Dangers of inexperienced wildlife rehabilitation
So…some of my friends brought this story to my attention, and of course, I was horrified. Apparently, an officer at a local school maced the poor thing, claiming defense of students and himself.
The video can be seen on youtube if you wish to look it up. Here is a rehabilitator’s take on a possible scenario. It’s a possibility that this animal was taken in and raised by a person who is not a licensed rehabilitator. This person may have gotten lucky enough to keep the squirrel alive, and healthy enough to reach an age where they thought it was old enough for release. They probably didn’t consider the ramifications of imprinting that animal, or take the time to think of an appropriate release site, or bothered to teach the squirrel how to identify the kinds of foods it will be eating in the wild.
What does all of that add up to? A wild animal that does not know how to find food on its own, and one who looks to people for reassurance, comfort, and shelter. Toss in thoughtlessly releasing the poor animal in the most convenient location for the humans and not the squirrel, and you end up with a four-ounce squirrel with a face full of police grade pepper spray, and a group of screaming school children.
Oh, how this could have been handled so much more eloquently…for those of you who ever find yourselves in a situation where you are considering macing a squirrel, a tea towel, a shirt, or a blanket tossed over the critter will most likely allow you to pick it up without getting bitten, and most importantly, without harming the squirrel. In this situation, if you are truly worried about the kids, send them inside the building until the professional that you have called arrives.
Back to my main topic of conversation for today. Assuming the scenario I presented was a true one, sadly enough, this was one lucky squirrel. Rehabilitating squirrels (and most other species) without a license is illegal. It used to drive me nuts not being able to find enough information on how to care for a found animal. There is good reason for it. But, I didn’t know that then. All I could ever find, was take it to a licensed rehabilitator, but I never found a justification for that statement. So, here is an in-depth reason why that is such perfect advice. The good Samaritan law states that you have 72 hours to get these animals to a rehabber.
Rehabbers usually ask that if you find orphaned wildlife, not to feed them. As humans, we find great comfort in eating, and we use provision of food to loved ones as a means of healing and forming bonds. Naturally, that is also our first reaction when we find sick, injured, or simply orphaned wildlife. Please listen to the rehabber when they ask you not to feed the baby.
Cow’s milk, and puppy/kitten milk replacers (and the little bottles that come with them) you can find at petsmart and petco are usually people’s first choice when they find orphaned wildlife. All three of these choices, as well as the bottles and nipples available in these places are completely inappropriate to feed any orphan wildlife. They are barren in necessary nutrients, and very harsh on the little wild one’s GI tract. It leads to major, painful bloating that can take days to get over.
On top of that, there is a huge risk of aspiration (inhalation of formula) with inappropriate bottles and nipples. Even with the proper tools, aspiration is a huge risk, and can lead to aspiration pneumonia and a long painful death for the little one without immediate action.
The rehabber’s first task after ensuring the baby is warm and undamaged, is assessing its hydration level. The majority of the time, babies come in too cold, and dehydrated. Feeding a cold or dehydrated baby can also spell disaster. Baby squirrels cannot regulate their own body temperature, cold squirrels cannot assimilate any food into their systems. Feeding a cold squirrel can kill it, as well as feeding it the wrong strength of formula too soon.
Even if one not licensed to rehab clears these hurdles, and the baby lives, there is a whole new set of risks and intentioned injuries that may be suffered upon a baby in inexperienced care. One of the biggest problems with raising baby animals is metabolic bone disease. This is an extreme lack of calcium that their growing bodies need. This is caused by inappropriate diet. It leads to paralysis, deformity, and brittle bones that break easily. It is a very painful condition. If caught early, and in a young animal, it is sometimes reversible with intensive treatment. Adults with metabolic bone disease cannot be cured, and the kindest thing for these animals is euthanasia. An option that would have been completely unnecessary if they had been getting proper care from the beginning.
Getting to the pre-release point not enduring even these most common place maladies (or any other conditions) with no knowledge or game plan is amazing to say the least. But, for the sake of discussion, lets say that our average joe citizen has gotten this far, and now has a healthy, happy juvenile squirrel. A squirrel that he has played with at every opportunity, and who has bonded to him during every feeding, riding around on his shoulder. Our little adorable squirrel has graduated from formula to Cheerios and shelled, salted sunflower seeds! At this point, our little squirrel is eating solid foods, and playing with the family cat who loves everybody, and chasing the kids around the room in a lively game of tag. Oh how cute! We should film it, and put it on youtube!
Now it is time for joe citizen’s little squirrel to return back into the big world where he came from. The family decides to release him in a green park in the middle of the neighborhood. There are plenty of trees there, squirrels eat trees, right? And the kids have a place to play, and everyone is always walking their dogs, there are lots of other squirrels there, and the neighbor’s cats are always roaming the park, chasing butterflies, and eating crickets.
Of course I am sure you, my dear reader, can see the folly in his plan. This squirrel loves to chase children, likes shoulder rides, thinks cats are playmates, and has no idea what food looks like! The park has no cheerio tree. Our poor little squirrel wouldn’t even know how to go about finding it if there was one! Who is going to tell him that he is a big boy now, and that big boy, wild squirrels don’t get shelled salted sunflower seeds? Who is going to tell him that now that he is wild, he needs to stop eating unbalanced meals, because out here in the wild world, there is no one to take care of him if he gets sick? There is no one to bring him bowls of water, and now he doesn’t know how to shell his own seeds. That orange tabby eyeing him from the picnic table doesn’t want to play, and the children run, screaming in fear when he approaches. There are these huge, shiny metal boxes on four wheels that make loud noises at him when he runs onto that huge slab of stone with yellow lines drawn on it.
Our dear squirrel is lonely, confused, hungry, and homeless, and none of these humans in this park are anything like his humans. They don’t like it when he climbs on their shoulders. They try to hit him and kick him. No one has given him a warm safe place to sleep. No one has played chase with him, and they don’t like it when he sits at their table for them to feed him. They shoo him away, and the cats chase him and swat at him. He sees other squirrels in the park, but he doesn’t know how to talk to them. They chase and bite him. Now what is left for our dear squirrel to do?
Please don’t try to rehabilitate a wild animal alone and illegally. Do what’s right for the animal. Contact a rehabber. If you want to be involved with wildlife rehabilitation, there are plenty of rehabbers that would be glad to let you be a part of it. NBRR included. Students who go through the WREN project get a chance to become a NBRR sub-permitee, and are allowed to rehabilitate wildlife under the guidance of NBRR. There are also plenty of volunteer opportunities at the ranch.