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  • Sharron Montgomery Pena

The Path Back Home

As a former Wildlife Rehabilitator, I am often drawn back to the topic of injured wildlife, especially when a story breaks into the national news. It is partly because I always hope to reach maybe one more person than truly has no idea what to do if they find injured wildlife. The other part of me always identifies as a rehabber even though I haven't held a license in 9 years. It seems like an initiation into a lifelong club of helping both the animals and the general public, and once a part of that, no matter how long ago, you always feel that you are a member, even when your current path leads you away from it. I recently spoke to another former rehabilitator about it who shared my sense of feeling like an outsider once out of the actual practice. This doesn't mean I haven't assisted folks dozens of times since leaving my job and worked very closely with helping transport injured wildlife to those who have licenses to do this. From time to time, one of our birds has a medical issue and I pull out the medical kit and dust off my knowledge and I must admit it is rather exhilarating, aside from the actual worry of making the right decisions and outcome of the situation. I work under our current veterinarian, but in certain cases I have to make decisions on my own and it becomes very empowering and satisfying in the same way as back when I made those life and death decisions every day for many years.

More recently, we have been bombarded from every possible news source with the heartwarming news story of the tiny saw whet owl found in the traditionally massive tree brought to Rockefeller Center for Christmas. After reading various news stories on the event, I thought I would share a few thoughts on the subject hopefully shedding light on the topic of wildlife rehabilitation, not just a "cute owl" (yes we can all agree it is cute) in the most famous Christmas tree in America.

What I found noteworthy from a couple of articles is that historically, this is not the first time this has happened. As recently as 2018 another saw whet owl was accidently transported to New York City in the yearly Rockefeller Center tree. Apparently it did not gain the popularity of this year's story, but admittedly, it is 2020 and with all of its calamities, we sure needed a feel good story full of hope.

The truth is that many wild animals lose their homes when humans are unaware, especially baby birds and squirrels displaced by tree trimming in the spring. Most caring people feel bad when accidents happen, but we can try to make the best of the situation and learn from our mistakes. In the case of little "Rockefeller," I read that there is now a discussion of protocol for checking future trees for wildlife inhabiting them before selection. Hmmm, I wonder why it only took worldwide attention from the media to institute a system of checks to prevent this from happening again. Likewise, it would seem that with all of the realistic design recreating movie sets and breathtaking landscapes in theme parks, someone would have figured out how to create a spectacular Christmas tree that could be assembled and disassembled for future use. Maybe the local Target or Macy's might carry something like that? Nevertheless, it is my hope that you can save wildlife in your backyard from potential loss or injury by considering the following before trimming or cutting trees.

1. Check rotten or dead trees for cavity dwellers. Many animals, including squirrels, woodpeckers, and even species of owls will nest in hollowed out branches and trees. If you are concerned that there is an immediate danger to your house or electric lines, please be aware that most parents will NOT abandon their young if you move them safely to a nearby tree. In most cases if you watch carefully from a distance you will see them attending to their young once you have moved away from the area. Dead trees that have the tops removed will often times attract wildlife and you may get some really cool opportunities to view wildlife. Rotting wood is also an excellent amendment to vegetable gardens and yards helping to maintain moisture.

2. Make note of the nesting season in your yard. Many tragedies can be avoided simply by scheduling your tree service in the autumn or winter. Likewise, your trees will thank you as it is much less traumatic to their growth and makes them less susceptible to disease.

3. Let tree service professionals know that you care about wildlife and if they should spot baby animals to please inform you immediately so you have input into whether or not you choose to proceed.

4. Have a local wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife authorities contact information available should the need arise. Please do not attempt to feed displaced wildlife. They should be evaluated by a licensed wildlife professional. Baby animals have very specific needs and most people are unaware that substituting food that they are unsuited to digest can cause immediate stomach distress, especially cows milk. Please do not use pet store personnel as substitutes. While they may be caring and knowledgeable about some exotic animals, they are often unaware of basic protocol for injured and orphaned wildlife.

Another unfortunate practice that has continues is the relocation of wildlife to another habitat. This unfortunate reality of human interference means that from time to time people will trap unwanted wildlife and "take it away," or run across displaced wildlife in their daily travels, pick it up and release it in another seemingly safe spot. Even wildlife that has been carefully examined or treated by a wildlife rehabilitator should be taken back to the location found if it is safe to do so. There are many things to consider before anyone should release an animal back into an environment unknown to that individual.

First, wildlife habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate. The demand for development, housing, and the voracious consumer needs of the paper and lumber industries see what little habitat for wildlife vanishing daily. Our back yards, roadsides (although not ideal), and green spaces have become the last stand for many displaced animals. While I am certainly not advocating that wildlife should be left in dangerous situations such as in the back yard where an aggressive dog or cat roams, or allow rattlesnakes or other venomous creatures in your children's backyard play area, I am suggesting that you ask yourself if what may seem annoying is really worth taking an animal out of its home habitat. Opossums, raccoons, foxes, reptiles, and birds have made their home sweet home in well, our home sweet backyards. Please allow me to explain.

An opossum while not being the most cuddly or cutest face for the cover of your latest kids favorite animal book, has a reputation of being one of the most unwanted backyard animals besides the skunk. Opossums are the greatest help to many of our pest woes. They eat ticks, cockroaches, and even rats. They will consume the rotten fruit on the ground and even eat carrion (dead animals). They are quite fascinating creatures, but overall worth so much more keeping around than trapping and taking it away. Once an animal has been relocated, it has to go back in to competition with others of its own species as well as other species that have similar dietary needs. This leads to conflicts, often times resulting in injury to the new animal, and possibly even costs them their life. And as most of us are aware, these poor animals often end up on the side of the road.

There is also the consideration that some animals, such as raptors will mate for life. In losing their mate, they have to go into competition for new mates, again possibly resulting in injury or in some cases death. Feeding your backyard birds is a fun pastime, but when you create an abundance of smaller birds, you will inadvertently attract a bird of prey or two. They look for large gatherings of birds to hunt. It increases their chance of success. Our pets, including barnyard creatures such as chickens and ducks are our responsibility to protect. Free roaming domestic animals are always subject to falling into the food chain. There is no possible way they predators can understand they are off limits. And again, I realize every situation is different, but removing an animal from its home territory can prove disastrous for its survival.

If you need wildlife, just remember your local wildlife rehabilitator is just a call away. They work hard to care for injured and orphaned wildlife year round. They are happy to help you get along with your wildlife, but they need your help also.

Most wildlife rehabilitators are:

  1. Individuals who operate solely out of their own pocket or on donations

  2. Work a relentless schedule making themselves available 24/7 and 365 days a year.

  3. Often have very little support from the state or federal government.

  4. Endure constant criticism from the public for euthanizing animals that are suffering or not releasable, or for being unable to drop everything and drive 50 miles one way every time someone calls. They do not have unlimited space, resources, or money to respond at an universal level to every emergency.

  5. They do have heart. They love animals. They still cry when an animal dies or has to be euthanized. They keep pushing themselves and don't eat regularly, they don't go to spas or the gym, they rarely make time for themselves, and when they can't go anymore, somehow they find enough strength for that last baby squirrel, that 11 pm emergency, or just to be there when a suffering animal took its last breath.

Friends, please donate if you can. Even $10 helps. Volunteer to help if you have the time and ability. Most of all, when you bring that injured animal, please remember to thank them for all they do to help our wildlife. If you are having trouble finding a rehabilitator the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association can help. Here is the link.

And one final thought.....

Rehabbers, Thank you for your service to our wildlife.


A former, but always a rehabber at heart....


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