reaction and an appropriate direction for the University to take. We have a lot of negotiation and a lot of talking to do now,” said Kate Johnson, chairwoman of the board of directors for the center.
Building officials condemned the center’s current home, the old anatomy building, in 1996. Yet, they remained there because of several extensions which the University granted. The most current one expires March 1.
The University had promised to help locate a new space for the center, but no arrangements were made, Johnson said. With the threat of losing their home, the center’s situation got even worse.
On Feb. 12, Johnson received a letter from various department officials. In the letter, they declined to lease the center a new space on campus because the center didn’t fit certain University criteria. This meant that on March 1, the center and all the animals would have no place to go.
While there is no official committee to discuss plans for the center, several University departments are involved in the process. But, officials said there has been little contact on the issue.
“It’s been like that for two years,” Johnson said of the communication and decision-making.
Officials also said in order to fit this certain criteria, the center would have to fulfill several requirements.
“I would like to be able to help them, but the leadership of the organization has to meet some of the University’s requirements to be able to remain on campus,” said David Thawley, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, who is also involved in the process.
The requirements all stem from the center’s status as a student organization on campus. The two main problems are that no University students sit on the center’s board of directors and that the center doesn’t carry insurance, said McKinley Boston, vice president for Student Development and Athletics.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center was founded in 1979 by a volunteer group of students mostly from the College of Veterinary Medicine, who wanted hands-on experience and a place to help injured animals.
The first few years of operation, the center cared for fewer than 100 animals a year. Today, they provide free medical care for more than 5,000 animals a year. They are fully funded by outside donations.
But low student involvement has hampered their status as a student organization and freed the University from obligation to provide them with a new space.
“Although it started off as a student organization, and no one has tried to change that, it’s not like that anymore. To be a student organization you need to have a large number of participating students,” Thawley said.
Because of the type of student organization they are — Registered Student Organization — they must also provide their own insurance.
This classification means that they have no direct relationship with the University, are not supported by a school or college or do not have a University staff advisor. They also manage their own affairs, including liability insurance without any University oversight.
Currently, the center carries no insurance, and while the University does not provide it for them, the University is assuming full responsibility should anything happen.
“Any accident that happens in the building or if someone gets bitten, the University would clearly still be responsible; the University is assuming a liability risk,” Thawley said.
The center is looking into insurance options at this time to meet this requirement, Johnson said.
Other demands made on the wildlife center to keep a place on campus would have them find a school or college within the University to sponsor them, Johnson said.
Meetings are planned in the near future to discuss the College of Veterinary Medicine’s possible support.
“One thing is for sure, we are not going to close,” Johnson said. “This is the busiest season of the year because all the babies will be born in the next two to three weeks. There is no way these animals will be put out to fend for themselves.”
If, after the upcoming meetings, the University decides to provide a new space for the center, there are three possible sites on campus that a new building could be constructed.
If not, the center would have to move off campus and become an independent organization.
But Yudof said the situation would be worked out and the group would not be forcefully evicted. One suggestion he had was to make it an addition to the University’s Medical School or Raptor Center.
— Staff Reporter Chris Hamilton contributed to this report