Sharnelle Fee, a former paralegal who founded the Wildlife Center of the North Coast and dedicated much of her life to helping animals, especially seabirds, died Sept. 14. She was 68.

The wildlife center announced that Josh Saranpaa, Fee’s understudy for nearly eight years and assistant director for the last year and a half, would take over as director.

“I spent the last eight years learning from her,” Saranpaa, 23, said of Fee, adding he thought of her like family.

For the last five years, Saranpaa said, he’s been the only other licensed animal rehabilitator. Fee trained him as if he was taking over, he said, but the expectation was he’d leave and go to college. But life took a different turn, Saranpaa said, and he’s happy to be doing what he loves at the wildlife center.

The center will soon announce a celebration of life for Fee, who is survived by a brother in Dayton.

After spending a quarter century as a paralegal at Davis Wright Tremaine in Portland, Fee took a sabbatical in 1991. She started volunteering with the owl rehabilitation program at the Oregon Zoo, which Fee said sparked her interest in wildlife.

For the next eight years, Fee balanced her career and volunteer work with the Audubon Society of Portland, a turtle rehabilitation program in Beaverton and even weekends at the Avian Medical Center in Lake Oswego, where she learned surgical skills.

Fee eventually became licensed by the state and federal governments to rehabilitate animals out of her home, and applied for nonprofit status to start a wildlife center. After a divorce, the death of her father and hip replacement, Fee sold her house in Portland, left her job and made her way to Olney, where she had purchased 105 acres.

In a 2008 interview, Fee said she moved to the North Coast to help seabirds.

“They’re challenging because most of them live way out in the ocean,” she said. “If they’re in on land, they’re not only out of their element, but they’re in bad shape and so it’s difficult to get them back into condition, treating their wounds.”

Her pet project at the wildlife center has grown to handle between 2,000 and 3,000 animals a year, mostly birds. Saranpaa said the center has more than 100 murres, a penguin-like bird of the cooler northern oceans found all along the West Coast, that have been washing up on beaches. The wildlife center’s speculation is that the murres are having a harder time finding food in warm ocean temperatures.

The center has more room for birds, he said, but they are asking people to bring the birds to the center, which is short on staff and volunteers.

The center receives no direct government funding, other than a small grant it applies for from Cannon Beach. It depends largely on donations and volunteers, with only Saranpaa and another part-time staffer.`

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