Mammals seemed to have the upper hand this week at the Wildlife center, at least in terms of keeping us busy. Of course we’ve still got gobs of birdies, and they keep coming in, but we’re into what has been termed “the second wave” of squirrel season, which means we’ve stopped counting how many baby squirrels we’ve got in, both Eastern Grays and Douglas Squirrels. The day now seems to be dominated by squirrel feeding, and no matter what else is happening, you have to check the board every half hour to see if any groups are up. Add to this the fact that lots of volunteers are away and some of the interns have left, and needless to say, a lot of other tasks (laundry, dishes, etc.) are getting backed up. But Oh. My. God. They’re cute. And soft. And wriggly.
Feeding them is like a moment of Zen. It can’t be rushed. No matter how many squirrels there are and how many other tasks are waiting to be completed, you still have to take your time. Going too fast can lead to the babies aspirating the formula, which almost inevitably leads to aspiration pneumonia. Luckily, some of the babies now have their eyes open (eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!), and the feeding gets easier because they know the routine and are HUNGRY. An added bonus is that once they hit that stage they don’t need to be stimulated anymore. But for every squirrel that opens its eyes, we seem to get ten new closed-eyes babies in. Because they’re invasive, there’s a limit on how many of the Grays we’ll take in, and we’re not even halfway there. There’s no limit on the native Dougies, so it’s bound to get crazier. Squirrel season has yet to reach its peak.
Luckily, there is no second wave of raccoon season. We’ve got 40 juvenile raccoons, and I hear that having them in the nursery was like letting the lunatics run the asylum. Now they’re in the raccoon silos, socializing with each other, and (we hope) learning to hate (and thus avoid) humans. They’re still cute as a button, but you learn to look past the Cute Overload facade of them pretty quickly. This week we had to vaccinate a bunch of them for various diseases. To vaccinate them, you need to catch them. And before you can catch them you need to put on rubber boots, rubber overalls and thick, leather falconry gloves over latex gloves. And you need to strap on a set of cajones, because, holy crap, those critters are terrifying. At this stage, they’re the size of a large cat, but seem to be ten times as strong, and it takes two people to hold them down while a third does the vaccinations. All the while, from the moment you catch them they’re squirming, snarling, growling, screeching, and trying to bite you. I half expected one of them to spit pea soup, do a 180 with its head and calmly say “Come in, Father”. Grabbing them off of the fencing that makes up the walls of the silo is daunting enough, but doable. You have to herd them down to a reachable height with a broom first, going slowly enough to make sure they don’t fall in the process, but quickly enough that they don’t just dodge the broom. When you do get ahold of them, they almost inevitably pee on you while you try to hold them far enough away from your body that they can’t sink their teeth into you as you wrestle them to the ground. After the first couple got caught this way, however, the remaining raccoons got wise to our ways and they all huddled in the plastic barrel that’s strapped horizontally to the fencing as a place to hide. That’s when things got interesting. Sure, grabbing them off the wall is challenging, but aside from the peeing/snarling/snapping, they’ve at least got their back towards you and once they’ve been swept within arm’s reach, it’s just a question of being fast and having a firm grip. Once they’re in the barrel, however, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. Suddenly, you’re dealing with a group of snarling, growling, cornered beasts waiting to lunge at your face the moment you reach towards them. I’ve never faced down the barrel of a gun, but I hear it can loosen the bowels faster than a jar full of Metamucil. I’m sure this isn’t comparable, but I’ve never wished for intestinal fortitude quite as much as I did facing down that barrel of raccoons. There are some folks at PAWS who are perfectly happy to reach in there and grab one, but they all have longer arms (and apparently bigger balls) than I do. I never got up the nerve. My eventual plan of attack was to scare them out of there by making lots of noise with the broom and to keep plucking them off the wall. It worked, and soon enough they were all vaccinated, and I was free to go change my underwear.
But both my saddest and happiest moments this week involved a much less frightening species: the Virginia Opossum. They can look pretty fearsome, threatening you with their “alligator” gape, and sure, they can and do bite, but they’re fairly slow and lumbering, and mostly will just try to move out of your way. You can handle the babies and juveniles without gloves. You just grab ’em under their tummy and pick them up. The babies that come in, mostly orphans, are pretty low maintenance. Unless they’re injured, it’s usually simply a question of getting them to the stage where they’re self-sufficient enough to be released. There seems to be a pretty good success rate dealing with the youngsters. Not so much with adults. Opossums are nocturnal and reclusive. If you see an adult in daytime, chances are it’s in trouble. So it was with one of the opossums brought in this week. She was an old girl, had reached the end of her opossum days. She was blind in one eye, and so emaciated that her pelvic bones were visible through her pouch. She could barely stand and kept almost falling off the exam table. It was hard to watch and it was the first time I’ve cried at PAWS. It was decided to euthanize her. Sad, but at least she was spared the lingering death by starvation she would have faced in the wild. We provided her with a release of sorts.
A much happier release came later in the week, when we took one of our juveniles opossoms out to a designated location and let him go. As an orphan, he’d been tube fed formula, dish fed formula, given kibble, fish, quail, fruit and veggies, and was now ready to head out into the wild world and forage for food on his own. After the night shift, one of the seasonals (basically assistant rehabbers) and I drove him out to the park the naturalist had chosen, walked a ways into the woods, found a nice level spot with lots of undergrowth, and put down the box. It was my first release, so I got to reach in, grab the fat little fellow under his fat little tummy, and place him on the grass. He waddled off a few feet towards the brush, and “hid” under a leaf. We watched him for a moment and then left him to get on with his little opossum life. I couldn’t help but worry about what might await him out there in the big wide world – cars, dogs, cats, natural predators, poison, and cruel humans – but he was where he belonged. And I finally got to see what all our hard work at PAWS amounts to. Releasing wildlife back into the wild is our ultimate goal. It’s an amazing feeling seeing it come to fruition like that. Here’s hoping he has a full, successful life out there. Good night and good luck, little opossum dude!