Saving All Creatures, Great And Small
The fate of Connecticut’s wildlife lies in all of our hands, but only a few exceptional folks are doing the hands-on work.
It takes a special person to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. They are the field medics in humanity’s war on the natural world, taking in wild animals who have been injured, poisoned, orphaned or displaced by human activity. They often work out of their homes and are on call around the clock. Vacations and even downtime are rarely a reality. They are not compensated for their work, relying on donations and grants to fund their life-saving efforts. And, all too often, those efforts are for naught.
Yet it is the success stories that keep them going.
“We work desperately to save them all, but in many cases, it is not possible,” says Cristine Cummings, who co-founded the Killingworth-based raptor rescue A Place Called Hope in 2005. “The majority of cases we admit are so badly injured, we can’t put them through trying. But for those who have a chance at recovery, we dedicate our efforts.”
For many rehabbers, the inclination to help wild animals began in childhood. When she was 10 years old, Dara Reid discovered a baby field mouse taking shelter in her mother’s sock drawer. She cared for the mouse until it could survive on its own, eventually returning him to his natural habitat. This inspired her to study veterinary medicine, then wildlife biology, and by age 23, Reid had founded Wildlife in Crisis. That was in 1988. Thirty-two years later, the secluded Weston-based clinic is by far the most robust in Connecticut, answering 20,000 calls and taking in more than 5,000 wild animals each year—with the goal of healing and releasing every last one.
“I have always had a passion and empathy for animals. Their vulnerability has always stood out to me,” Reid says. “As I matured, I realized that local wildlife needed a voice and a sanctuary.”
Nadia McCartney was also about 10 years old when she found a baby jackrabbit with a broken leg. She made a splint for it using a twig, then raised the rabbit until it was ready to be released. The rewarding experience made a lifelong impact on her. Today she runs Helping Hands for Wildlife, a nonprofit group in Woodbury that is licensed to rehabilitate rabies vector species (RVS) such as raccoons, foxes and skunks, as well as other mammals.\
“Although everyone told me not to hold out hope because [the jackrabbit] was wild and probably would die, I realized that these animals are much stronger than people believe,” McCartney recalls. “It’s worth trying to help them. I hate when people say, ‘Let nature take its course.’”
“As a biologist, I am a firm believer in letting nature take its course,” stresses Reid, “but there is nothing natural about being hit by a car, entangled in fishing line, poisoned by pesticides or wounded by a domestic cat.”
Indeed, in 98 percent of cases, it’s not nature taking its course when a wild animal is sick or hurt, but rather falls on people disrupting the natural course of life.
Vehicle strikes are the most common hazard, but there are plenty of others: poisoning by rodenticides, pesticides, herbicides, lead fishing tackle and spent ammunition; window collisions (for birds); garbage entanglements; domestic pet attacks; and habitat destruction, such as the cutting down of dead trees that house the nests of squirrels, raccoons and birds.
Then there is intentional harm by humans. “People will shoot a bird of prey if they fear it may hunt their chickens, pigeons, rabbits, even children,” says Cummings. “Who was it that said, ‘humans fear what they do not understand?’”
A Place Called Hope is currently focused on aiding birds of prey that are suffering from secondary rodenticide poisoning; rodents and small birds often ingest the toxins, then are consumed by larger birds such as hawks, eagles and vultures. While these cases are commonplace nowadays, survival is not.
“To nurse them through the damage and see them back to health is such a success, since so many die in the process,” Cummings explains. “The damage is so severe to all organs, and typically we get them admitted when it is too late—so to have one survive and go free is not only rare but rewarding.”
While healing and releasing as many birds as possible is the main goal of A Place Called Hope, some of the 500 to 600 patients they admit each year must remain “permanent residents.” These birds become ambassadors, performing live demonstrations of their beauty, power and intelligence for the public while their handlers inform the audience of the threats posed by humans.
“Everything that we do affects wildlife: our homes, our vehicles, our roads, our pets, our purchases, our trash, and more. I feel it is a moral imperative for us to alleviate some of the suffering wild animals are forced to endure in suburban and urban communities,” says Reid. “The most important thing we can do for wildlife and ourselves is to protect natural habitats from development. Habitat fragmentation causes a domino effect of imbalance. Ecosystems are a fragile symphony of species.”
Reid points out that the New England region loses 23,725 acres of forest land per year to development; Connecticut alone loses 3,700 acres annually. When forests are chopped down, meadows mowed and marshes filled in, what becomes of the animals native to those environments?
While mitigating the outcome of this dynamic, Wildlife in Crisis is also taking a proactive approach to preventing it. It has bolstered its rehabbing efforts and educational outreach with the Wildlife in Crisis Land Trust, a fund dedicated to purchasing and preserving precious open space.
“Our main focus now is on continuity, ensuring that Wildlife in Crisis will remain in perpetuity for future generations of people and wildlife,” Reid says. “Our services are needed now more than ever.”
That need already far exceeds the number of wildlife rehabilitators currently licensed by the state of Connecticut, with few prospects willing to make the commitment and sacrifices required. There is no public funding for rehabbing, and those who train and pay the licensing fees must also build cages and habitats to state specifications, at their own expense. Caring for sick and injured animals is a 24-hour-a-day job with no pay, and the emotional toll is as costly as the maintenance.
“Burnout is the biggest reason people stop rehabbing,” says Nadia McCartney of Healing Hands for Wildlife. “We deal with sickness and death all hours of the day, while most of us have to work a full-time job to afford it; I also work a part-time job.”
McCartney decided to become a licensed rehabber 12 years ago after discovering four orphaned raccoons in her garage and taking them into her home. Before long, they were wreaking havoc, so McCartney began searching for a rehabilitator to take them in. After making 20 calls and getting only one response, “I realized how few RVS rehabbers there were in Connecticut, so I decided to get my license,” she recalls.
“To date, we still have too few rehabbers because of the expense and time it takes. Yet we are wildlife’s only help, so many of us take in more than we should,” McCartney laments. “It is so hard to say no to a baby that you know will die if you do nothing.”
Jennifer Ponte Canning is a freelance writer from Fairfield County.
Top 10 Things You Can Do to Live Harmoniously with Native Wildlife
by Wildlife in Crisis
• Leave trees standing, especially mature trees that provide shelter and mast for wildlife.
• Keep cats indoors and supervise dogs.
• Watch for wildlife when driving.
• Do not trap wildlife—you will only leave orphaned young behind.
• Eliminate pesticides, herbicides or rodenticides—these are highly toxic to all living beings.
• Create pollinator pathways with native plants—natural food and shelter for bees to bears.
• Garden gently, keeping in mind frogs, salamanders and other indicator species. Turn half your lawn into a meadow.
• Install nest boxes and feeders for songbirds.
• Pick up fishing line, netting, jars and other trash that harms wildlife.
• Preserve land—habitat preservation is the most important thing we can do for wildlife.
• Become active with your local land trust.
What You Can Do
Donate: Wildlife rehab groups are non-profit organizations that rely solely on donations to fund their facilities and operations.
Educate: Spread the word about creating a safe environment for wildlife.
Volunteer: Organizations need help with animal transport, patient care, cage building/carpentry, community education, facility maintenance, fundraising, landscaping, laundry, plumbing, web design, and much more.
Preserve: Set up or contribute to a land trust.
Become a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator: Visit Tinyurl.com/CTWildlifeRehabilitator