It’s been five years since Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society founder Maj Birch passed away, and those closest to her are reminded daily of her impact on helping wildlife on the north Island.
Pearl McKenzie, vice president of the Merville-based organization says their founder and friend not only created a vision for assisting wildlife but also for educating those within the community.
“We look around MARS and I think about how pleased she would have been. She embedded a vision within us, but not only a vision, but an inspiration.”
Birch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Oct. 6, 2015, her 66th birthday. She passed away about six weeks later.
At the time of her death, MARS had purchased property for their new location – 1331 Williams Beach Rd. McKenzie notes Birch was involved with clearing invasive plants and some of the preliminary planning but did not see any of the building or infrastructure on site.
The original MARS location (owned by Birch) was not far away from the present property. She was selling the property as she was planning to retire but wanted to continue her work on the board. She lived on the three-acres with her husband, which is where years ago, she earned the reputation of rescuing and rehabilitating animals.
She gained permits from Canadian Wildlife Service for migratory birds and permits for raptors and mammals from the BC Ministry of Environment.
In 1995, she officially registered MARS as a non-profit and the organization began to grow. Birch trained volunteers, and in 2005, they hired their first paid staff member. McKenzie says Birch was always clear about its purposes and mission: education then rehabilitation.
“She wanted to mitigate the harm we’re causing. In the early ’90s, almost all of the patients MARS received were people-related due to population growth and development. (Animals) were losing habitat to vehicles, window strikes and power lines. The caseload was growing and Maj felt strongly about a permanent home for education.”
While McKenzie notes it is possible that similar work in the Valley could have happened without her, Birch truly laid down the grounding principles for rehabilitation work and placed education as a high standard behind everything she did. She says there were two sides to her friend: a warm, loving person but when it came to animal care, “she was steely-eyed like an eagle – she was very, very professional.”
On the same day Birch received her cancer diagnosis, she attended a community fundraiser, where she danced and socialized. That was her fun, outgoing side, she describes. When living on her property, she hosted a number of international students who worked for MARS and was constantly dedicated to assisting them.
“She didn’t get to have a life, but she never complained about it. With that kind of dedication, she was really looking forward to retirement.”
Looking at their facility now, McKenzie says the organization has accomplished everything which came out of their strategic planning session years ago. There is space for education, a flight pen and more on their 11-acre property. At any given time, there are more than 100 volunteers assisting the facility in a diverse number of roles, accounting for more than 24,000 hours of work last year.
“(Maj) inspires us to get it done. We have an amazing community and her values are what we continue to work by every day,” adds McKenzie.
For more information about MARS, visit marswildliferescue.com.