Director takes sanctuary beyond shelter with conservation education

Maybe you've got problems on the job these days, but at least the jackasses you work with don't bite you.

Sandra Salinas didn't get off so easy. Still, hostility at the office hasn't stopped Salinas from advancing: She worked her way up from volunteering at Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary -- where she had that early, painful encounter with a snippy donkey -- to serving as the preserve's executive director. Today, Salinas is overseeing the sanctuary's transition from safe harbor for abandoned birds and barnyard animals to both a shelter and an educational center that partners with the Nevada Department of Wildlife to teach locals about keeping wild animals in their natural habitats. And despite, or perhaps because of, those unusual animal encounters, Salinas said she's found her calling.

Salinas, who moved here in 2004 from San Francisco to seek better job opportunities and assist an ailing sibling, also continues to work part time as a consultant in her first career of human resources and staffing.

Question: What was your first experience as a volunteer at Gilcrease?

Answer: I had my sleeve hanging and my arm out a little as I stood next to one of the animals' areas, and a donkey grabbed my whole hand. At first, when I saw what he'd done, it was almost like I stepped out of my skin. I was like, "Is that my hand in that donkey's mouth?" This donkey was not letting me go. (Founder) Bill (Gilcrease) and (board member) Robert (Murray) had to pry his mouth open to get him off my hand. It was very painful. It was like getting my hand shut in a car door.

Question: How long was it before you got up the courage to come back?

Answer: I came back the next day, with a Band-Aid on and a tooth mark in my hand. I came back because this is a very wonderful place. I was hooked. There is something about this place that makes you not want to leave. Even when I'm not working and I have some free time, I come here.

Question: Any other unusual encounters with the animals?

Answer: I've had birds poop in my hair. I've been bitten by cockatoos, parakeets, small parrots. I've been butted by a goat, slammed by a ram and butted by Benny the Bull. The swans especially bite really hard. I have a scar from Coco the cockatoo, who didn't want to go back in his cage. He bit down to the nerve endings in my thumb. For the longest time, my thumb made a squeaky noise when I would bend it. But they're just being animals. The experience with the donkey was a good lesson, because all animals bite, and we tell kids that on tours. Even though they look cute and adorable, they bite. And these are rescued animals. They can be unpredictable to begin with, and we can't assume they're coming from a happy place.

Question: How did you go from volunteer to executive director at the sanctuary?

Answer: It was an unplanned gift. I really wasn't looking for anything when I volunteered here. I didn't have any expectations for my future. I was working with a nice company and I just wanted to volunteer. After a couple of years, Bill and (son) Oscar (Gilcrease) nominated me for the board, and I accepted, because I knew the sanctuary had big opportunities. After serving on the board, I applied for associate executive director and got the job. After a year, they promoted me to executive director, and I began the job on Aug. 1. I changed my lifestyle to take this job, but if you have that passion, or intuition is telling you to try something, you have to take that leap of faith.

Question: Would you recommend volunteering as a way for people to find work?

Answer: Absolutely. I've met several people in my nonprofit class at UNLV who started as volunteers and now hold big-title jobs. If you volunteer for something that interests you, sometimes it cultivates itself and grows. People looking for work have to be creative. Networking and getting connected can lead you to a nice path for the future.

Question: Talk about some of the changes you're planning at the sanctuary.

Answer: It has been changing steadily, with increasing educational opportunities. For the last 35 years, the sanctuary was an opportunity for schoolchildren to gather eggs out of the chicken coop, take them back to the classroom and have a life-study project. There was also an element of education with schools coming on field trips, but they would go on a self-guided tour. They didn't understand the rescue part or the sanctuary's history or the pioneering Gilcrease family. Now we have a tour that explains the past, present and future. It gives people a chance to see how the sanctuary impacts the community. It's not just an opportunity to look at birds, but an opportunity to see a historical farm and to learn about the conservation of animals.

Question: You recently took in an abandoned newborn mule deer who's now three months old. How does she fit the expanded mission?

Answer: We've obtained a special permit to keep the deer, Bambi, as an educational species. She'll be working with us in our N2 Wild program, which is a project we've started with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. We don't know any particulars about her story except that someone left her at our door. N2 Wild will teach kids to keep wild animals wild, not to take them in, not to feed them McDonald's french fries. The department of wildlife will offer lectures as well.

Question: Do you have a favorite animal-rehabilitation story?

Answer: Kami the scarlet macaw came to Bill and Oscar five years ago. Kami was raised by a husband and wife. They went through a divorce, and the wife got angry at the husband. She went after the bird, pinned her between the washing machine and the wall, took a broom handle and broke her wing. The husband took Kami to a vet, and the vet was going to amputate the wing. He didn't want that to happen so he brought Kami to Oscar. She can never fly again, but she talks and she's happy. She has a boyfriend named Rocco. They fight over strawberries.

We also have a "talk-time" program where volunteers talk to the animals. It keeps the animals social and connected with humans. That's part of rehabilitation. They (the birds) are going to be here 80 to 100 years. We can't just let them sit in a cage and do nothing. These are interactive animals with the mental capabilities of 3-year-old humans. They really do need someone to talk to them, and they really do respond to it.

Question: What makes you feel successful on the job?

Answer: We come from a position of need, so when I find a vet who agrees to work with the animals, or every day that someone gives us supplies, or every time a corporation gives a donation that recognizes the need for this sanctuary, we're doing better than we did yesterday. They're little steps, but every one of those steps is important. Animals are on this planet breathing the same oxygen we are, and they deserve to have somebody take care of them when they can't take care of themselves.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at or 702-380-4512.