Friday, November 29, 2013

Reasons to be thankful

Thanksgiving is a family holiday, a day of feasting and togetherness.  But it is also a perfect day to give thanks for all the good things that happened throughout the year.  And even though it has been a tough year with wildlife rehabilitation in that donations continue to dwindle and my costs go up accordingly, leaving us in an ever increasing financial bind toward the end of the year, I am focusing on all the incredible and good things that happened.

2013 started off with the usual litter of squirrel babies, except they were not orphans, their home had been destroyed because the tree their nest was in had to come down.  The mother was around, but so were some cats, and the home owner was not willing to babysit a basket filled with baby squirrels to keep the cats away and let mom relocate her babies.  I wish people would be more caring, I wish this man had taken the 30 minutes or so out of his day and helped the squirrel mother get her babies back.  But he didn't, and the mother squirrel suffered a huge loss and these three little ones started my season in early April.

I ended up with well over 22 squirrels for the spring season (and another 15 or so during round two in summer)  but also had some other house guests later on.  All total I took in well over 80 wildlife again.  This year I got only 3 orphaned skunks, all siblings, which were rescued by a kind young man.  Unfortunately he didn't leave a penny in donations and I was suddenly faced with the fact that I would have to come up with nearly $500 to raise these three, an impossible task since I do not have any means to generate additional income except for my Etsy shop, but sales have been very slow this year as well.  I had to put out an SOS call, "Adopt a Baby Skunk", on Facebook, and two friends responded which covered the cost of one and partially the second.
 Two more friends came through on my birthday with checks to help with the cost of these little stinkers, and in the end I only had to come up with about $150 out of our pockets...

But then two even more expensive babies arrived, wood chucks, also orphaned sibling, and the donations covered barely 20% of their cost.   Wood chucks run about $200 each to raise because they eat incredible amounts of fresh produce and suck down as much formula in one sitting as a 4 month old human baby.  The first one was brought to me within 24 hours after the woman had found it, but its sibling fell in the wrong hands.  "Cool pet", a young couple had all intentions of keeping the baby as a pet without knowing a thing about it, and only when it was about to die from hypothermia and starvation did they have the sense to bring it to a vet who treats wildlife and from there it came to me.  I was able to revive her and slowly got her shrunken stomach to expand, a drop of formula at a time, and her engines running again, and two days later I reunited her with her already much bigger sister who promptly beat her up before snuggling up with her, much happier now that her sibling was here.  The smaller one, which I named Chuckie, remained quite friendly towards me while I stopped touching her sister shortly after they both had been weaned.  The two were eventually successfully released in mid August and did not look back as they moved off.

On 4 July I got a call from police asking if I might be able to take a wildlife call since it was a holiday and Animal Control wasn't working.  An elderly woman wanted to do laundry, but when she opened the washing machine little black eyes were blinking at her.  She slammed the lid shut and weighed it with a heavy brick, and when I opened the machine I found one decomposing baby and one barely alive one sitting in the broth of the dead one.

 He came to when I put him in a tub filled with water to wash the stench and yuck off him.  A healthy dose of subcutaneous fluids finished the triage job, and he started eating that night.  He was never friendly, always ready to snap, head swaying from side to side like a Cobra, hissing and growling.  I fondly named him Shithead.  He grew quickly and I released him the end of July when he was well beyond the size rquirements for release.  I need all my fingers for my work...  Wildlife isn't supposed to get tame, we have to respect their wildness and work around it to avoid injury.

2013 was also the year of the Cottontail bunnies.
They arrived in droves, found anywhere and everywhere, and quite a few arrived after they had come in contact with lawn mowers and weed whackers.  The injuries were horrific, and sometimes all I could do was give pain medication and make the baby feel safe while it was dying.  This work can be emotionally shattering and very draining, and there are times when I ask myself why I am putting myself through the ringer over and over and over again.  The answer is always the same:  because I have the knowledge and training to help, and because I cannot walk away from an animal's suffering.

 Way too many younsters did not adjust once I could no longer tube or syringe feed them and had to rely on a bowl with formula instead.  But the ones I did raise successfully got to hop off into an Audubon Sanctuary where I had special permission to release my native wildlife.  It is a sight to behold releasing cottontails!  First they sit like statues, then they start to ever so carefully hop around, and then all of a sudden comes the mad dash and if I just blinked at the wrong moment they were gone...

These two are part of a litter of three that I am overwintering.  I doubt that they would make it through the winter because they are still quite small.  They are wild little guys, behaving like popping popcorn every time I open the cage to feed or clean them.

Some short-term residents were an adult squirrel that must have had a run-in with the side of a car tire but recovered fully.  She left a deer tick on me which gave me Lyme disease.  Luckily I found the tick on me and sought treatment immediately.  Another one was an immature Herring gull which police brought to me lying flat and lifeless in a large box.  The bird was awake but totally limp.  Two hours after emergency treatment the bird was standing, and the next morning I watched him take off like an F-15 in an amazingly steep climb up and over our roof, do a few figure 8s as he gained altitude and oriented himself, and then speed off.

But I also am thankful for several really cool wild encounters with a resident porcupine at the local Audubon sanctuary.  Many people, especially dog owners whose dog has returned with a mouthful of porcupine quills, want the porcupine dead.  They do not think, they just want revenge.

I was exposed for the first time at my mentor's rehab facility to a porcupine which needed long term rehabilitation.  It had a huge bald spot on its back because its fnders had tossed a blanket over the poor animal and it was hopelessly entangled.  The vets at Tufts Wildlife Clinic had to surgically remove the quills in order to free the animal and it would have been defenseless and also suffered severe frostbite if it had been released.  I found it fascinating to see the "sixpack" of muscles ripple up and down as they animal backed up towards me and swished its tail sideways and then up and in a half circle.  Once it got to know me it was no longer defensive and willingly trotted from one cage half to the other as I cleaned its enclosure.  I later practiced what this porcupine had taught me out in the wild when an injured porcupine I was trying to catch tried to back into me and a simple side step diffused the situation immediately.

Out in the sanctuary I bumped into a mother and baby porcupine several times at night when I came there for a release.  But they weren't aggressive, the baby just moved off into the deep grass.  I saw the mother several times in broad daylight and admired her beauty.  She has not had to fight many battles, if any, because her armor is flawless.  I stepped in her path several times just to see what she would do, and as long as I stood still she would move closer as if oblivious to my presence as she was munching on succulent clover.  But eventually she would notice that something wasn't quite right and rear up to get a better look.  Porcupines have poor eye sight and average hearing, and they also aren't the fastest runners on the planet and rely on their on-board weaponry.  Whatever their sensory perception might be, it seems to be adequate, otherwise they would long have gone extinct.

To prove my point as to the calm temper of a porcupine, I am publishing here for the first time a sequence showing my last encounter with this young beauty.  Again, I emphasize that I purposely stepped into her path and blocked her way.  I didn't do or say anything, I just stood there and watched her approach, curious as to what she would do.  Keep in mind that she was no farther than about 10 feet away from me when she started to notice that something was wrong.  I hope that these pictures will prove that whenever your dog comes back with quills embedded in his snout it is the dog's fault, not the porcupine's, and you should not hate the animal for defending its life.

Porcupines are not immune to bites.  I have transported severely injured porcupines to Tufts Wildlife Clinic.  Treatment is not easy due to the quills preventing access to the wounds, so they have to be removed first.  Porcupines are good climbers.  In winter they like to eat the juicy tips of branches, and that can get them in trouble.  X-rays reveal the rough life of a porcupine, multiple healed fractures, from bad falls.

If you encounter a porcupine in the wild, consider yourself lucky.  Pause and observe it for a while from a safe distance that is comfortable for the animal.  Don't get as close as I did, remember that I am trained wildlife rehabilitator and familiar with an animal's behavior and tuned in to subtle changes.  Maybe you'll realize why I am so fond of this wonderful creature.

1.  Still approaching, has not noticed my presence yet.
 2.  Realizes something is not quite right and pauses.
 3.  Now alarmed, rears up on hind legs to get a better scent.
 4.  Takes a sharp right and heads for the thicket, armor erect.
5.  The porcupine has taken a shortcut through the thicket and emerges in front of me on the path, still bristling.  It now almost runs, it is aware of me.

This is how dogs get hit:  they pursue the fleeing animal and the tail smashes them in the face.

Encounters like this one are an absolute thrill for me.  It doesn't get any better than this.  I am thankful for work that allows me to get to know an animal intimately while it is in my care.  I am thankful for all the people along the way who helped me, taught me, and pushed me into becoming who I am today.  But my greatest teachers have been the animals themselves, and they continue to teach me.  I may be broke, but animals enrich me in so many other ways.

Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for!


  1. Your big heart is so amazing! I'm not good with wild creatures myself, but my family has just adopted a dog and gecko that needed a home. Praying that all your needs will be met!

  2. I can related to your thrill! We once had a juvenile porcupine take up residence under our rhubarb leaves in our garden. In a very short period of time it became accustomed to our activities and would go on about nibbling the weeds while we were very mindful to make note of where it was and keep a safe distance. After about a week the little guy was carefully scooped up in a grain shovel and transported in a 5 gal bucket out to a shelter belt in our pasture to avert any accidental run ins. We did so enjoy the visit while it lasted.