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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wild Animal Rehab

Air Date: Week of

As more and more wildlife habitat gets converted into housing and commercial developments, more and more wildlife are getting hurt or killed by humans. Motor vehicles are especially dangerous, but lawnmowers and chainsaws also take their toll. It used to be that wildlife biologists would say people should leave wounded critters alone and let nature take its course. But a growing number are telling people to contact their local wildlife rehabilitator. From member station W-N-Y-C in New York, Amy Eddings has our report.


CURWOOD: As more and more wildlife habitat gets converted into housing and commercial developments, more and more wildlife is getting hurt and killed by humans. Motor vehicles are especially dangerous, but lawn mowers and chainsaws also take their toll. It used to be that wildlife biologists would say leave wounded critters alone and let nature take its course. But a growing number are telling people to contact their local wildlife rehabilitator. From member station WNYC in New York, Amy Eddings has a report.

(Footfalls through tall grasses)

EDDINGS: An hour and a half's drive west from New York City, in the rural community of Clinton, New Jersey, Tracy Nash gives me a tour of what used to be her garage.

(Door opens)

EDDINGS: Over time it's become the Woodlands Wildlife Refuge.

NASH: Okay, we have right here in this cage are 3 little red squirrels that came in. The mom was killed in a tree-cutting incident over the weekend. And the next several cages are gray squirrels of various ages. We have a mother possum in this cage that came in last night after being hit by a car, that has a pouch full of babies. And --

EDDINGS: Ms. Nash is a wildlife rehabilitator. Rehabbers, as they like to be called, donate their time, money, and in Ms. Nash's case their homes, to nurse injured or orphaned wildlife back to health and release them.

(Baby raccoons cry out)

EDDINGS: These cantankerous baby raccoons will be transitioned to outdoor cages in a few months and released into the woods several weeks after that. But a few animals aren't so lucky.

(Snoring sounds)

EDDINGS: A possum snores, fast asleep in his cage. He was permanently blinded after being hit by a car, and will live out his life here.

(Snoring continues)

EDDINGS: Saving injured wildlife isn't a line of work people plan on doing. Ms. Nash, like most rehabbers, got involved by chance. She already had a reputation in town as an animal lover when a friend brought her 2 injured raccoons 12 years ago. Today, she has a nonprofit organization that takes in hundreds of wild animals a year, from bobcat, black bear, and river otter, to rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels. The growth of Woodlands Wildlife Refuge is due to word of mouth about Ms. Nash's skill as a rehabber. It's also due to an increase in human encounters with wildlife in the area, which is seeing more development.


NASH: My neighbor's clearing another field. Used to be woods like this for the next 20 acres, but it's clear-cut right beyond this acre.

EDDINGS: In many rural communities across the country, low- density suburban sprawl is gobbling up farm land, woods, and other areas where wildlife thrive. Hunterdon County is the second-fastest-growing county in New Jersey. Twenty years ago three quarters of the county were considered farm land; now, half of it is. John Madden is a local planning consultant.

MADDEN: What's happening is that the wildlife habitat is being invaded by development, and we're consequently squeezing the wildlife out so more and more wildlife have to occupy less and less land. And that wildlife is coming into more and more contact with residences.

EDDINGS: And into more and more contact with cars. Eight thousand deer alone were struck and killed by drivers in New Jersey last year, and that's the fate of most of the parents of the orphaned baby animals that are brought to wildlife rehabbers each spring and summer.

(Nursing sounds)

EDDINGS: At Woodlands Wildlife Refuge, volunteer Jackie Cortwright uses a syringe to feed formula to orphaned baby gray squirrels. Another tiny gray squirrel just 5 weeks old was found on somebody's sidewalk.


(Sucking sounds continue)

CORTWRIGHT: You have to go very slow with him because sometimes he takes a lot of breaks. He eats good. Come on.

(Water runs)

EDDINGS: Every feeding and every cleaning helps these squirrels stay alive, but it also makes them a little more used to humans and a little less fit for surviving in the wild on their own. Most rehabbers try to keep themselves emotionally and physically distant from their charges. Tracy Nash admits it's hard to do.

NASH: They are not our domestic animals, and we cannot treat them the same as we do with them. And it's a very hard thing to cross over into, because you have to behave completely different around these wild guys.

EDDINGS: Well, wouldn't some people argue that if you really wanted to make that case you wouldn't help these guys out at all?

NASH: Right. But we're not out looking for them. They've already come here because somebody's interfered and brought them here.

EDDINGS: You tell them to let them go, put them on the side of the road in a box.

NASH: Yeah, you tell them. (Laughs)

EDDINGS: That was the message of wildlife officials 20 years ago. Larry Harety is a biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game, and Wildlife, which monitors the state's 111 rehabbers and oversees their training and licensing. While some biologists think the resources used to help individual animals would be better spent on saving wildlife populations as a whole, Harety says most biologists today are more sympathetic.

HARETY: I think it's the social side of wildlife science that comes into play here. Humans just have that basic human nature to want to help things that are injured.

EDDINGS: Not all rehabbers do a good job helping injured wildlife. Harety says he's had to shut down 7 rehabbers in the last 8 years, some for unclean conditions, others for failing to keep the animals wild. Nationally, 2 rehabbers associations, boasting around 3,200 members, are working to make the field more professional, and to teach people how to live with the animals around them. Some pointers: slow down when you're driving at night. Never move a hurt animals with your bare hands. Wait to see if mom comes back before rescuing what you think are abandoned babies. And don't put a stunned animal in the back seat of your car, unless you have a way to tie it down. If the animal wakes up, you might end up injured, too. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.



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