It’s baby bird season again here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means lots and lots of cuteness out there in the world. Unfortunately, it also means lots and lots of baby birds unnecessarily “kidnapped” by well-meaning people. My ambulance shifts the last several weeks have been dominated by baby birds, mostly perfectly healthy birds that should never have been taken in the first place.
Here’s the scene: You’re walking along and see a young bird on the ground. The parents are nowhere in sight and as you approach the young bird it does not fly away. Assuming it’s injured or orphaned you can’t bear the thought of leaving the little guy there to his/her fate, so you take it home, put it in a shoebox, feed it bread and water, and call the animal ambulance (or bring it to a vet or shelter).
Here’s the catch: Fledglings (young birds that have already grown flight feathers) often learn to fly from the ground. So once they leave the nest, they can spend several days on the ground or on low branches before they’re truly able to fly. The parents are rarely far away, even if you can’t see them, and will continue to come back and feed the little peepers, but NOT if there are humans close by. If you find a fully feathered young bird on the ground that is not injured the best thing you can do is back away and leave it where it is. If you’re uncertain of the situation, try to observe from a safe distance. You’ll likely see one or both of the parents come back within a few minutes. Once a bird is taken away from its parents, its chances of survival decrease considerably.* If the bird is injured or if you’re sure it’s orphaned (we recently got a whole nest of Blue tits in because the caller’s cat had killed both the parents :?) please don’t attempt to raise or rehabilitate it yourself. Contact a licensed rehabilitator who has the knowledge and experience to tend to the exact needs of each particular bird species.
On a funnier note, yesterday’s shift saw us transporting the Houdini of Hedgehogs in our ambulance. We got a call from a care home for mentally handicapped adults. The receptionist had found a hedgehog curled up on the sidewalk. The fact that the prickly little fellow was out during the day was already a sign to us that something was wrong so we went over to investigate. It was a young hedgie, but presumably old enough to be foraging on its own. It curled up like it was supposed to when I picked it up and a good sniff told us that there was likely nothing seriously wrong with the little guy. He was, however, infested with fleas (as hedgehogs quite often are) and we suspected that because of this was suffering from anemia and just needed to recuperate at the bird sanctuary (the Toevlucht that also rehabs hedgies). We took him in the cardboard box the receptionist had put him in, lined with towels, and put him in the back of the ambulance. Tucking the four corners of the flaps into each other to close the box, I put a roll of bags on top of the box to weigh down the flaps just to be sure.
As we went to pick up another bird that needed to be brought to the bird rehabbers, all’s quiet from behind us as we assume little Harry (as I now call him) is asleep in his bed of towels. But as we get closer to our destination, we start to hear scratching in the back of the vehicle and realize he’s trying to dig his way out of the box. The whole way there, what we hear is *scratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratch* then about 15 seconds of silence followed by *scratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratch*. We joke that we’re going to find a loose hedgie in the back of the ambulance both knowing that there’s no way he’ll get through the thick cardboard during the short drive to the sanctuary.
Never underestimate the cunning of a hedgehog, though. When we got to the Toevlucht, I opened up the back of the ambulance and there, standing next to his cardboard box and sniffing a cat-carrier with a pigeon in it was little Houdini Hedgehog, cute as can be. Laughing, I scooped him up in a towel while my partner gave the box a good looking-over. We were right about one thing; he wasn’t able to dig through the thick cardboard during the short drive. There were no holes in the box. The little bugger (or bug-eater, actually) had somehow pushed his way through the folded, weighed down flaps of the box. The fact that he had the strength and wherewithal to do that gives me hope that a full recovery is on the cards for the little guy. Here’s hoping he’s out in the wild doing his hedgehog thing ASAP.
And since I’m always too busy to take pictures of the cuties we get on board to post here, I leave you with a somewhat related video I took a few years ago on my balcony. Get ready for some hot, young, Great tit action**:
*Although while we’re on the subject, I’d also like to dispel the myth that once a human has touched a baby bird, it will be rejected by the parents. Most bird species don’t have a particularly keen sense of smell and will NOT reject a baby after human intervention. So if for any reason you do have to intervene – say the fledgling is in the middle of the road and need to be moved to a less dangerous spot, or is not feathered (in which case it should be returned to the nest or a surrogate nest if at all possible) – you can do so with a good conscience.
** Shameless attempt to up the google traffic to my blog. 😛
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the disconnect that seems to be prevalent in society when it comes to how we treat animals, and wondering how it came about. These thoughts have been simmering on the backburner for a while now, but started to bubble with my experiences this summer, and have really come up to the boil since I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer a couple of weeks ago. (I won’t review the book here, but check out this excellent review by my colleague, Ward.) The book was fresh on my mind last week as I was walking past the butcher’s shop and did a double take at the contrast between the decapitated birds rotating on a spit outside and the woman walking out with a very pampered pooch on a leash. The disconnect hit me like a brick.
Of course I realize that throughout history and in countless cultures there’ve been some animals we eat and some we keep as companions. Sometimes there’s crossover and sometimes there isn’t. But it seems to me that modern industrialized society has taken that divide and pushed it to the extreme, to the point where it’s nonsensical. Beyond nonsensical; it’s hypocritical. And it’s not just in terms of agriculture that we seem to have lost our way. We’re so far removed from nature that our understanding of animals in the natural world is seriously skewed. These are some of the disconnect that I’ve been thinking about lately:
* We are (rightly) horrified when we hear about the mistreatment of dogs and cats at the hands of animal abusers, hoarders, or puppy mills and yet we pay the meat and dairy industries to mistreat food animals as badly or worse on an industrial scale on a daily basis. (And one thing that becomes clear when reading Eating Animals is that cruelty is built into the system in such a way that even buying meat from “good farmers” doesn’t alleviate the problem.)
* Wildlife in most people’s minds is something exotic and, ironically enough, something you find in zoos. When I told people I would be working with wildlife this summer, I was amazed at how many folks immediately thought of lions and crocodiles rather than the indigenous wildlife of the region I was going to. And upon expressing a desire to continue working with wildlife now that I’m back home, 90% of the well-meaning people who came up with suggestions started out with the thought that maybe I could get a job at the zoo. We’ve gotten to the point that the only animals that people think of when they think “wild animal” are actually captive exotics rather than the true wildlife that surrounds them. Yet those exotic captives, no matter how well they are treated, are denied the true wild existence that is their birthright, and children grow up thinking of lions and tigers and bears as creatures that belong in an exhibit rather than in the wild. (This is emphasized by children’s toys that label these species “zoo animals” rather than wild animals.)
* Meanwhile, we’ve developed a contempt, or even an active hatred, for those species that constitute real wildlife in our own areas: pigeons, seagulls, badgers and raccoons, for example, have suffered and continue to suffer persecution at the hands of individuals and institutions. We are so far removed from nature that our local wildlife is the last thing most people think of when they hear the words “wild animal”. I wonder if this would change if, instead of field trips to the zoo, schools would take kids on excursions to local nature reserves and teach them the joy of spotting, for example, woodpeckers, squirrels, and deer; of observing wildlife in its natural habitat. An added benefit is that it might help kids understand the importance of stewardship on a local level, and that nature is not something far away in the rainforest. It’s in their own backyard.
* We’re so accustomed to disturbing the balance of nature in our own self-interest that any attempt to redress that imbalance is met, ironically, with cries that those trying to help are disturbing the balance of nature. This was brought home to me recently when PAWS took in 100+ seabirds affected by a massive algal bloom that left, from the last estimate I heard, something like 10,000 seabirds dead and dying on the Pacific Coast. Scientists are as yet unclear as to what caused the massive bloom, but while it can be considered a natural disaster (in contrast to, say, an oil spill) it’s theorized that blooms of this magnitude can be traced back to human activity such as agricultural runoff and overfishing. Clearly the 100 or so birds that PAWS took in (less than half of which survived to be released) represented a drop in the bucket, and the release of these birds was a small triumph of compassion and the hope that the work of a few dedicated individuals can make a difference in correcting a wrong in the ecosystem. And yet local news stories reporting the event and the involvement of PAWS in helping the birds were met with hostile comments about how organizations like PAWS are “disturbing the balance of nature”. Ironically, the commenter who most vehemently objected to help for the birds on these grounds was a commercial fisherman. If any industry has disturbed the balance of nature in our seas, it’s the commercial fishing industry. And yet the hypocrisy inherent in “TheFishermen’s” comments seemed lost on both him and the other PAWS-bashers who commented on the article. (Moral of the story: don’t read online comments. It’s bad for your blood pressure.)
Lest you think I’m being a holier-than-thou vegetarian, I know that I’m not innocent of hypocrisy myself. I still eat dairy and products containing eggs even though I know that these industries are just as bad as the meat industry when it comes to animal welfare (although I try to be conscious of where these products are coming from). I still wear leather on occasion (although I did just buy my first pair of vegetarian shoes). And not so long ago, I went with my sister and my three year old nephew to the zoo because that’s where he wanted to go (although I recently told my sister that I won’t be doing that again.) I just can’t help wondering about these disconnects, and how they came about. And how we can start getting society to make those connections again.
Edit: September 3rd, 2012. I’ve renamed and changed some of the wording in this post. While playing with words, I co-opted and misused a word that refers to a serious mental illnness, and as I really don’t want to perpetuate misunderstandings or stigmas about mental illness, I felt it best to change it. My apologies for not doing this sooner.
I actually have been composing a long-ass post about other stuff that I’ll be posting soon, but seeing as today was the last day of my internship, I couldn’t let this milestone pass without honoring it. It has been an amazing, intense, and unforgettable experience, and I can’t thank the awesome people at PAWS enough for everything. They are an incredible team of smart, funny, caring people who give blood, sweat, and tears to help wildlife in trouble.
It’ll be weird not being there. There are certainly things I won’t miss, most of them having to do with poo. But there are plenty of things I will miss too (aside, of course, from the fabulous staff and volunteers). I’ll miss (in no particular order)…
… feeding angry squirrels. “I hate you I hate you I hate you… Say is that a syringe? Nomnomnomnomnom… I hate you I hate you I hate you… Mmm… Another syringe! Nomnomnomnom….”
… baby opossums. Ok, really, all opossums, with their grabby little hands and feet and their “vicious” gape with all those teeth that they don’t quite know what to do with. “Look, I’m scary! Hey, why are you picking me up? Can’t you see how scary I am? Oh crap. She didn’t fall for it! Now what? My jaw hurts.”
… filling up the kiddie pools for the raccoons, as they brave the stream from the hose to “wash their hands”, all the while watching you with rapt curiousity.
… feeding the little hummingbird in her little tent as she buzzes around indignantly at lightning speed as if to say “dude, you’re in my space”.
… going into any of the aviaries to feed the birds. Hand-feeding mealworms to the juvenile Barn swallows as they hover in front of your nose.
… doing the meds list or tubings or helping out in the exam room and getting to work so closely with a huge variety of species, from Black-headed grosbeaks, to Great blue herons, to Glaucous-winged gulls, to Common murres, to Northern flickers.
… gulls. Cute, fluffy, spotty-headed peepers as youngsters, beautiful, adaptable flying machines as adults. Love ’em.
I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten, but these are what come to mind. It truly has been a “wild” experience! One I’ll never forget.
Tomorrow, I burn the sneakers.
The rhythm at PAWS wildlife center is shifting with the change in seasons. Every day that I come in, it seems there are less mouths to feed as baby birds get released and squirrels get weaned and move up to the small mammal caging up on the hill. Soon, the raccoons will be going in small batches which means (HURRAH!) less raccoon silo cleaning (possibly my least favorite activity). But less animals means less volunteers and less interns, so while things are not as hectic as they were just a few weeks ago, there’s still plenty of work to do. And while there are less animals to handle, less people qualified to do a lot of the procedures means that you get more hands-on time taking care of the animals that are still there.
And unfortunately for a number of the animals, some of them won’t be leaving anytime soon. An outbreak of avian pox in a couple of the aviaries has led the the euthanizing of several birds and a quarantine on the rest of the affected cages. While the whole situation has been sad, the most heartbreaking consequence of this was that four of the five Stellar’s jays that had been here since they were nestlings had to be euthanized on the eve of what was supposed to be their release; the one jay that showed no symptoms was returned to the aviary for an extended period of quarantine. Jays are intelligent and social birds, and this poor bird went from having four conspecific playmates to being stuck, alone, in an aviary, interacting only with the strange humans who stop by occasionally to drop off food, or with his own reflection in one of the mirrors hung around the cage.
At least he has a chance of release this fall, if he remains pox-free. Several animals are going to be staying with us for the long haul. A pair of Swainson’s thrushes will be our guests for the winter, because some idiot decided to clip the feathers of one of the thrushes (either before or after a cat attack). The feathers had to be plucked to stimulate regrowth, which means that he won’t be able to make the migration down to South America (which is happening NOW) with the rest of his species. We had gotten another Swainson’s thrush in that was in need of medical care and it was decided to keep him over the winter too, in order to ensure that the first thrush had company. Assuming they survive the winter, they’ll be released in the spring when their pals return.
A trio of black bear cubs will also be guests at Chez PAWS for the winter. I’m not sure how we got the little girl (who was here first) but the two boys who came from the Oregon coast (and are thus of a non-hibernating sub-species) were, like the plucked thrush, also victims to human stupidity. Some asswipe decided it would be fun to feed the momma bear that was coming into his yard, but when she killed one of his chickens, he felt justified in shooting her, thus orphaning her cubs. 👿 Sometimes, people just plain suck. Anyway, the trio, who are already getting big and rowdy, will be spending their first winter ripping apart their runs and keeping life interesting for the remaining staff. As an intern, I’m not allowed anywhere near them, but there’s a CCTV camera above their caging, which means I get to see some of their antics. At this adolescent stage, it’s clear they’re going to be a handful.
And even though orphan season is more or less over, we still get our share of sick and injured animals. The staff has been kept especially busy with a group of Common Murres (which I’ve just discovered is the exact same species as what we in Europe call Guillemots [scientific name, Uria aalge or zeekoet in Dutch]) that got brought to us after being washed up on shore. A number of them didn’t make it, but the ones that did require seemingly constant attention, between tubing them and bringing them back and forth between pools and drying pens to try to restore the waterproofing to their feathers (a problem with sea birds). And now that the squirrels are mostly weaned, we suddenly find ourselves caring for seven teeny-tiny orphaned opossums. They are just starting to open their eyes and are possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Because they get tube fed (to approximate how they nurse in the pouch) and not a lot of the volunteers are trained to tube feed, I suspect I’ll be spending a lot of time with those little guys in the next few weeks.
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!
I’ve been meaning to come back here and try to describe a typical day working at PAWS, but I’ve had trouble figuring out where to start. The work is incredibly varied and repetitive at the same time. There are some tasks that seem to happen all day every day; dishes and laundry are both bottomless pits that are never done, each requiring more steps than you would imagine. For example, each and every item of laundry has to be shaken out over the garbage can to dislodge any food/dirt/feces, and to make sure that no small bird or mammal is clinging to it before being put into the industrial washer. This all has to be done wearing goggles, latex gloves and a surgical mask, to protect us from any zoonotic diseases or parasites. And folding the laundry is not a quick task either; we have to make sure that there are no holes, loops, or loose threads on the sheets and towels and if there are they need to be cut off to prevent potential injury to our patients. The importance of this step was brought home to me recently when a baby squirrel was found one morning with a loose thread that had wrapped around his arm causing the bone to break and the whole appendage to swell. The vets wanted to give him a chance, but unfortunately, the arm turned necrotic and the squirrel had to be euthanized. A sad ending that has led to increased vigilance in the laundry room.
Feedings are another around-the-clock activity. Dish feedings, syringe feedings, tube feedings. Soaking chows, thawing fish/krill/carnivore log, mixing formulas, chopping veggies/fruit, injecting thawed fish with B12, pulling up syringe food (fish slurry and a sort of strained mixture for birds called – don’t ask me why – “fons“). Each species has its own specialized dietary requirements, and each patient its own feeding needs/schedule. Almost everyone gets dish food, except for sick/emaciated animals that get tube fed until they can handle self-feeding. The mammals in the wards get fed formula every few hours. The small mammals on “the hill” (basically, those old enough to self feed) get fed in the mornings. The birds in the aviaries and the raptor mews get fed in the mornings and replenished through the day. The raccoons only get fed in the evenings. And for each age group of each different species a different complex diet has to be prepared fresh daily. It’s not a question of simply pouring out some bird seed. Corvids (crows and jays), for example, get a mix of soaked dog chow and soaked omnivore chow, mixed with sunflower seeds, chopped fruit, and protein. Songbirds get soaked dog chow with birdseed and chopped fruit. The mallards get waterfowl maintenance with cracked corn, shredded greens, and mealworms. The gulls get chow with lots and lots of fish, into which we have to inject vitamins. Herons get fish floating in water. Woodpeckers get canned cat food with live mealworms mixed in, smeared onto the wall. And that’s just a small sampling of the different tastes we have to cater to every day. (And that’s not even counting the baby bird nursery which has its own very busy cadre of volunteers feeding some very hungry mouths literally all day from sunup to sundown.) We even have to feed the mealworms.
Then there’s cleaning cages/pens/pools; weighing patients; administering meds; setting up new cages/pens/pools; cleaning and changing the trifectant in all the foot baths; collecting all the garbage and bringing it to the dumpster; disinfecting doorknobs and light switches; replenishing sheets and towels in the surgery, exam room, nursery, ward, small mammal room (aka pop-top room), raccoon city, and baby bird nursery; scrubing all the sinks in the building; spraying and scrubbing all the items on the outdoor cleaning pad (you have no idea how hard it is to get mealworms out of astroturf); sweeping and mopping all the floors, and an ongoing list of seemingly endless daily tasks that need doing. And that’s not including the extra tasks that the rehabbers set us depending on the needs of the moment. Today, we (myself and two other interns) had to “flame” one of the aviaries. Literally go in there with a propane tank and a flame-thrower and go over every inch of the place because the juvenile Robins that had just been moved out of there were being treated for gapeworm. I can truly say, there’s never a dull moment, although sometimes you wish there were. At the end of the day, I come home, leave my shoes outside, strip naked, throwing every scrap of clothes in the washing machine, hop in the shower and scrub every inch of my body, and collapse onto the couch to finally give my aching feet a break and set my brain to “0”.
Anyway, I know that’s a lot of text to take in all at once, but I hope it paints a picture of the ordered chaos of a busy wildlife rehab center. And for those of you who are thinking “Yeah, yeah, but where are the cute animals?” check out this story that a local station did about us on the news recently. (And for extra cuteness, click on both of the video links.)