Good news for injured or distressed wildlife in the French Maritime Alps: a much-needed space dedicated to their rehabilitation and safe release is about to open this summer.

Creating a local wildlife care centre” – that was the shared dream of Hélène Bovalis and Jennifer Jolicard in July 2020 when RIVIERA BUZZ interviewed them about the activities of LPO, the erstwhile Bird Protection League which now covers all land-based biodiversity. At the time, Hélène was the vice president of LPO PACA, and Jennifer a vet nurse. The two women’s paths had only just crossed shortly before that but their joint passion for animals instantly connected them. Now, less than a year later, their wish is about to come true. If all goes according to plan, the Centre de soins pour les Alpes-Maritimes, or CSAM (pronounced “sesame”) opens in Saint-Cézaire-sur-Siagne this summer.

The need and importance of a local wildlife care centre is obvious. The department of the Maritime Alps is one of six that form the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA). Its location between the Mediterranean Sea and the westernmost Alpine mountain range makes it one of the most biodiverse regions in France, if not in the world. 8,744 animal species have been catalogued in the Mercantour National Park alone! Despite this wealth of fauna, there is currently no facility on the coastal strip and its hinterland to receive, treat, and rehab injured or distressed wild animals.

Crow in flight © Brian McInnis

Photo © Brian McInnis

This is about to change though. A massive effort, jointly spearheaded by environmental conservation organization PACA pour Demain, regional political leaders committed to the cause of biodiversity, and a group of professionals and volunteers determined to make a positive impact has laid the foundation for such a rehabilitation centre, the first of its kind in the department of Alpes-Maritimes (06). The premises have been found and are being prepared at this time, the managers and the consulting veterinarian are in the starting blocks, and – red tape and funding permitting – the centre will be operational as of this summer. And it will be responsible for a territory of no less than 4,300 km².

The new centre is located in Saint-Cézaire-sur-Siagne, about 15 km southwest of Grasse. After renovation and adaptation, it will comprise an admission area, a consultation room, two specialized “wards” for mammals and birds, and a room for employees and volunteers. Outdoor cages and aviaries complete the set-up.

What is the Purpose of such a Centre?

A wildlife rehab centre is neither a refuge nor a shelter. Its only purpose is to care for injured or distressed wild animals that are temporarily incapacitated and could not survive on their own in their natural environment. Also, only those animals are accepted into care whose veterinarian evaluation and diagnosis results in a good chance for survival and a successful return to the wild. The goal is to avoid making an animal dependant on humans, and release it as soon as possible after treatment in the environment most favourable for its reintegration.

Caring for baby birds © Natja Igney

Photo © Natja Igney

Who Spearheads this New Centre?

At the forefront of the initiative: Hélène Bovalis, now the president of PACA pour Demain, and project manager Jennifer Jolicard – the same two women who last year bemoaned the lack of such a centre in 06. They did not stop at just talking – they walked the walk. They lobbied for their project until they were finally heard… and not by just anyone but by two local politicians who could act, and would actually really do something: mayor Jérôme Viaud of Grasse whose longstanding policy of environmental renewal is one of the hallmarks of his tenure, and mayor Christian Zédet of Saint-Cézaire-sur-Siagne where the premises will be located.

Hélène BovalisHélène Bovalis’ background qualifies her well to preside over the CSAM project: a jurist by profession, she was Deputy Director of Sustainable Development from 2003 to 2008, in charge of economic and social issues, marketing and communication, and contributing to the electric vehicle deployment strategy. She also served as delegate for sustainable development in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in charge of the Group’s territorial energy transition and CSR policies. Her new role makes her the primary contact between the centre and its political, administrative, and financial shareholders.

Jennifer JolicardHélène’s partner in this new project is Jennifer Jolicard who has a degree in veterinary auxiliary and has worked in this capacity in several practices for 10 years. Her first experience at the ONIRIS care centre in Nantes in 2009 showed her the significance of biodiversity. She has been a longtime active volunteer in wildlife care. She is holds a certification in animal mediation and has been working in this field with the AnimaHumanis association. Jennifer manages the new centre and continues to put her vet-medical experience to good use.

Who is the Consulting Veterinarian?

The veterinarian care of the future “patients” at the centre has been entrusted to Dr. Nicolas Martinez. He is an associate veterinarian at the well-known Clinique Lingostière in Nice, and – as one of the few vets in France holding the relevant wildlife qualification – also the consulting vet for the land turtles of Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum.

About 300 sick, injured, orphaned, or distressed wild animals end up at his clinic alone every year, for the most part brought in by well-meaning people who found them on their walks, in their yards, or by the wayside. However, vets in France can provide first aid like fixing a broken wing, but are not allowed to keep wildlife in their clinic for ongoing treatment. If that is needed, the “patient” has to be taken to the LPO wildlife care centre in Buoux, currently the only facility in PACA licensed to ensure ongoing care. The five hour round trip is ascertained by volunteers who pay all expenses themselves. Dr. Martinez also donates his medical services, as none of the care he provides for wildlife is remunerated.

Dr Nicolas MARTINEZ courtesy CSAM

Dr Nicolas MARTINEZ courtesy CSAM

When Hélène Bovalis asked him if he wanted to take on the role of consulting veterinarian of the new centre, he did not hesitate. “As a veterinarian, being a player in the protection of biodiversity is an obvious moral necessity and the fulfillment of my childhood dreams of this profession. I am fortunate to be able to offer the technical and medical skills of our clinic to wildlife,” Dr. Martinez says. “It is very rewarding to share the rescue of a Golden eagle, great horned owl, buzzard, black kite, owl, swan, hedgehog, pond turtle, fawn, etc., with all the actors in this chain of solidarity. And it is a duty for nature and future generations.”

Who Are the Political Figures That Support the Project?

If Hélène and Jennifer considered Saint-Cézaire as a potential location for their venture, it was due to the community’s reputation of being sympathetic to the animal cause and helping associations to find a home here. One of them is the Terre de Soleil refuge which takes in farm animals and other furry and feathered creatures that don’t find a place in a traditional shelter.

When PACA pour Demain contacted Saint-Cézaire’s mayor Christian Zédet in its search for suitable premises, he immediately responded favourably by offering the rent-free use of a 120 m² building – a former schoolhouse – in a neighbourhood adapted to the purpose. For him, it is a win-win, as the organization will bring its expertise to the actions already at the heart of his community’s environmental politics, and can also educate local residents through conferences and activities.

As part of the conurbation of Grasse, Saint-Cézaire falls under the administrative jurisdiction of mayor Jérôme Viaud of Grasse. The young, forward-thinking city leader has been a fervent advocate of animal and environmental causes on a personal and political level for years and fully supports the project. To him, the protection of biodiversity is an insurance policy for our future:

Humans and animals share the same biosphere, which is now under threat and fragile. The development of urban and transport infrastructures and the intensification of agriculture have fundamentally changed natural habitats, causing the disappearance of many species. This [project] is a way, at our level, to recover the biodiversity in our territory, to better understand and create positive interactions between Man and Nature, and of course to educate and train everyone in this necessary cohabitation that has forced our civilizations, our history, and our society to live together.”

— Jérôme Viaud, Mayor of Grasse, President of the conurbation of Grasse, Vice President of the Department of the Alpes Maritimes

Another important and vocal backer for the project is Loïc Dombreval, Member of Parliament for the Alpes-Maritimes, and a veterinarian by profession. “The 102 wildlife care centres in France, and soon the centre in Saint-Cézaire-sur-Siagne, work for the general interest. These care centres are collectors of vital scientific data, such as those related to health surveillance for emerging diseases, the impact of climate change on endemic fauna, and the acclimatization of exotic species in our territory. They are proof that protecting biodiversity is not an expense but an investment in our well-being, our future and our children,” he underlines the scientific significance of the centre’s work.

What Has Kept Hélène and Jennifer Going?

Increased urban sprawl is not the only threat to wildlife. Many animals are impacted by even the most banal human activities, such as renovating a roof or a facade, trimming a hedge or mowing a lawn, cutting down a tree, or driving too fast. ”We are not alone on earth and we must share nature with all living things and respect them. Wildlife matters,” Hélène Bovalis insists.

Baby Fox eating Lupins © Brian McInnis

Photo © Brian McInnis

Crane © Brian McInnis

Photo © Brian McInnis

The pivotal moment of the previous months, Jennifer remembers, was right after the first meeting with the mayor of Saint-Cézaire, when it dawned on her and Hélène that they had just moved from dream to reality. “They had told us, ‘Go for it, we’re with you!’” And the memory that stands out for Hélène was when they visited the building the mayor had proposed to them: “Jennifer was looking around and I could see the sparkle in her eyes, a look that said ‘yes, this was a first concrete step and yes, it would be possible to make this old school a place to treat wild animals’.”

To this day, it is still a thorny journey through the thickets of French administration and bureaucracy which makes it impossible to predict the exact opening day – hopefully in summer, before the most critical time – but the project is finally well and truly underway.

CSAM stats

Why Does Wildlife Matter in the Big Picture?

Dr. Martinez sums it up best when saying, “Every animal we have to send outside our region is a loss for biodiversity here. I have children myself. I would like that the rich wildlife we have in our region today, is still here for them in ten or twenty years. I am not saying this as a veterinarian but as a father.” Speaking as a scientist though, he reminds us that “wildlife is part of the chain of life, especially in times where the globe is facing a triple threat of environmental issues, the impending climate crisis, and the current pandemic.”

It is now known that the same drivers that cause climate change and biodiversity loss are also responsible for zoonotic pandemics like Covid-19. The health of humanity itself is therefore directly intertwined with the health of the planet and the health of other species. The centre’s close association with other animal welfare and environmental organizations, as well as partners from the fields of science, education, and business is therefore key in raising and increasing awareness for this interdependence of man and nature.

Associated organisations

How You Can Become a Part of the Journey

Despite the high stakes, financial support from the government is more than meager. The total cost of the project, which amounts to €200,000, includes the equipment and preparation of the site and all operating costs for one year. The association still has a way to go to get to that amount, and is currently seeking subsidies from regional and local authorities. It will also soon launch an appeal for donations, sponsorships, and memberships to fund the project.

Jennifer Jolicard by Natja Igney

© Natja Igney

So while the pesky question of financing is still being resolved, Hélène and Jennifer gladly recognize just how large a village it took to even get to this point… Yes, the political decision makers were crucial in the process but there were so many more people, organizations, and partners involved who believed in their dream, and supported and encouraged them along the way. And both wish to express their gratitude to all who helped make this happen.

But there is so much more that needs to be done, and hands-on volunteers are more than welcome. All hands are needed on deck, and in various fields. If this speaks to you, feel free to contact Hélène Bovalis by email[at] . There is also a current job opening for an experienced vet clinic manager.

Visiting veterinarians or vet techs from other countries are also encouraged to spend a few weeks at the centre. Two professionals, one from Martinique, one from South Africa, have already expressed their interest, and such expertise is highly welcome. “Some countries are more advanced in wildlife care than France is. We are always interested in learning from them… for example, exchanging information with Australian vets who treated animals after the massive bushfires last year,” Dr. Martinez says. Other countries, like Canada for example, could bring their experience in fox or prey bird care to the table. Like Hélène and Jennifer did, the time to pass from dreaming to acting is now, not later. The world is at the point where waiting it out is no longer an option.

When man doesn’t have any more room for nature,
maybe nature won’t have any more room for man”

— Stefan Edberg

another grey line

All photos as credited and courtesy the photographer or the people themselves; special thanks to Brian McInnis for the use of his photographs [you can follow Brian on Facebook and Instagram]

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