December 2012 Issue
Shepherds of the Wild
Injured animals get a second chance, thanks to compassionate, knowledgeable volunteers.
Steve Johnson has braved mountain trails and has navigated a submarine through ocean depths, but when he found a baby rabbit lying in a Hamilton street, he felt helpless.
“The rabbit was so young, I didn’t realize at first what it was,” he says. “Then I noticed the shape of the ears.” He also noticed three dead siblings and no nest in sight. On the pavement, the rabbit flexed fitfully while sunshine gave way to storm clouds. Abandoning the animal was unimaginable. Johnson carefully carried it to a friend’s nearby home where a berry basket and dish towel became a makeshift nest.
Two hours and several telephone calls later, Johnson handed the basket over to wildlife rehabilitator Cherigene Slaughter at her rural Butler County home. She drew back the towel, assessed the inhabitant as being around seven days old, and then eased it into a nest with a slightly older rabbit.
“His buddy will keep him warm,” Slaughter told Johnson. “I’ll start him on fluids to hydrate him, then give him rabbit formula later. Overall, bunnies have roughly a 50-50 survival rate. He’s got a chance.”
One more chance is what Slaughter and other mostly volunteer rehabilitators throughout Ohio give thousands of native wildlife annually. “Whenever we can save one animal and release it to the wild, that’s a great victory,” says Slaughter, a former steelworker who volunteers with Second Chance Wildlife, a network covering southwestern Ohio.
Human encroachment is a major cause of injured and orphaned wildlife, says Bryane Roberts, development manager for the Ohio Wildlife Center
in Columbus. “What used to be the animal’s home is now someone else’s back yard. Even a window strike by a songbird is directly related to us being there.”
The Columbus center sees roughly 5,000 animals from central Ohio each year. Orphaned opossums, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, and other wildlife begin arriving en masse in the spring and continue throughout the summer. Volunteers have a chance to catch their breath and attend educational seminars over the winter, but animals continue to arrive.
It’s not only the number of creatures but also the intensity of care that necessitates a large number of volunteers.
“Take songbirds, for instance,” says Stephon Echague, director of animal care at the Sanders Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
in Stark County. “The very young have to be fed between every 15 minutes and an hour.”
“We have a lot of sleep deprivation once the deluge starts in March,” notes Slaughter. Not that she’s complaining. Like many volunteers, her affinity for animals started as a child. Her first rescue occurred when she was 8. Her grandmother struck a frog with a lawn mower, splitting the skin on the frog’s leg and preventing it from escaping.
“I got a needle and thread from the house and stitched up the leg. That must have held the muscle in place because the frog hopped away. Of course, he probably died of an infection from my stitching,” Slaughter adds, “but I thought I was helping him.”
Gayle Riegler, a volunteer with the Sanders Center, also began caring for animals as a girl. Her uncle found an orphaned raccoon when Riegler was 15 and she nursed the animal back to health. She’s loved raccoons ever since, caring for seven more orphans on her own.
Riegler began volunteering at Sanders, which takes in around 2,000 creatures annually, in the summer of 2012. A long-time volunteer for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Riegler had just said good-bye to her little sister, a young woman who was entering military service. “I was looking for another way to volunteer. When I saw how happy and dedicated everyone was at Sanders, I said, ‘That’s where I want to be,’ ” says the grandmother of three.
This year, she worked one day a week at the rehabilitation center while fostering four orphaned squirrels at her home. “They are so much fun to watch. They just got transferred to a hamster cage and they’re having a ball, exploring and playing. We feed them squirrel formula with syringes. My grandsons, who are 9 and 11, come over sometimes at feeding time. It’s good for them to learn to respect wildlife,” Riegler says.
Despite some necessary handling by volunteers, most of the creatures forget the human contact by the time they’re ready to be released. For the caretakers, many memories remain. Some are poignant.
Five days after Slaughter took in the Hamilton bunny, it took a turn for the worse and died. Slaughter was tearful as she relayed the news. Johnson, its rescuer, was saddened, but touched by the woman’s efforts.
“When I met Cherigene, I could tell she was a very compassionate person,” Johnson says. “I knew she could take much better care of the rabbit than I could. I’m grateful for volunteers like her.”
“When we lose an animal, it’s so sad,” Slaughter says. “We cry and think, ‘I can’t do this again,’ but then what about the ones that we can save and set free? That’s what keeps us going.”
With wildlife rehabilitation, the most precarious cases are often the most rewarding. Slaughter brings out a carrier holding a healthy-looking, docile baby squirrel. “He was a little pinkie, just about two days old, when he was brought to me.”
A week after Johnson’s visit, the squirrel was strong enough to spend time outside each day in a larger cage. By 12 weeks, it could be ready to be released.
In Stark County, Sanders volunteers cheered the release of a red-shouldered hawk that had a grim prognosis when found.
“Sometimes when young birds fall out of the nest, the parents will feed them on the ground,” Echague explains. “That wasn’t the case with this hawk. He was starving. He had maggots on his posterior and we were afraid he wouldn’t be able to function normally. His tail feathers had fallen out, which meant he couldn’t fly.”
Six months of medical care, rest and hunting lessons were needed to ready the young hawk for the wild. His wounds healed and his tail feathers grew in. The day the hawk flew away was a victory for each Sanders caregiver, Echague says.
The fact that today’s rescued squirrel may be tomorrow’s meal for the released hawk is something that wildlife rehabilitators accept philosophically. “It’s the circle of life with the food-chain animals,” Roberts points out. “We’ve done what you can do to help an animal, and now we’re setting things right — putting the circle back in order."
— If you find an injured or orphaned wild creature, stay calm and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, says Carolyn Caldwell of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Division. Do not intervene with wildlife, she adds. The animals may carry rabies or other diseases.
— To find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, call ODNR’s 800-Wildlife hotline or go to wildohio.com. Once at the website, go to Features, then to Orphaned or Injured Wildlife. That leads to a county-by-county list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators, what types of creatures they handle and how to contact them.
— If you put food out for songbirds at the beginning of winter, continue providing it. Songbirds also need an open source of water.
— Exercise caution when driving, especially when roads are hazard-ous. Be particularly alert at dawn and dusk when many mammals are on the move, Caldwell advises.