Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
It’s a pleasure to see deer browsing at the edge of the campground or a coyote trotting down the trail. But in truth, much of the wildlife that travelers come across are the remains of animals alongside the highway. And many other animals are abandoned, injured, ill, or orphaned and need aid. Unfortunately, most of us lack the training to do what’s needed to help these injured critters. No matter how warmhearted and caring we might be, we simply don’t have the proper skill and knowledge. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation are best left to the pros. NOTE: Both state and federal permits are required for anyone to keep wildlife in captivity. This includes all species of birds except the non-natives, such as pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows.
Licensed wildlife rehabilitators are specifically trained to care for abandoned or injured animals with the expectation of releasing them back to their natural habitat. When we chatted with central California wildlife rehabilitator Cathy Garner, she told of a person who brought in a baby hummingbird, bright red and covered with a sticky substance. The well-meaning rescuer knew the baby must be hungry and she tried using a medicine dropper to put hummingbird syrup into its mouth. “Baby hummers don’t eat syrup,” Cathy said. “It took us a long time to clean up that chick and warm it, and finally to feed it something its little tummy could handle.”
Cathy’s experience as a wildlife rehabilitator goes back 30 years. She said that she’s seen everything at least once, but more often hundreds of times. Asked about the training necessary before she could be licensed, she replied that each state has its own requirements and the learning never stops. Frequent seminars and training sessions address current concerns, and numerous meetings and trips must be taken.
Cathy also pointed out that Fresno, California, where she works, has no paid animal rehab staff. In this city of 400,000, there are plenty of animal-loving volunteers to care for the critters brought in, plus those they pick up and bring back for treatment. Each animal must be examined to determine whether it requires veterinary care. If so, a vet assesses the extent of the injuries and either treats the animal, hospitalizes it if needed, or decides that it should be euthanized.
Back in the rehab office other critters are fed, medicated, and/or given prescribed physical therapy. Animals kept in captivity for healing won’t be released without prerelease conditioning. Obviously, an animal would not be reintroduced to the wild in the middle of a snowstorm. So, rehabbers wait for decent weather in an appropriate season and choose the best habitat possible.
Unfortunately, the injuries suffered by some animals are too extensive to permit release, but they are otherwise healthy. Such animals might serve as educational aids in zoos and museums. When we lived in Tucson, Arizona, Kaye was a docent at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Docents there sometimes interpret animals that, once rehabilitated, can’t be released. The first animal she took out on the grounds was a tarantula. She did so hoping to overcome her own lifelong fear of spiders by teaching others to appreciate their role in the environment. She talked, people listened, and afterward she told Lowell that she would never, ever do it again. From then on she interpreted a one-legged great horned owl (Kaye wore the required welder’s glove to protect her arm) or a blind Cooper’s hawk. Both had been brought in for rehabilitation, but neither could ever return to the wild. Fortunately, both animals adapted well to captivity and behaved well in front of crowds. It’s hard to say whether they enjoyed being the center of attention, but they certainly didn’t tense up over it. Nor did they heave a sigh of relief when a bunch of tourists, or an entire fourth grade class, finally moved on to the next interpretation station.
Wildlife rehabilitation does have its critics. Some people say that we should let nature take its course, allowing sick or injured animals to be free to meet their fate. These folks might reconsider, however, if they realized that most of the animals aided by rehab don’t suffer from “natural” events, but from run-ins with autos, trains, mowers, high-voltage wires, firearms, poisons, and oil spills. Rehabilitators ease their suffering by either nursing them back to health or humanely euthanizing them.
In addition to returning animals to the wild, rehabilitators work to reduce the negative impact humans have on wildlife and the environment. Some are involved in research, captive propagation, and reintroduction projects. Many are involved in education, encouraging children and adults to develop a responsible attitude toward all living things.