An advocate at heart

I’m an advocate at heart. Working at MARS allows me to be an advocate for wildlife and, during my professional life, an advocate for people.” – Pearl McKenzie, Vice-President, MARS Wildlife Rescue Centre

Pearl McKenzie is the definition of an advocate. Whether she’s defending the rights of abused victims in issues of family violence; developing provincial legislation on adult guardianship; or working with other volunteers to build a wildlife rescue centre, Pearl’s professional and retired life is all about creating change.Pearl McKenzie

“In the early 1970s, I was recycling newspapers and photographing the bulldozers in the Coquitlam River where fish were dying,” says Pearl about her affinity for nature and wildlife. “I’ve always been actively interested in issues of environmental protection.”

Driven to act
Over the years, Pearl’s interest has carried over into an admirable amount of concrete action.

While running her community legal information and advocacy office in North Vancouver, Pearl ended up sitting on several BC and federal task forces. She also delivered workshops for health care workers in relation to new legislation she spent well over a decade implementing.

Happenstance animal encounter
It wasn’t until Pearl and her husband relocated to the Comox Valley in 1997 – the result of her quest to find the “best place to  live in the province” – that a jaunt through the woods along Oyster River helped steer her into the next advocacy challenge.

“As I was walking along the beach that day, I met a snowy owl and was able to get unusually close,” Pearl explains. “About a month later, I read in the paper that Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) released a successfully treated owl.”

Though Pearl would not know for certain if it was the same owl, it did prompt her to visit MARS and offer herself up as a Board Member with experience in both education and fundraising. She was, unquestionably, being humble, though the following years did prove admittingly “intense” in its challenges.

Steep learning curves
“Babes in the woods” is the term Pearl uses to describe her team’s innocence and naivety when in 2016 they began planning to build a new visitor building on their 11-acre Merville location.

“Our group had just built a wildlife hospital and very specialized recovery buildings, but we were totally unprepared for the many costly and complicated requirements of constructing a building designed for public gatherings of more than 30 people.  It was a formidable challenge, but we very much wanted a home for our education program to reduce human-caused harm to wildlife. Our planning also included a gift shop for locally-made goods, which has provided a much-needed source of income that helps with the costs of our burgeoning wildlife caseload.”

Fast-forward a few years and through a domino series of hurdles and learning curves – from finding available builders and an architect during an Island-wide construction boom, to navigating the intricate legalities of fire protection measures and soaring material costs – the new MARS Wildlife Visitor Centre officially opened in June 2019.

Community endeavour
“I think we communicated Maj’s vision, and I feel like we walked in her footsteps by working together as a community,” says Pearl of the original founder, ‘Maj’ (Mary Jane Birch), who passed away in 2015. “When we finally opened, I wanted to hug every person there because if any one of them were missing, the project just wouldn’t be there. I feel an incredible sense of gratitude to be a part of this.”

“Being part of this” encompasses a wide range of individuals and organizations, including the Island Coastal Economic Trust. From professionals who offered up their services pro bono, to unassuming locals, like the 9-year-old girl who donated $240 from her lemonade stand earnings. MARS’ realization is a testament to what community collaboration can create and a validation of their resilience as an organization, particularly over the past few pandemic and avian flu years.

“MARS is a unique organization,” says Pearl. “There is so much work to be done, and yet there are no power struggles. We share the same mission and philosophy about rehabilitating wildlife then releasing them back into the wild. People come from all kinds of different politics, religions and values, but we don’t talk about all this – it is really about being a team.”

Leading with values
Like with all successful teams, strong leadership is required, and Pearl helps set this direction with a marked sense of conviction (or what she calls “stubbornness”).

“I often use the analogy of the train leaving the station,” says Pearl of her advocacy endeavours. “There is so much left behind in our society. I think about that with MARS’ wildlife patients and with our economy that is based on resource and growth. I ask myself: what is left behind?”

For Pearl and her work over the decades, what is left behind is a legacy of clear vision and strong values. When the two come together, it’s not only those at risk who benefit. It’s us all.


Pearl is currently working on developing displays in the Visitor Centre that encourage discussion about how-to live-in harmony with nature.

Get in touch with Pearl
(778) 428-1990


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