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Wildlife Rehabbers: What it Takes

  • 6/19/2015 11:07:00 AM
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Here's what it takes to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. | Iowa DNRBy Joe Wilkinson. From the May/June 2007 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine.

List of licensed wildlife rehabilitators

Wildlife rehabilitator permit application

A summer storm. A crack of lightning. A thick tree limb crashes to the ground. From a cavity, once 20 feet above ground, high pitched “chirring” and scratching can be heard. A couple whiskered noses poke out, just ahead of the oh-so-familiar black masks. A litter of raccoons is displaced. Now what?

The scenario changes constantly. Maybe it’s a nest of fox squirrels whose mother was hit by a car. A whitetail fawn is rescued by a well-meaning, but uninformed “Good Samaritan.” Maybe it’s a barred owl with a broken wing or bald eagle suffering from lead poisoning. Orphaned, injured or both; the animal is out of its natural environment. Return it to the wild? That is usually the best course of action. Quite often, that baby bird or helpless fawn is not an orphan. Humans equate “alone” with “abandoned,” when in reality the parent is nearby, waiting for the intruders to leave to coax its young to safety.

If that critter is seriously injured though, or if the parents are indeed out of the picture, the choices are sparse. Let it die or help it live. In the real world, the young, sick and injured become dinner for a variety of creatures. That is how they survive. Thousands of times each year across Iowa, though, the latter course is followed. Enter the world of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Sprinkled through the roster of licensed rehabilitators in Iowa are county naturalists, wildlife workers and veterinarians. Think you have what it takes? It’s not that easy.

It takes time. “The hawks and owls start coming in around February. The baby raccoons start showing up around May, as people pull their boats out of storage or clean out the shed,” notes rehabilitator Sharon Atwood of Baxter. “The fawns show up at the end of May, maybe the first of June. After every spring storm, there’s a chance I’ll get a call about birds or squirrels.” With a menagerie of raccoons, opossums, birds and more, her last visitors of six fawns were shown the gate in February...just in time for the next crop of hawks and owls to start falling from their late winter nests.

Anyone who has fed a hungry human household knows youngsters can eat. So do their wildlife counterparts...and not just the morning or evening bowl of food you set out for a household pet. “Every 20 minutes, when I walk by those naked, baby birds I have to stuff something in their mouths,” laughs Atwood. “It’s bottle feeding raccoons four to six times a day. Fawns need a bottle twice a day.”

It takes money.  Though donations are welcomed, a typical wildlife rehabilitator digs deep into his or her own pocket. Each recovering or growing animal needs food. Many require medicine. “We just ordered $475 worth of Succimer, medication to fight lead poisoning in bald eagles,” relays Kay Neumann, who operates SOAR (Save Our Avian Resources) in Carroll County. She deals strictly with birds. “We can mix this with their food and get them to take it orally. We used to have to inject it. Imagine dealing with an eagle, holding it down to administer a painful injection.”

 Atwood estimates she and her husband spend hundreds of dollars a year out of pocket. She used to feed goat’s milk to all the nursing babies, buying it for $3 a gallon, but her supplier doesn’t raise goats anymore. That means buying milk replacer for $30 a bag. “I’ll go through three bags in a year,” says Atwood. The six deer she rehabilitated in 2006 would not eat less costly grass hay. “I (went) through 100 little square bales of alfalfa hay, at $2.75 a bale,” says Atwood.

It takes skill.  Atwood has an advantage. Until retiring recently, she worked at a veterinary clinic. Through the years, they pinned several broken wings of hawks or owls, brought to her for treatment. On occasion, to save an injured deer, a leg was amputated. Conferences and classes help rehabbers learn how to deal with injuries along with how and what to feed certain species. “I’ve learned not to pet or handle the young fawns,” says Atwood. “Early on, I might have held an animal back from the wild for too long.” She—and others—learned that each species has a timetable for getting acclimated to the wild, especially as winter approaches.

It takes dedication.  From pelicans to foxes, to the annual influx of raccoons, deer and songbirds, Rachelle Hansen of Shueyville spends spring, summer and fall tending needs of injured or abandoned critters while juggling her home life and a career in realty. “If you know what to do, if you can do something about it, you just have to,” says Hansen. “I’ve been doing it most of my life. I feel obligated to do it.”

Hansen works with her feathered and furry pupils at her place near the Coralville Reservoir. As they heal or get older, they move from pens to the yard and eventually to walks in the woods or fields. “We take longer and longer adventures. I want to expose them to as much as I can—how to react to other animals and to humans, where that food comes from that they’ve been eating,” says Hansen. 

With the all-too-frequent cleanup of messes, force feeding medication, being on call 24-hours and the pragmatic expectation that some of their charges will die, the life of a rehabilitator is not what you anticipate when your child approaches with a furry wildlife baby, asking, “Can I take him home?”  Living near Coralville Reservoir, Hansen has worked with five pelicans over the years. Only three returned to the wild. Still, she spent a couple months mending one big, ungainly bird through the winter...long after the flocks had left for the Gulf Coast. Its minor wing injury healed well. With winter underway and a steady diet of fish from the frozen foods department, though, he was in no hurry to leave.

Hansen tried to hitch a ride for him, pricing shipment by air. It was cheaper to take him herself. “It was Super Bowl weekend—the one weekend where nobody would miss me,” she jokes. With the pelican and its six-foot wingspan in the backseat, she pointed her car south. A couple days later, they pulled up to a barren stretch of coastline. “Even before he could see the water, he got excited,” recalls Hansen. “We both hopped out of the car and stretched. As I strolled the beach, he followed me.” The pelican took flight, winging his way to the water, 200 yards away. “We had our own Super Bowl touchdown when he hit the water,” laughs Hansen.

Often, the call when someone finds a wildlife baby is to a DNR conservation officer or county naturalist who often determines whether it should go to a rehabilitator, and makes the pickup and drop off.

“Without rehabilitators, the outlook would be pretty grim,” concedes (now former) DNR officer George Hemmen. “The public expects us to do something. You might say, “it’s only a raccoon,” but to the kid who finds that litter, he wants to know what happens to it—that it (stands a chance) to be released back into the wild.” Through 30 years, Hemmen has handled eagles, a peregrine falcon, raccoons, a skunk—even a mink. “Just about every kind of animal you can find in Iowa,” he tallies. “Rehabilitators are great for the officers. They have a facility. Before, it was sort of a lost cause. Today, they stand a chance.”

Rehabilitators are limited.  The best teacher for de facto-orphans is its parent. Humans can’t do it as well. In many cases, simply leave the wildlife baby where it is. DNR wildlife biologist Tim Thompson had a typical call one spring day.

“We had a caller say they had rescued a fawn, that their dog had run off the mother,” he recounts. “That doe actually drew the dog away from the fawn. The newborn doesn’t have any scent yet. The doe leaves the fawn and goes to feed. If it senses danger, it sure isn’t going to jeopardize its young.” The deer’s instinct worked. It would have returned later. But by then, humans had stepped in for the rescue. That meant six or seven months of time, effort and funding by a rehabilitator to teach the fawn how to be a deer again.

After feeding a few fawns, checking a sick opossum, changing the bedding for the litter of squirrels, the rehabber might round up earthworms for the robin with a broken wing or fix a cage. In their spare time, there’s family, a job, a social life and maybe even a chance to sleep through the night. Eventually, the animal is set free—if it survives. Once on its own, those lessons and instincts dictate whether it survives the night or matures in the wild.

Long hours. Long days. Disappointment at times. But the success stories carry rehabilitators during overnight feedings, messy cleanups and digging deep for more food and supples. Hansen sometimes notices that deer she raised return. Eventually, they “go wild” and she knows her job is done. “It’s a mixed bag. You’ve spent so much time. You feel close to them,” she admits.

Evolution of Iowa Rehabilitators Decades ago, a wildlife rehabilitator was anyone who knew a little bit about animal care and paid $5 for a permit. The rehabilitator did what he or she thought was best. That changed in the mid-1980s. Bruce Ehresman, working at the DNR’s Wildlife Research Station in Boone, often received many wildlife orphans. They worked at times with Iowa State University’s fledgling Wildlife Care Clinic. Upon returning from national meetings of wildlife rehabilitators, he and wife, Marlene, were armed with ideas. Calls went out to other rehabbers and county naturalists and the Iowa Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (IWRA) formed.

“It was way too easy to get a permit,” explains Marlene. “Wildlife rehabilitation is a specialized need.”

Arming rehabilitators, vets, humane societies and others with proper information on correct wildlife care and letting the public know how to get assistance became a priority. Annual IWRA meetings drew 70 to 80 people. Soon, the IWRA worked with the state to get regulation changes, such as an apprenticeship program. Rehabbers now spend a year learning from a master rehabilitator, or two years under a general rehabilitator before qualifying for a permit. ISU also offers a wildlife care option through its animal ecology curriculum. Still, Iowa needs more.

“It’s a complex issue,” admits Marlene, who is on the IWRA board. Funding is a challenge. “Some might raise a little money through donations or fundraisers. They don’t have the expertise, though, to write grants. There is no financial help from the state. We lose some rehabilitators because of the money issue. Burnout is another factor. There are only a few rehabilitators, but there are lots of animals and lots of people to find animals.”

She’d like to see more cooperation between rehabilitators, the state and counties, better funding mechanisms and more training. “Because it’s not going to go away,” she cautions. “Humans have impacted natural areas and systems in such a huge way. Animals are getting blindsided. They need all the help they can get.”

What To Do With That Abandoned Critter

  • In most cases, leave it alone—its parent is near, hiding.
  • Remember, it is illegal for an unlicensed person to possess a wild animal.
  • Young birds can be set on a reachable branch, or back in their nest. Birds will not abandon their young because of human scent. Most birds don’t smell things that well.
  • If an animal is known to be abandoned or orphaned from a blown down tree or accident that leaves the parent dead, call a conservation officer. Their numbers are listed in hunting and fishing regulations and at Your county sheriff can contact them also.
  • Wildlife rehabilitators work for free. They usually need supplies, food (especially natural) and funding for medication. Conservation officers have more information.