Visiting Veterinarian : Raise and release
It all started when an innkeeper heard the pitter-patter of paws in their rooms. Consultation with local critter catchers identified the uninvited guests as squirrels behind the drywall. Cozy for squirrels. Inconvenient for innkeepers. The critter catcher set a trap for the freeloaders. The innkeeper then happened to read about a Cape service specializing in "wildlife conflict resolution." No, a mediator doesn't negotiate with the rodents for acorns. Instead folks who understand wildlife figure out how to peacefully get them out of your house, trash, basements, wherever, without harming them. Unfortunately, the connection was made too late. A mother squirrel was killed by the trap, leaving behind three babies. My first contact was a call from the director of the service. "Would you take the babies if I can get them out of the wall?" she asked, knowing that I have a wildlife rehabilitation license. "Sure," I responded nonchalantly.
Baby squirrels are usually a piece of cake, but when they arrived, I shook my head in dismay. These weren't the wee crawling infants I had expected, but fully-furred rambunctious adolescents. Old enough to be hard to handle. Young enough they still needed to nurse and learn how to eat and forage. More work than I had bargained for. "Oh well, " I thought. "We can manage." Except later that day I received a juvenile squirrel hit by a car, and by the end of the week an infant skunk, a sick raccoon kit, a newborn rabbit, and multiple phone calls about other wildlife.
Before you mess with Mother Nature, remember not every wild baby you see truly needs you. "But they're all alone," you protest. That doesn't necessarily mean they are orphans. Rabbits and deer leave young alone for long periods, returning to nurse two or three times a day. If the youngster looks relaxed and calm, steer clear. Mama is probably around somewhere. If the bunnies are hopping around the yard, they are probably fine. Rabbits wean at a young age and small size. Keep pets inside and let the bunnies be. If they are still in the nest, put small sticks in an X across it so that Mama's return will knock them off, leaving you evidence that she has been back. Raccoons and skunks do not leave young alone for long. Mom should reappear within a few hours. It may be best to leave a youngster overnight in hopes mother is just delayed, not gone for good, but if no mama in twenty-four hours, consider the animal an orphan.
In the case of our squirrels we had all the evidence needed . . . a dead mother. Several times each day, I'd stick my arm in the cage and try to catch them, one by one, to syringe feed a milk replacer meal. Usually by the time I had caught and fed two, the third was wise to me, flying around, scrambling madly across my arm, hanging upside down from the roof, until I gave up. Once in a while we could coax one to the edge to slurp milk replacer through the bars. Each day they got harder to catch, and made a bigger mess. After two weeks they were drinking formula from a bowl and eating solid foods. Soon they would be ready to release.
The young raccoon did not fare so well. If a youngster is injured, bleeding, sickly, or distressed, it needs help. But wait! Don't just grab a wild animal! Protect yourself. The hikers who found the kit sitting dully in the walking trail handled it properly. Cautiously using towels to transfer him to a box, they avoided exposure, then contacted appropriate people. Never put yourself at risk of being bitten or exposed to blood or saliva. Wear gloves. Cover the animal with a towel before lifting. Never touch an aggressive animal. Although we have no documented rabies on the Vineyard, there is plenty on the Cape. It is probably only a matter of time before we have a case here. Despite intensive nursing, the kit deteriorated and began to have seizures. We euthanized him and tested him for rabies. Luckily, the test was negative. Rabbits, too, can carry serious diseases, such as tularemia, and should be handled with care. Our bunny arrived because someone's family dog raided a nest. The ideal remedy? Return baby to the nest unless it is injured, keep pets confined, and give mom a day to return. Unfortunately, this wasn't an option for our newborn. If the mother is killed, or there has been so much disruption that she never returns, the baby needs to be hand raised, and you should contact a licensed rehabilitator for instructions.
Knowing how to release a wild animal is as important as knowing how to raise it. In nature, many families stay together for long periods, teaching the young to find food, shelter, and safety. We couldn't replace Mama, but when the squirrels were ready, we arranged a gradual release on a secluded property where we could free our wards while still providing food and shelter. Old squirrel nests in the trees suggested that there were appropriate food sources in the area. A nearby stream provided water. After setting up a shelter for them at the base of a sturdy tree, I opened their cage door and stepped back. They remained safely ensconced in their tee shirt. After a while, we propped the cage door open and left.
The next day the cage was empty. One squirrel cavorted on the lawn. The next day one was back sleeping inside the tee shirt. The third day they were gone. Soon raccoons discovered Dr. Jasny's Diner and were eating all the victuals, do we gradually closed the buffet, hoping our transplanted rodents were fending for themselves. Baby skunk went to someone experienced in skunk care. It will be months before she can be released. The squirrel hit by the car also made a full recovery. Our last guest, the baby rabbit, survived a week. Then my kids and I had a funeral and talked about how Mother Nature is both kind and cruel, and that sometimes we need to accept that Mother knows best.