10 Ways to Annoy a Wildlife Rehabilitator

Standard

10. Show her a leaf, and ask her what kind of bird it came from. Laugh uproariously.

Hahaha – no.

9. Be shocked when you discover she isn’t vegan/vegetarian/pacifist/shamanist/communist/(insert political or religious view here)

Honestly, the only safe thing to assume is that we’re doing this because we feel responsible to help alleviate some of the pain humanity unwittingly visits on innocent animals by hitting them with our cars and cats and windows. Even that is an assumption, but it probably won’t result in items thrown at you.

8. Tell her how you love animals. Except for rats. Oh, and raccoons. And opossums. And bats. And coyotes. And squirrels. No wait, you like squirrels, just not when they’re in your yard. I mean, after all, they belong in the forest.

What you meant to say is you like convenient, photogenic animals. Like eagles. Everyone likes eagles, right? Oh, except they might carry Fluffy away if you were to let him out without a leash… so no. No eagles either.

7. Talk about how you could never hurt an animal, so you relocate them instead.

As well-meaning as the relocation was, it probably just killed that animal. Our rehabilitator is wondering if she should do her civic duty and tell you that, or if she should go ahead and enjoy her salad with the guilt dressing… Ah, but duty never sleeps.

6. Ask if you can adopt a bear. Laugh uproariously (or don’t, that’s creepier).

No. No you can’t.

5. Ask her how to solve a wildlife conflict, and then spend an hour trying to get her to say “ok, it sound unsolvable, you’re justified. Call the removal service to come kill it – oh, and I know one that does it for free.”

You asked, and you got an answer. Probably several. The truth is wildlife conflicts often have easy solutions, but even easy solutions require some amount of work from the human. The animal certainly isn’t going to do it. The definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting different results – and crazy isn’t something a rehabilitator is trained to cure. That’s a psychologist. Now let the poor rehabilitator eat her sandwich.

4. Tell her you know she’s just in it for the money. Laugh uproariously. Then ask when she’s going to get a real job.

Don’t you just love it when you’re chasing your dream and people tell you it is worthless/childish? Sooooo uplifting.

3. List all the animals your outdoor cat kills. Use the phrases “in his nature,” “just birds,” and/or “he’s meant to be outside.” Also tell her how you always let the animals go, because you “didn’t see any blood.” Expect praise.

This is like describing your crack habit to your doctor and expecting him to be happy/accepting about the horrific things you’re describing and optimistic about your future health. Since that poor rehabilitator would just like to continue peacefully eating her lunch, I’ll bring you up to speed:

First, cat trauma is sneaky and devastating. Not only are they adorable, furry little killing machines, the majority of cats carry a bacteria called pasturella in their mouths. Pasturella kills most animals within days, sometimes hours. All it needs is a teeny, tiny little opening in the skin. So though there might not be blood, if the cat’s sharp-incredibly-sharp teeth or claws left even one tiny mark, the bird is dead.

Second, the epidemic of non-native predators (cats) is incredibly damaging to our native ecosystems and the cats themselves! Thus, outdoor cats are a one-two punch to animal-loving, ecologically-minded people.

2. Describe how you once “put a mouse out of its misery” by smacking it with a shovel. Repeatedly.

I’m pretty sure smacking things with shovels – or any other blunt instrument – adds to their misery. And maybe I don’t want you around when I’m eighty.

1. Tell her all about the animals you illegally kept and raised

Every person seems to have a story about how they found baby raccoons/birds/bunnies when they were kids, and their parents let them raise them. And every single person seems to be incredibly shocked to find that not only was that irresponsible, it was illegal. Even more shocking is that these stories don’t seem to bond them with the people who spend incredible amounts of effort to raise wild animals the right way – having obtained the necessary permits and education. I mean, it isn’t like you just told them that a) their jobs can be done by children and b) the laws and ethics they base their lives around are more like… guidelines. Stupid guidelines.

All joking aside, I don’t want to discourage questions, or the free exchange of ideas. Nor is anyone condemned because of misconceptions or past mistakes. That’s how we all learn, after all – and when you become a rehabilitator, the most important part of your job is educating people.

It’s just that sometimes, I find it frustrating how prevalent certain beliefs are in our society. And even more frustrating how often I am cast into the role of “nut” so people can continue to cling to their ignorance. To me, rehabilitation isn’t about “animal rights” – it is about our responsibility to the planet God gave us, and the inhabitants He gave us power over.

It is a selfishness like any other when we know what the right choice is, but we don’t make it because of pride (we can do it, and we’re willing to stake an animal’s life on the accuracy of an internet search), or because the solution is inconvenient (but then we’d have to buy a chimney cap, and who’s going to install it? Not me), or because the right decision deprives us in some way (if we give it up, we won’t have the cuteness in our house anymore).

So if you do care about animals, I encourage you to do what you can to help them out. The things that make the difference aren’t hard. Try planting native plants, using appropriate bird feeder hygiene (if you have to have one). Use humane conflict resolutions instead of removal, and keep Tiger inside (yes, inside). Take injured or orphaned wild animals to your nearest wildlife rehabilitator – no matter how cute they are. Teach your kids how to love animals with their actions, as well as their words, and help spread the knowledge. And if you really want to make me proud, volunteer at a wildlife rehab center – we always need the help!

Pigeon Problems and Cottontail Conundrums

Standard

Today, I fielded a call from a woman who saved an injured rock pigeon from a parking garage. She had just seen a car hit the bird, and then stop. The driver got out of the car, walked up to the struggling, shocked bird, and kicked it.

Now, I know it is ‘just a pigeon.’ They are not native to the US, and since they are one of the few animals that can adapt to live in urban areas, there are a lot of them. I know they can cause problems, sitting on our ledges where they shouldn’t be and crapping on things they shouldn’t crap on. Believe me, I know better than most that in some instances they can pose a health risk. I get it if they aren’t your favorite bird.

But I don’t get the callousness of kicking an animal you have just injured. I don’t understand how you can be so angry at an animal – a creature that doesn’t have your ability to think things through and can’t consider your feelings before thoughtlessly getting in the way of your car.

You see, it isn’t just about the pigeon. It is a symptom of a deeper problem; a choice to be so selfish and so cold that you cannot recognize suffering in another living creature. It is a refusal to accept the responsibility that every sane human has; to be humane.

Either that, or the guy is some kind of sociopath.

And then, I come home and find out a personal friend is dealing with a volatile situation with a woman who illegally kept infant wild cottontails.

Now, it started innocently enough; she found them lying in her back yard (cottontails are ground nesters). She didn’t see a mom (mom spends most of her time away from the babies, so she won’t attract predators to the nest. She only visits 2x daily). So, she picks them up to help them.

A kind-hearted act, absolutely. But probably interference when no interference was needed. The woman wants to take care of the bunnies. She calls around to find out how to do this, and learns that a local wildlife hospital will take them in. She learns that it is illegal to keep the bunnies. She hears that bunnies are very difficult to take care of, and the best thing for them would be to go to someone who knows what to do.

But she doesn’t want to take them to the wildlife hospital. She wants to take care of them. They are cute and warm and soft. They are so little, and they are HERS. They came from her yard. It is her right to do this, and she is darn well going to do it. The bunnies won’t die; and besides, she’s willing to take that risk.

So she goes to the pet store, and asks the workers there what she should feed her bunnies. She gets bunny death juice, marketed as an all-species milk replacer. She starts to try to feed the bunnies, but she’s never done it before. She gives the milk too quickly, and the bunnies choke on it and breathe it into their tiny little tracheas and lungs. She gives the bunnies to her children to hold and play with so that they won’t be lonely. She keeps them in a hamster cage, and feeds them odd bits and pieces of human food.

A few days pass. The bunnies have developed pneumonia and nutritional problems from the food and poor feeding technique. They are constantly afraid because of the unnatural situation, and the forced play-dates with giant predators (the children).

They begin to die.

The woman calls the wildlife hospital back and begs them to save the bunnies. When the last two bunnies arrive at the center, one has already died, and the other is dying. The woman’s children are crying, the woman is chewing out the rehabilitator, shouting “They were fine a moment ago! What did you do?”

And it only gets worse from there; now my friend is dealing with all sorts of personal and professional accusations from the cottontail woman.

I get situations like this all the time; it is not new. My friend will weather the storm. The bunnies are gone, so at least they aren’t suffering any longer. The wonderfully kind woman who saw the pigeon incident is helping the bird, and it will either make it to help or it won’t.

It’s probably a bad thing, but when I first heard these stories today, I wasn’t even upset. I’ve heard it all before, and worse. But today, it struck me how similar these two incidents are. Both situations are a result of utter selfishness, and a lack of empathy. Both are wrong, and should not happen. It was definitely bad for the animals, but I am sadder for the people than for the animals.

Passion in Work

Standard

I am so glad I have a job that eats my life.

Not that there aren’t parts that are hard or frustrating – like how little I make, the sheer amount of unpaid overtime I put in, and seeing some of the most tragic and infuriating situations you can imagine. Those things do get to me sometimes.

But I honestly believe I am one of the luckiest people on earth. How many people can say that their evening plans were interrupted because they had to help give emergency care to a harbor seal in critical condition? How about handling animals daily that most people in the world don’t even know exist? Or seeing a bird fly away who came to us bleeding and nearly dead from emaciation? Or, even better, figuring out some easy new trick that hikes the quality of our animal care just a little higher?

For me, it isn’t about some kind of ethereal, spiritual connection with animals (The wolf paused as it walked away and glanced back at me. In that single look I could see his gratitude.GAG–) or some weird pride issue (Ha ha, I have an owl at my house, I’m so special!BLECH!–). I won’t deny I love the feeling that I’m making a difference, or that sometimes it amazes me the things that my colleagues and I find commonplace. But it is more than that, different than that. It’s part challenge, part wonder, part filling a void of compassion few other people know exists. And for someone who spends quite a lot of time putting words together to describe the indescribable, that’s really the only way I can describe it.

Sometimes I lose sight of all of that. I get tied up in the frustrating parts or dwell on the negative.

This is true of writing as well (you didn’t think I’d get there, did you? Well, you underestimated me!). I’ve been pretty stuck on revisions for the better part of a month. I work on it just about daily, but I haven’t been making any real progress. I just keep focusing on that one thing I haven’t figured out to my own satisfaction, and then the entire story begins to fall apart in my mind. Then I get overwhelmed with just how many things I ‘need’ to fix. And then I start making up problems that don’t exist.

The solution to both problems is to remember the good things and rekindle the passion. In my work, it usually works to imagine doing some other job. Or to take a minute while I’m cleaning up piles and piles of bear poo to think about what I am actually doing, and how I’ve wanted to do it ever since I was little. Or to pause long enough in my daily rounds to watch a tiny baby cedar waxwing try to swallow a berry bigger than its head in one gulp.

I need to bring perspective back to my writing. No, it isn’t perfect; I do have a lot of work to do. But it’s manageable. There are things that work as they are. I like reading my story, I like my characters. That one plot problem does not take the entire story down with it. I will find a solution to it at some point. Things aren’t a hopeless tangled mess, they’re just a tangled mess.

And even if I don’t solve it this draft, I need to let my beta readers (and after them my agent/editor), tell me what is important. I am often surprised by what things my critique group focuses on, because often what I deem awful and messed up is not a problem for them as readers. But something else I hadn’t even thought of threw the story off the rail. And, surprise surprise, there’s actually an easy solution to that problem. And surprise again, that solution actually fixes what was bothering me before.

So back into it. And I’m actually feeling motivated again, for the first time in a month.

Seals & Silly Games

Standard

TGIF! And for the first time in a long while, today actually is Friday, and I actually have tomorrow off. My Friday and real Friday line up, and I’m excited!

This week is a pretty fun week at work, though. Our two harbor seals are learning to eat fish without our help, which involves lots of aquatic acrobatics, including splashing the rehabber until it looks like she fell in. We also received the good news from the veterinary team; both seals passed the heath inspection and quarantine period, so they are now hanging out together.

On the writing front, I’m making progress. Another chapter is under my belt, and I’m hoping to get at least 2 done in the next 3 days. Although I think I’m obsessing a little too much – it might not be a good sign when you’re listening to a song and suddenly you realize that the song lines up perfectly with how you’re trying to portray a character in a particular scene. (For the amusement of those of you who have read some of my manuscript, here are 2 examples: Del and Chay – please ignore the weird videos…) I guess it doesn’t help that I have a new favorite band. I switch favorite bands every couple months, it really depends what catches my ear and imagination.

But maybe it is good, because it means that I’ve got a solid sense of the characters. Maybe I should find songs for my other main characters! Any other writers out there find themselves doing things like this

Here’s another silly game for y’all. What kind of birds are in the following pics? Answers will be forthcoming at the end of my weekend…

Bird #1

Bird #2

And a baby of the same species as Bird #2

Bird #3

Bird #4

Research and Fun Facts

Standard

Got a decent bit done this week, chapter 16-17 has been critiqued, and chapter 18 is ready to send off. I also did a good bit of research this week to add some realistic detail to the coming chapters and make sure I’m not completely making stuff up.

I also summarized ‘the story so far’ to send out to my kind alpha readers, who have been very patient so far. Since I tend to be overly obscure and ‘subtle’ in my first drafts, I hope that clarifying the things that I intended to have established by this point will help minimize hair loss via frustration while reading the next chapters.

This was a research-filled week, as I read up on avian flight for work (that’s our volunteer education topic for the week). I enjoy researching these things far too much; there is always the possibility that I won’t come back when I start looking things up. Wikipedia, for all its unreliability, is very user-friendly, and I can never stop clicking the linked words. And once you read one chapter in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior or the Manual of Ornithology, you can’t really stop there. There are just so many fun pictures. I realize I’m a dork.

I like to learn silly little facts and share them with people, just to prove how much of a dork I am. For example:

Did you know that unlike most rabbits, the Nuttall’s Cottontail (aka Mountain Cottontail), is known to climb trees? It is frequently seen climbing juniper to reach the moisture that the succulent leaves extrude at dawn.

How about the fact that if you have a skunk visiting your yard regularly in hot, dry summer months, the best thing to do is to stop watering your lawn? Skunks love invertebrates, and they especially like the snails and slugs that you encourage by keeping things so nice and moist.

Or that the Northern Short-tailed Shrew has poisonous saliva that can paralyze or kill insects, invertebrates, or even larger prey such as mice. The pics below are from a N. Short-tailed Shrew I raised and released in MI in 2008.

This Week in the Life

Standard

Well, Chapter 16 and 17 are off to the writing group! I did some brief work on chapter 18, but there’s still quite a ways to go. I created a list to help guide the last half of the project, and since I love lists, this is very exciting (but does not actually move the progress bar at all…)

I spent the majority of this week sick and sitting around, so you’d think it would help the writing process. But in actuality, it doesn’t. The cold plus the cold meds combine to significantly curtail all my creativity and motivation. Instead, I watched some really old SNL and played with silly putty in between naps. Yes, I am awesome like that.

So most of my progress this week occurred in the last 36 hours. I don’t like pushing it so late, it feels rushed and I worry about the quality of work. But, you do what you have to in order to keep things moving!

This week, work was almost like summer! 20-some admits for three or four days in a row. Not even near the record, but still busy!

We have lots of fun patients at the moment. We have nearly 100 eastern gray squirrels and mallards all together, which accounts for a good portion of our workload. 2 adorable little coyote puppies arrived on Saturday, and they are just as cowardly cute as ever. We have baby barn owls coming out our ears – or should I say shredding our ears? Barn owls are super cute and fuzzy when they’re little, but they ARE the original banshees! Only a month to go before 5 of our 7 yearling bears go back where they belong, and hopefully our winter residents (migratory birds who missed migration) will be on their way this week.

And last but most cutest, we have 5 smelly baby weasels. They’re so wiggly and long, with mouths all full of kitten teeth. I swear, if you condensed their smell, it would probably double the number of weasels we have. Their eyes should be opening in the next few days, if they haven’t opened already. I don’t have pics of our current babies, maybe I can pick some up tomorrow, but I do have pics from a juvenile weasel from MI in 2008. Here ya go:

See? Cute! And that’s just a big kid!

Babies are always much more fun than adults. We still need to be very careful not to allow the animals to get used to humans or view us as a food source, but infant care is much more hands-on than wild adult care. In most instances, babies don’t automatically think of us as predators, so our presence isn’t quite as stressful to them. And best of all, babies have great release rates!

I always look forward to this time of year, because in between the sad things like cat-mauled finches and gunshot crows, there are healthy babies who just need a little help. Don’t get me wrong, some of the most rewarding patients are the adult animals that survived awful injuries to make it back out into the wild. But there is always high mortality in a trauma center, and it can be wearing. Babies are cute and fun and funny; they help remind all of us who work in wildlife rehabilitation what we are working for.

So happy spring, everyone!

To Keep or Not to Keep?

Standard

Made some good progress this week, and I expect to make some more before I sleep tonight. I found a decent groove again, and finally finished chapter 14-15 and sent them out for critique. Also, I’m nearly done with chapter 16 as well. Still distracted by Bleach though…

This week I had a conversation with a customer at the wildlife center that got me thinking. We have monitors showing video of our 7 bear cubs, and this woman brought her 15-year-old daughter in to see the bears. The girl was obviously absolutely enamored by what we do; although she was very quiet, she reminded me of myself when I was younger. I hope she sticks out three more years and then comes to volunteer for us.

Her mother did not remind me of nice things. She wasn’t overtly rude or mean, and I do feel like we had a constructive conversation. But she started out trying to goad me. Or at least, that’s how I felt.

“You got room for opossums right now?” she asked. “‘Cause I just passed a hit-by-car possum on the side of the road. I didn’t stop to check if it had babies because a couple years ago we found some and you wouldn’t take them. You were full. We did the illegal thing and kept them. One year we did squirrels, too.”

She said it like a challenge. She said it self-righteously, almost angrily. She said it, and what she meant was “just try telling me I shouldn’t have done it, I’ll take you on!”

And what could I say, really? We do get full. We’re a non-profit, with limited money, limited space, limited staff. We limit the number of animals we take in because we refuse to give sub-standard care for our animals. We take as many as we can, and we are always trying to find ways to care for more without shoving 80 squirrels into a shoebox.

We work hard to help people find a place to send the animal if we don’t have room, but the truth is there are always more animals than there is space in the rehab facilities in the area. Wildlife isn’t really a priority for most people. I mean, let’s face it, we can’t even get humans the help they need, how much less do we do for animals? Luckily, they take care of their own food and housing as long as we don’t hit them with cars or cats. But still. There is a need, and the four major centers in the state of Washington cannot meet that need in its entirety.

But does all that mean this woman was justified in keeping the opossums or the squirrels? She did break the law, but her goal was admirable – to help those animals. We probably were full. And although there are always options other than keeping the animal – at some level she (and probably her daughter) wanted to keep those babies. They’re terribly cute – trust me, I know how cute they are! She wanted to help. She went to great lengths just to help those animals. She became responsible for their lives, she is a savior. She feels special and accomplished. How could I stand against that? How dare I disagree with that? Am I so selfish and self-righteous that I would scold her for doing that, just because it is against the law?

I suppose so. I disagree at a very deep level with people trying to raise animals without training and licensing. It violates my ethical code.

I’ve seen too many instances where it has gone terribly wrong, for the humans and for the animals. I’ve seen birds fed such poor quality food that their bones cannot even stand up against the pull of their weak little muscles. I’ve seen raccoons that are too old and destructive for the people who raised them to keep them, and now they are so used to people they can’t ever go back out into the wild again. I’ve seen squirrels that were fed with such poor technique that their chests are sunken in with pneumonia. I’ve seen countless animals brought in dying just because people wanted to try to care and something went wrong. These are sad, sad things. These are the situations that I would do almost anything to avoid. This is why I believe that in 98% of cases, humane euthanasia is better for an animal than being raised by untrained hands.

Was this lady one of the 2% or one of the 98%? I don’t know. I’m not so far gone as to say that anyone who violates my beliefs in this area is wrong or bad. Lots of people have the interests of the animals at heart, and have different ways of acting on those interests. I’d like to believe that she did well, and those animals lived well in her care and afterward. I’d like to believe that next time she’ll call us before she tries to do it on her own.

Baby season has begun, and soon we’ll be full. It is unavoidable, and this same situation will arise again and again. As much as I want to, I cannot take responsibility for the animals that don’t make it into our care. I can’t control what people do, but I can educate the people who I come into contact with. After all, unless you have experienced the horror that results from improper care, and seen the suffering of innocent baby animals first hand, how could you possibly understand my stance that euthanasia would be better?

This, I think, is the root of all of it. It is extraordinarily hard (in life, not just regarding wildlife) to be objective. To keep our own goals, wants, and needs from clouding our judgement. In this case, to see that good intentions do not always bring good results. Although it is a struggle and I don’t always manage it, it is my goal and my job to put the needs of the animals first – and to communicate this with people who care.