It started with a phone call a couple weeks ago, in Solon. “I have eight baby raccoons. Their eyes are barely open. The mother raccoon is dead.”
So begins the wildlife babies season.
Most wildlife around here, especially mammals and birds, bear or hatch their young in the spring. And about now, more people are getting outside more. That means the two sides cross paths more often. In this case, someone had been doing tree work. The babies were found in the tree. The key phrase? “The mother raccoon is dead.”
There is a pretty firm rule of thumb for anyone who finds a wildlife baby in the wild. Leave it alone.
“Most often, the parent is close by. Pick it up and bring it home and you are taking it away from its parents, its natural setting…and a chance to grow up wild,” warns DNR wildlife management biologist Tim Thompson.
“That fawn is not abandoned. Its mother hid it in the grass, while she browses. When the fawn needs to nurse, she will come back…unless someone has spooked it or carted it home.”
If a wild animal is truly orphaned…or injured…a wildlife rehabilitator can step into the picture.
“Maybe 30 to 40 raccoons, six or eight skunks,” estimates Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, of Wellman, looking at her seasonal workload. She works with carnivores, noting that rehabbers specialize whenever possible. “That way, there is one kind of formula. Also, you don’t have the harmful interaction, as they get older.”
Whatever critters they care for, it is not a casual hobby. Box up a litter of bunnies or a fawn to take home and you’re setting yourself up for week—months—of work. Or, you are pronouncing a death sentence for that animal.
“Depending on their size, they eat every three hours. I go through laundry like crazy; maybe four loads a day,” guesses Fitzgerald. “I might have 25 raccoons stacked up in pet taxis. I’ll feed them, clean up after them…and five minutes after I’m done, it starts all over. It’s a bit overwhelming sometimes.”
Some species take less work. Fitzgerald says little rabbits are weaned faster, compared to the raccoons and skunks. On the other hand survival for rabbits runs lower.
“Carnivores stay on milk longer; maybe a few cc all the way up to a cup. Raccoons are bottomless pits,” she declares.
Even as we talked, a raccoon heard her voice and started ‘chrring’ in the background. Time for a 10 a.m. meal.
This nonpaying job takes training. What sort of formula works for which digestive system? What vaccinations are allowed? Which natural foods do they eat? And when is it time to cut them loose? You’re not going to be a rehabilitator, until you serve a comprehensive apprenticeship.
Want to help on a less regular basis? Offer to pay for a couple cases of formula. Do a few dozen loads of dirty bedding.
Even a volunteer who ‘delivers’ is a huge help. There was no officer around when I got the call for Phil Michel, in Solon, a couple weeks ago with the orphaned raccoons. So, he took them down himself. Fitzgerald says something like that is a big help, especially when you’re tied up much of the day just feeding the ones you already have.
Even then, the job doesn’t end when they near adulthood. They have to be taught to walk away from the easy life.
“I have woods and a stream nearby. The road is not a high traffic area,” notes Fitzgerald. “Raccoons tend to disperse along streams. They follow me. I turn over rocks (which hide potential meals of worms and insects). They climb around and then come back (home) and eat. Eventually, they won’t come back.”
But never say never.
“Females are more prone to return. They recognize the easy pickings,” emphasizes Fitzgerald. “I’ve had a mother raccoon come to the back door. I knew it was one of ‘mine’ after she picked through the groceries I had set down. She had her babies nearby.”
Overall, it’s a pretty heavy load. And the little ones sometimes die; just as they would in the wild. When you ‘discover’ that litter of rabbits in your yard, those coyote pups exploring outside their den, that fawn plunked down to hide in the grass…you can bet only a fraction of them will be around in a year. Nature is not Disney. Predators have to eat, too.
That’s why wildlife professionals, and especially the few dozen unpaid, overworked rehabilitators emphasize…leave it where it is. Unless you know it is orphaned.
More Deer? It’s the Time of Year
Speaking of fawns, there will be more of them in a few weeks. And that is why you are seeing more road kills.
“Next to the rut in November, May is the busiest month for car-deer accidents,” reminds DNR biologist Tim Thompson.
By Memorial Day weekend, most Iowa fawns will be born. Right now, deer are seeking out new territories; does to drop their fawns and young bucks as their mothers show them the door, after a year of hanging around Mom. And that means crossing a lot of highways. Just as you slow down in November around likely deer crossing areas; it is not a bad idea for the next few weeks, either.