Long before he rose to fame on Glee, Mark Salling had a unique passion that had nothing to do with the Hollywood scene: birdwatching.
The actor, who died of apparent suicide at 35 on Tuesday, was a member of the Echo Park Ornithology Club in Los Angeles. The president and founder of the organization, who goes by Stephi Duckula, tells PEOPLE that Salling joined the club when it first started, around 10 years ago — and even penned their theme song.
“He really enjoyed birdwatching a lot, and he really cared about birds,” she says. “He had a lot of animals at his house and he worked at an animal rescue when I knew him. We went birdwatching together.”
Salling’s death came just a month before he was to be sentenced to prison for possession of child pornography. He was arrested in December 2015 after LAPD’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit obtained a search warrant for his home in Sunland, California. Federal investigators say they found more than 25,000 images and 600 videos depicting child pornography on computers and thumb drives that belonged to Salling. The content depicted children as young as 3 years old being abused, according to court documents.
He pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography involving a prepubescent minor in October. After striking a plea deal December, he was due to be sentenced in March and expected to serve four to seven years in prison.
Duckula, who hadn’t spoken to Salling in several years, says she wants people to know that he “genuinely did care about wildlife and helping [out].”
“I didn’t even know he was an actor when I met him,” she says. “I just knew he really enjoyed playing music. I went to see his band play a few times, and he just genuinely enjoyed playing music and playing with birds. I knew he was a very devout Christian when I met him, and he also liked playing frisbee golf. He liked being in the outdoors and doing things like that.”
At first, Duckula didn’t know Salling was starring on the hit Fox show because the actor never mentioned it.
“He never said anything about it,” she says. “He did say that he started acting a little bit at one point — I had no idea he was on Glee. He just came in and sang and hung out with us and watched birds with us. ”
According to Duckula, Salling remained an active member of the club during his years playing Noah “Puck” Puckerman from 2009-15.
“He used to come to bird club even when he was on Glee,” she says. “He would come to the bird club and watch birds with us, and I didn’t even know the difference, really. He was a genuinely nice person and I was really surprised when I heard the things recently about him, but I don’t know anything about any of that stuff. I just know about birdwatching with him. He came on a zoo trip with the club, and he was just really into wildlife and watching birds. I really hope that people remember the good things about him.”
Coroner Assistant Chief Ed Winter told PEOPLE that Salling was found hanging from a tree in the area of the Los Angeles River in Sunland. He was pronounced dead at 9:00 a.m.
Salling’s attorney Michael Proctor confirmed the news of the troubled actor’s death in a statement to PEOPLE on Tuesday.
“I can confirm that Mark Salling passed away early this morning,” said Proctor. “Mark was a gentle and loving person, a person of great creativity, who was doing his best to atone for some serious mistakes and errors of judgment. He is survived by his mother and father, and his brother. The Salling family appreciates the support they have been receiving and asks for their privacy to be respected.”