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Embracing the wild side of life

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Gary Mitchell is the founder of Planet Rehab, a nonprofit organization that rescues many endangered species including birds, tortoises and goats. Mitchell’s sun conures, Kiki and Koko, sit on his shoulder as he interacts with the other birds in the aviary. / photo by Meghan Attaway

Gary Mitchell is the founder of Planet Rehab, a nonprofit organization that rescues many endangered species including birds, tortoises and goats. Mitchell’s sun conures, Kiki and Koko, sit on his shoulder as he interacts with the other birds in the aviary. / photo by Meghan Attaway

Gary Mitchell and Planet Rehab’s fight to save the environment

by Emily Lau
photography by Meghan Attaway

A bright orange sun conure rests on the wooden makeshift swing and chirps at her partner bathing in the stone bird bath. In a flash of orange and red, she darts to the bath, splashing the other bird with her abrupt landing. She begins to playfully nip at his golden feathers when they hear the harsh screech of the metal door. A familiar voice calls out to them. “Kiki, Koko!” The two birds recognize their names and flock to Gary Mitchell’s open palm filled with seeds and grains.

“Hey, can someone take the tortoises to the front while I’m feeding the birds?” Gary says. Two volunteers pick up the three large tan sulcata tortoises lounging just outside of the metal aviary and move them to the front lawn of the one-story house. The lawn is bordered by a white picket fence that encloses the overgrown grass, which becomes the perfect meal for Gigantaur, Tortellini and Allen. The volunteers gently place the tortoises in the shady part of the lawn. It takes a while for the tortoises, who have just woken up, to recognize where they are, but they soon realize what time it is and begin munching on the tall blades of grass.

It is 9 a.m., and for Kiki, Koko, the tortoises and hundreds of other animals at Planet Rehab, it is feeding time. Kiki and Koko are sun conures, an endangered species threatened by habitat loss in South America and the pet trade industry. Gigantaur, Tortellini and Allen are sulcata tortoises, also an endangered species, but they are not alone. Some of the 350 animals that call Planet Rehab their home are in peril of becoming extinct, which Gary and his team hope to prevent.

Planet Rehab, a nonprofit environmental organization located in the quiet neighborhood of Dalepark Drive in San Dimas, is dedicated to raising awareness about nature and species protection. Gary has been the sanctuary’s executive director since he founded it in 2002. The idea for Planet Rehab emerged while he was listening to NPR’s “Science Friday,” a science and technology podcast, on a drive home. After hearing Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer talk about how many species were being affected by global warming, Gary remembers being horrified at the general lack of knowledge about global warming and the environment. “I thought, ‘Why is it that I am giving all of this money to all of these organizations, and I’m not even aware of all of this?’ So I decided to start an organization with the goal of making the public aware of what the environmental challenges are that we are facing,” Gary says. After finding a place in San Dimas that was zoned for animals, Gary and the few birds he owned became the first residents of Planet Rehab.

Protecting the animals and their habitats

Many of the current residents at Planet Rehab were rescued, and with more constantly being brought in every week, Gary always needs to be prepared for a possible unexpected delivery. “You really can’t set a schedule because all of a sudden, a baby squirrel is going to be left at your doorstep, or you’re going to notice there’s a bird that’s sick, or there’s an emergency, and you have to drop everything you had planned and go take care of that animal because that’s something that cannot wait,” he says.

Planet Rehab has a broad presence online, and many people contact Gary when they have an animal in need of help. With an extensive network of volunteers and community members, Planet Rehab often receives animals that need rehabilitation, whether it be a baby dove that had fallen out of its nest, or a stray dog with a broken leg. Some animals become permanent residents at the sanctuary, but many native animals are released back into the wild or adopted out to new homes.

Some animals are rescued from mistreatment and poor living conditions. Planet Rehab obtained Benjy the alpaca from his previous home in a small residential hobby farm in San Bernardino in February 2012. Benjy was extremely skinny and had not been shaved in a while, prompting Planet Rehab to take action. After arriving at Planet Rehab, Benjy did not stop crying for three days, and Gary later learned that Benjy’s best friend, a baby dwarf Nigerian goat named Buddy, was left behind. After negotiating, he was able to bring Buddy to live with Benjy at Planet Rehab, and the two did a “happy dance.” Today, they roam in the back pen area with two other goats, Gaia and Calliope, and share their bundles of grass at mealtime.

Other animal rescues are spontaneous and unplanned. While traveling to the store for supplies, Gary and some volunteers spotted a small shaggy white Shih Tzu running across the crowded street. After stopping to pick up the dog to prevent it from getting hit by a car, they visited nearby houses to search for an owner. After no success, they brought the dog, who was given the name Scruffy, to its new home at Planet Rehab.

Along with saving animals from immediate danger, Gary is also a strong advocate for protecting endangered species and their natural habitats. One of Planet Rehab’s largest campaigns is to protect the monarch butterfly population, which has been declining since 2012 with the increased use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Farms use poisons to kill any unwanted weeds, but in the process, they also destroy the milkweed plants that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on. Planet Rehab has aimed to raise awareness about more than 20 species of endangered butterflies, including the monarch butterfly. Its butterfly habitat houses different species of butterflies, caterpillars and their chrysalises. It is not rare to find a caterpillar munching on a nearby potted plant or a monarch butterfly fluttering near a milkweed plant. “That’s not that difficult of a thing, you plant milkweed, and you’ll help the monarch butterflies,” Gary says.

Planet Rehab is also spreading awareness about deforestation and ways to protect rainforests, particularly the Amazon in South America, from further destruction. Deforestation creates room to grow food for cattle, and Gary encourages people to eat less beef as the beef industry has been a major factor in the growing amount of toxins polluting the environment. He is also concerned about protecting the wildlife found in the Amazon, which holds more than a third of the world’s biodiversity. However, according to a 2015 United Nations report from the Climate Change Conference, more than 150 species become extinct every day as a result of logging and habitat destruction. “This freaked me out, that we’ve sped up the natural extinction rate by 1,000 percent,” Gary says.

Raising environmental awareness

While Planet Rehab is very involved in protecting animals and their habitats, it is also concerned about other environmental problems such as pollution and global warming. Planet Rehab’s other big campaigns include reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean as a result of discarded plastic water bottles. Plastic is made from oil, and oil corporations are the some of the largest corporations in the world, giving them lots of decision-making power, Gary says. “In my world, we are not run by the government, we are run by corporations. I made it my mission to teach corporations about the environment.”

Planet Rehab’s plastic water bottle campaign aims to reduce the amount of plastic waste that the bottles produce and urges people to use reusable alternatives. It started in 2008 after Gary attended a conference where oceanographer Charles Moore was presenting on ocean gyres that collect debris. Moore mentioned how bottled water is a huge contributor, with only 20 percent of plastic bottles being recycled and 80 percent ending up in landfills or being washed into the ocean. The plastic then converges in the ocean to create a gyre of debris known as the great Pacific garbage patch. “We could see the death of the oceans in our lifetime and that caught my attention,” Gary says.

To help spread the news about ocean pollution, Gary wrote a song about the dangers bottled water has on both humans and the environment called “Just Put Down The Bottle,” which he performs regularly at community and Planet Rehab events. “Our response to this problem is probably a little different than other organizations,” Gary says. “We chose a musical response because it’s easier for us to teach people about this with a song.”

Planet Rehab also participates in climate rallies as a part of its clean energy campaign. The rallies tackle the issue of gas fracking, particularly methane gas. Originally promoted as an environmental and cleaner method of energy production, fracking has caused huge methane gas spikes and increased the risk of earthquakes in the Los Angeles area. Planet Rehab pushes people to transition to use a renewable energy source and move away from products that use fossil fuel.  “The bottom line is we don’t need fossil fuel,” Gary says. “Our dollars are literally tied to the oil industry and that is one of the reasons why we are ranked second to last in our understanding of the environment.”

Planet Rehab has a butterfly experience where visitors can interact with multiple butterfly species, including the endangered monarch butterfly. / photo by Meghan Attaway

Planet Rehab has a butterfly experience where visitors can interact with multiple butterfly species, including the endangered monarch butterfly. / photo by Meghan Attaway

Making a dream into a job

Gary has loved animals since he was young. Growing up in Torrance, California, he remembers playing in the swamp behind his school, where he would find animals such as tadpoles, salamanders, toads and butterflies roaming freely. However, he can only reminisce about those times. “It was so different then than it is now,” Gary says. “It only makes sense that because of us burning carbon, that it’s going to affect animals. There’s so few of them now, it’s really devastating.”

Before maintaining Planet Rehab became his full-time job, Gary worked in facility maintenance in 1992, where he worked with engineers, janitors and landscapers in areas that use toxic chemicals. There, he began to learn how chemicals affect the environment during a time when there was less general knowledge about global warming. Gary realized he wanted to work with environment protection.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a standard sustainability credential for buildings, began to emerge during this time, and Gary helped companies prepare for LEED certification by making sure the building met the quality standards. Even though it was not a part of his official job description, Gary also began to teach others about the environment. “I started marrying my passion for the environment with my job, and then just kept on using that,” Gary says. He was later hired by Metro Maintenance in 2008, where he helped many major corporations such as Disney and Google as their safety director. He also served as their director of sustainability and helped major corporations with sustainability programs like recycling and composting. During this time, Gary took the opportunity to also educate people about other environmental problems such as ocean pollution and how it was killing marine wildlife. He worked with The Tonight Show to install water filters and help create reusable canteens, which reduced the daily amount of plastic water bottles used. Through this effort, Gary was able to save them 25 cases of bottles a day. “I just combined my passion for taking care of the environment with what my job was,” Gary says.

Gary also worked for NBCUniversal under a maintenance contract for three years. There, he says he helped double the recycling and composting by creating branded reusable canteens. At one point, Gary had a six-figure income before his salary was cut in half during the economic crisis in 2008. NBCUniversal decided to take his job in-house, but Gary still wanted to work to protect the environment. He then discussed plans to start an organization with his now-husband, Carlo Rios, to combine his passion with what his job was. “Carlo really pushed for the idea,” Gary says. “He has been instrumental in the last five and a half years we’ve been together and really helped Planet Rehab grow a lot.”

Now, both he and Carlo have more than 40 years of combined experience with addressing environmental concerns. They continue to work to create bridges between the environmental protection community and the public.

Community outreach

Caring for more than 350 animals is not an easy task for just Gary and Carlo. Planet Rehab enlists the help of more than 200 volunteers to help maintain and care for the sanctuary and its animals. Volunteers range from high school students looking to fulfill required community service hours, to college students wanting to pursue a career in a similar field. Whatever their reasons for volunteering are, most volunteers learn to appreciate nature and understand the current environmental crisis.

Volunteers James Tweten and Alexandria Villegas feed white bread to parakeets in one of the aviaries. Tweten and Villegas’ duties include feeding the animals at Planet Rehab. The sanctuary depends on its volunteers to help with daily activities and maintenance of the property. / photo by Meghan Attaway

Volunteers James Tweten and Alexandria Villegas feed white bread to parakeets in one of the aviaries. Tweten and Villegas’ duties include feeding the animals at Planet Rehab. The sanctuary depends on its volunteers to help with daily activities and maintenance of the property. / photo by Meghan Attaway

James Tweten, a senior biology major with an emphasis in zoology from Cal Poly Pomona, has been volunteering at Planet Rehab for more than two years. He was in the middle of transitioning to going back to school after working when he wanted to find a place that dealt with animals. After searching the Internet, he was introduced to Gary and Planet Rehab. James currently volunteers on Saturdays as Planet Rehab’s animal sanctuary coordinator and helps manage the new volunteers with their tasks of taking care of the animals. What began as a way for James to pass time during the summer soon became his passion, as he learned more about the sanctuary and its mission. “There were plenty of things I already had an idea of, but coming here, Gary has really emphasized how important the environment is to him, so it has caused me to think about it more than I probably would have,” he says.

Aurora Williamson, a high school student, has always wanted to help out with animals and she hopes to study biology in the future. After attending Planet Rehab’s Lunar New Year celebration in February, she became interested in volunteering. Aurora says she had helped her grandma at a non-profit organization for people with disabilities, and her experience there had sparked her love for volunteering. “I love feeling like I’m helping out a bit, so I jumped on this opportunity,” she says.

Planet Rehab also regularly hosts events on location and elsewhere in the surrounding communities to help raise awareness about their cause. The annual International Food Festival brings in hundreds of people to Planet Rehab in August to try different dishes from around the world, but with a small catch – all of the dishes are vegetarian. Gary says most people are surprised when they find out that vegetarian dishes can taste just as good as, and sometimes better than, dishes containing meat. Other community events include the annual Earth Day festival in April, when Planet Rehab puts on a full-scale musical that tackles different pressing environmental issues. This year, Gary wrote and directed “Planet Rehab in Neverland,” a Peter Pan-inspired musical that encourages people to support the fight to save the environment.

Community support is very important for a nonprofit organization that relies largely on donations and sponsors. Planet Rehab offers sponsorships, where donors can help provide for necessities such as food and shelter for the animals with monthly donations. Gary also gives presentations at schools throughout the San Gabriel Valley and although he often does them for free, he sometimes asks for a donation to help support the sanctuary. “We do as much outreach as we can,” Gary says. “We realized that we can’t really afford to do everything for free. We have more than 350 mouths to feed every day.”

A look into the future

Gary and Carlo have plans to expand Planet Rehab in three years – not in San Dimas, but in Costa Rica. Although Costa Rica is a small country, it is home to about 6 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity, which Gary wants to protect. Rainforests are being destroyed to make room for crop for cattle in the Amazon, but in the process, many natural habitats are also being damaged. Gary says he hopes to be able to acquire property in the rainforests and start breeding species that are on the brink of extinction and release their offsprings into the protected areas that will be owned by Planet Rehab. “One of the biggest challenges in Costa Rica is all of the Americans moving there, and so they’re developing,” Gary says. “Our goal is to go in to offer educational opportunities and give people the change to learn about species extinction.”

Planet Rehab is planning to travel to Costa Rica in August to begin making connections and setting up future tours. The educational tours, which will teach people about different environmental dangers, will help fund its move. Because of the lack of well-developed environmental education in the United States, Gary is frustrated and says the public is the least educated in the world. In addition to working to protect the animals, Gary hopes to offer educational opportunities and give people the chance to learn about species extinction and what can be done to prevent it. “This is the most important issue of our time, and sometimes it’s barely talked about at all,” Gary says. “We cannot make change unless we know what’s happening, and we are currently uninformed about the environment.”

The golden pheasant lives in one of Planet Rehab’s aviaries alongside parakeets and rabbits. Planet Rehab rescues hundreds of birds that originate from North and South America, Europe and Asia. / photo by Meghan Attaway

The golden pheasant lives in one of Planet Rehab’s aviaries alongside parakeets and rabbits. Planet Rehab rescues hundreds of birds that originate from North and South America, Europe and Asia. / photo by Meghan Attaway

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