Saturday, January 11, 2014

A tribute to Popeye

Wildlife rehabilitation is often portrayed as holding cute little wild animals in one's hands and giving them formula as they suckle greedily.  A picture of utter peace and happiness.  The problem with that is that all too often such rosy pictures are not the reality.  Wildlife rehabilitation is one of the toughest and heart wrenching jobs one can take on, and one has to be ready for that and grow nerves of steel.  Firefighters do it, ER personnel do it, and wildlife rehabilitators have to do it.  The difference is that we do it without any pay.

I didn't want to write this story until the person who brought me Popeye knew about it.  Now she does, she is okay with it, so here it is.

Popeye arrived on 29 August 2013 around 7:30pm.  All I knew was that he was a baby squirrel about 7-8 weeks old "with an infected eye", but I had a suspicion that maggots might be the culprits.  Late summer we deal with lots of parasites, and they can be deadly if not dealt with immediately.  When I saw the squirrel I left the bringers standing on the porch and raced in the kitchen with the little guy in my hands.  It was the worst maggot infestation in an eye ball I had ever seen.  There were over 100 maggots wriggling and crawling in and out of the destroyed eye ball, it was a bloody mess.  The baby was in agony and I needed to act fast.  Warm distilled water in a flushing syringe which I had to refill over and over was the first line of defense, and the maggots were just dripping out in clumps.  Once I got a better view into the eye socket I realized that the maggots had already eaten their way through the tear duct into the sinus cavity.  From there they would chew their way into the brain...

The baby was too exhausted to move around much, and I was able to fill the now hollow eye socket with water until the maggots started to come up out of the sinus cavity for air.  Once out far enough I was able to grab them with fine tip tweezers and quickly yank them out, one at a time, dozens in all.  In between I took a break and spoke with the finders who were hovering on the porch despite my husband talking with them.  I didn't let them watch because I knew they wouldn't be able to handle what I had to do.  I was fighting for the baby's life, but I also had to now pay attention to the woman who was falling apart crying.  She had had the baby for nearly two days already and now felt terribly guilty, and I had to calm her down and explain to her that most people don't know about maggots and the devastation they can cause on orphaned and debilitated wildlife.

All in all I worked on the baby for well over two hours until the final maggot was out at last.  The baby was exhausted but alive, I gave him a dose of CAP Star and pain meds, and within an hour he drank lots of fluids and eventually diluted formula.

Left:  Popeye shortly after the last maggot had been removed.

Right:  Popeye snuggling in with his new nest mates.  He is the one in the front facing left.

Popeye continued to thrive and did well with his nest mates.  But the big question remained:  would he be able to adapt to just one eye?  How would he gauge distance and jumps without falling?  He was fine in the small indoor cage, but the test would come in the large and high outdoor cage.

 Popeye with his nest mates in the indoor cage.  He behaved perfectly normal but was a bit of a bully, possibly because he was afraid he might miss out if he didn't muscle his way into everything.  

The first three weeks in the outside cage he did fine, but I noticed that he wasn't even trying to jump.  He just climbed about the wire, and I needed to observe him jumping before I could even consider opening the cage for release of the group.

And then it happened.  I found him turning in circles at the bottom of the cage, disoriented, he must have taken a bad fall.  Popeye had been very independent until then and was untouchable, but he let me pick him up and put him in the carrier without a fight.  With a heavy heart I called the vet and asked if I could bring him in.  We didn't have to wait, we could come right away.

Last picture of Popeye on 10-30-13, two days before his accident on 11-1-13, happily eating a chestnut in the outside cage.  

Popeye was gently euthanized.  I remained by his side until he was gone.  Afterwards we talked, and the vet agreed that a squirrel with one eye will never be a candidate for release.  Yet sometimes animals adapt to the most incredible handicaps and do fine, that was the reason that I gave him a chance.  I have had squirrels with bitten-off tails that did well out in the wild, survived severe winters, and even raised babies.  But a one-eyed squirrel clearly is not able to adapt to its handicap.

Popeye had a happy childhood and was full of life until it came to a sudden end.  I am not sorry that I gave him a chance.  Deep down I knew that he couldn't be released, that is why I took my time with his entire group.  His nest mates now run around all over the back yard, and come spring many will disburse since they are mostly boys.

I decided to publish his story for two reasons:  as an educational tool, and also to  illustrate how an animal simply accepts what is, without whining, without feeling sorry for itself.  Had it not been for the maggots destroying his eye ball Popeye would have been a perfectly healthy and normal squirrel.  Yet he made the best of what he had, and he lived his short life to the fullest.

And that will always be his legacy...


  1. Thank God there are people like you!. I am so sad about this story. I do not like at all reading this...I know I can not do what you do! as I said THANK god you helped him and have the strength to do it and help animals.
    I am speechless and very sad!
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  2. I truly didn't mean to upset you, Bibianna. But my blog is designated in large part to wildlife rehabilitation, and that entails both good and sometimes sad stories. I started this blog because I was asked so many times why I am not writing a book about my work, and my answer was always the same: who has time to write a book? Or the money it takes to get it published, if at all... The the idea of a blog came to mind, and I decided that I can write a story at a time, and who knows, in time I will have written a book...
    My FB page needs to be kept "cute" because some really tender hearts are part of my friends there. It shows how removed people are from nature these days. Many kids and even adults have no clue nowadays what that supermarket package of hamburger looked like when it was still a living, breathing animal.
    I will never intentionally try to gross out people or upset anyone, but with my blog I will also not cutsify the often harsh reality of wildlife rehabilitation. Last year I had to witness a baby squirrel's horrible fall from a three story building's roof when wasps attacked it fiercely and it had to jump. The awful sound its body made when it hit the pavement (we stood with blankets and towels hoping we could catch it but it drifted last moment out of reach) still makes me shudder. Two siblings had already survived their awful fall, but this one did not. It died in my hands within a minute. Their plight had been man made, their mother had been run over by a speeding car. Had the city of Fitchburg not taken down all the trees the mother would have been able to nest in a tree instead a wasp infested attic. Too often we are to blame for the suffering we cause the wildlife around us.

    I would never publish pictures of a baby bunny that had been hit across the face with a weed whacker, that is simply too much for the general public to see. But I have to take and keep such pictures for my own library. With Popeye I performed triage first, I don't think of pictures when I have to act fast. Same with a goose that had been mortally injured on a lake last 4th July by 10 year old girls on a jet ski, I didn't take pictures of the immobilized goose nearly drowning in the wake, I had to get her out fast and on pain medication. Only at the vet did I finally take a picture.
    While Popeye's story ended sad, he did not suffer. I try to stay with all my animals when I have to bring them in, it is easier on them if they are put in the anesthesia box by a familiar person. Once sound asleep, they don't feel a thing, and the euthanasia fluid stops the heart immediately. I often drive home crying, it is hugely stressful to make these drives. What helps me pick myself up is knowing that I did right BY THE ANIMAL, and that is what matters. Popeye would have gone crazy in a small cage, he was too wild already. And my job is to rehabilitate and release, not cage and control...