Hidden Gems in Our Favorite City: Paul Hahn, Wildlife Learning Center

Julia Wasson co-authored this post. Cathy and Julia are long-time teachers and native Angelenos who love to share the hidden gems in our favorite city. In this series, we interview local heroes whose passions and work inspire us.

Are people born with an animal-loving gene? Paul Hahn, co-founder of the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar with his partner, David Rihern, thinks we are! The Wildlife Learning Center is an intimate and beautifully maintained facility where families can view and interact with rescued animals, birds, and reptiles. Wildlife Learning Center is great to visit for field trips, birthday parties, and families. Here, we interview Paul Hahn about his love for animals and Wildlife Learning Center's contributions.

Paul withEinstein the Tawny Owl, Photo: Ariell Brown ariellbphoto.com

What started you working with animals?
David and I like to joke that we were born with an animal-loving gene. When we were children we wanted to study animals, flip over rocks to see who was underneath, and study birds more than other kids did. Plus, I was raised in the Midwest near woods and ponds, and my father was an outdoorsman. He set the stage. At 27, I moved out here with my wife and finished school. I feel that I brought the Midwest rural-ness with me to L.A.

How did you start Wildlife Learning Center?
This whole thing started when I met David in chemistry class in college. We were both animal nuts; we had pets our whole lives, collected things, cared for other people's animals. As soon as we met, we started rescuing animals. A teacher friend of David's asked us to come bring animals to school for kindergarten, talk about biology at a level kids could understand. We were asked to start an after school enrichment program.

How did it grow?
We started very small. We kept animals in a one-car garage and on David's apartment balcony. We started visiting schools. By the time we graduated, we had more work than we could handle just moving animals into the world for educational opportunities. We were in Pasadena for about ten years, and here at this facility in Sylmar about seven years now. We have nine other biologists working with us. We have 55 different species, 120 different individual animals.

Do you keep animals at home too?
I have an 80-pound black lab and six-pound Chihuahua at home. As a child I kept rattlesnakes, giant 5' monitor lizards, an African gray parrot. I rescued a lot of birds even before this started. I had a dozen pets at a time -- western fence lizards, skink lizards, bull snakes, spiders, and praying mantids.

What do you feel is your biggest contribution?
A lot of city kids don't get the exposure to nature I was lucky enough to have. If I hadn't had that exposure, I would never have tapped into that passion. City kids need more than video games and television. My greatest satisfaction is when I see that spark of excitement. Children come from all over L.A. and their eyes just pop out of their heads when they make a connection with an animal, and they want to talk to us afterwards. I feel, 'I may have touched a life here.' We also help teach compassion for animals. When people meet animals that might be considered fearsome or scary -- people have their phobias -- meeting the animals here can change that. The interaction changes how people think about the world. We went to a birthday party years ago and brought a lynx. A woman petted it, and she said, "I have a lynx coat on order and I can't do that now, the coat is much more beautiful on him."

Paul with the Fennec Fox, Photo Ariell Brown ariellbphoto.com

What influenced you?
Fishing and hiking trips with my father, exploring nature, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom -- that show was huge for me as a youngster.

Was there a particular experience that helped shape you?
One Halloween when I was about eight and living in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, my dad and I went to a pond as it was drying up. Catfish were flopping around in an inch of water. They were trying to flip to deeper water, desperately fighting for their lives. I spent a day and night rescuing catfish and placing them in another pond. I couldn't even stop to go trick or treating. I had to save the catfish! This gave me a sense of great satisfaction.

What's the most unique animal you have here?
Lola, the two-toed sloth. People drive hundreds of miles to meet her. We've had people cry in our office. We have a rainforest room for her. She lives by herself; unlike monkeys, who live in families, sloths are solitary.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?
With biology degrees we could have made good money, but we chose to do this. We have had ten major failures and hundreds and hundreds of smaller failures. At another facility we had a fire and lost many animals. We thought we were finished. It crushed me to lose those animals, and I can't think about it now without wanting to cry. We have had to learn how to run a non-profit during a recession when people with for-profit businesses are failing. During a budget crisis we lost a big contract with LAUSD, and had to ask our families for money.

What would you want children to know about following their dreams?
Kids should know that you might have to ask yourself, what else do you want to do? I don't want to do anything else even though I have a lot of other skills. And you must persist continuously through difficult times. When you feel you can't take it any more, even for one more day -- you may have to feel like that for five more years.But if you are passionate about your dream, you can put up with negative elements. We are big proponents of education here, but we have learned a lot on our own -- we want to hire people who are lifetime learners. I have learned more biology since I graduated than I did getting my degree. That hunger for learning motivates us -- everyone here would agree. I am constantly talking to people who know more than I.

How do you see your work going forward?
I want to see this place go on forever -- to be an old man and see it grow into a giant beautiful thing lasting into perpetuity.

Boomer the SIberian Lynx, Photo Ariell Brown ariellbphoto.com

Daisy Mae, Reticulated Python, photo Ariell Brown, ariellbphoto.com

What is your favorite part of the day here?
Walking around and seeing kids or families really happy, really enjoying themselves, all smiles, parents and young kids. Even more than the animals, I like to see people interacting. My favorite animal here is a little baby monkey who spent a year in the office. I sit at my desk and say hello to Zeuss, the owl who lives in a hollow trunk on the filing cabinet next to my desk. The alligators are so prehistoric and cool.

Zeus, the Western Screech Owl, native to California, Photo: Ariell Brown ariellbphoto.com

Is there an animal here that is special to you?
Kingston is a baby monkey, we got him the day he was born from a facility that couldn't take care of him any more, and neither could his mother. Like a human baby, a monkey has to be fed, loved, and cuddled. Danielle volunteered to take care of him, and took him home with her.

Danielle, how was it raising a baby monkey?
When he was first born I had help, feeding him Enfamil every two hours, like a human baby. Now he sleeps eight to nine hours a day. His first birthday was at our annual fundraiser. My mom and grandma had a whole separate birthday party with 50 family and friends, a banner, a monkey themed cake. People donated money to add to an enclosure. He's a squirrel monkey from the Central American rainforest. He goes to the bathroom all over the place. We tried diapers but he got diaper rash. Being able to spend time with an animal like this wouldn't have happened at a larger zoo or facility, and is one of the special things about Wildlife Learning Center.

Steve the Savannah Monitor Lizard, photo Ariell Brown, ariellbphoto.com

Did you know?:
Sloths in the rain forest move so slowly that algae grows on their thick fur. As they hang in trees, they fool predators because the sloths look like a ball of moss.