Last week’s unfortunate encounter between kayakers and a river otter on Braden River, where a woman got scratched when an otter jumped into her kayak, was an anomaly. Their whimsical antics make otters a popular attraction wherever they are on display to the public. In the wild they are seldom seen, as they are naturally shy and avoid people. But as a rabies-vector species, they should always be treated with cautious respect when they are encountered.
Peace River Wildlife Center had the privilege of treating a juvenile river otter over the weekend. It had been found loping along beside a busy road with no mother in sight. The rescuer was careful not to handle the suspected orphan with his bare hands. He corralled the otter into a kennel and brought her to PRWC where we treated her for dehydration.
River otters are found throughout Florida except for the Keys. These animals have a huge range, and are indigenous from Mexico to Alaska. They are especially abundant in Canada. Otters are a member of the mustelid family, which includes other carnivorous mammals like weasels and skunks. They have thick, luxurious, water-repellant coats that help insulate them from heat loss while spending most of their time in and around the water. Their fur density has been estimated to be 58,000 hairs per square centimeter. An average human’s head has 100 hairs per square centimeter.
Their long, slender bodies and short legs with webbed toes make otters adept swimmers. Under water they have been clocked at 4 miles per hour, while they can swim up to 6 miles per hour on the surface. Adults weigh 10-30 pounds, with the males being slightly larger. The average lifespan in the wild is around 8 years, bit they can live over 20 years in captivity.
River otters prefer fresh water, although they can be found in brackish water and are often seen in local canals—and even sometimes in the shallows of Charlotte Harbor. Their diet consists predominately of fish, crayfish, crustaceans, and turtles. Their teeth are remarkably strong, enabling them to crunch through the shells of invertebrates.
Their high metabolic rate helps maintain their body temperature in an aquatic environment, but there’s a trade-off—they must eat 15% of their body weight every day. That is the equivalent of a 200-pound person eating 30 pounds of food daily. While that might not be much of a stretch for some people, I’d hate to have to pay the bill for that steak at Outback.
In Florida, otters give birth during the fall and winter, although mating activities may occur anytime. The embryos develop over 8 weeks, but gestation can take up to 11 months. This incongruity is the result of delayed implantation. The fertilized egg can wait many months in a state delayed development, before seasonal changes trigger the implanting in the female’s uterus and continuation of the pregnancy.
Otters den in river banks, usually taking over a burrow made by another animal or a natural hollow formed by a fallen tree or root system. One to three pups are born fully furred, but blind and toothless. Their eyes open at four weeks and the babies are weaned by three months. The pups remain in a group with their mother for a year. They are social animals and are notorious for their playful antics as they learn how to hunt.
It is important to raise juveniles with others of their own species so that they learn appropriate behaviour, ensuring a full and happy life once released back into the wild. Wildlife Center of Venice has two other young otters and better facilities for raising this species than PRWC, so our baby was transferred there.
Wildlife Center of Venice has undergone a transformation in the past few months. They have purchased property near their old facility and are in the process of moving their operation there. Not having educational displays is both a blessing and a curse for them. They have more room to dedicate to rehabilitation caging and habitats, but without public visitations, it is more difficult to raise money. WCV, like PRWC, receives no federal or state funding, and relies solely on the support of donors to provide services to the public.
Pam DeFouw is the new director of operations at WCV, and she will be sharing this column with me going forward. She has been with WCV since 2012 and is looking forward to taking the organization in a bold new direction. “We will really miss co-founder Kevin Barton as he leaves to pursue other interests, but our goal is to continue the work he so tirelessly started. We want to make him proud.” I’m sure they will.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Bottle-feeding a baby otter
An otter heads toward a backyard creek
We often talk about the number of animals we see at Peace River Wildlife Center. Let’s look at the number of people that impact and are impacted by PRWC.
By rough estimate, we have approximately 100,000 visitors each year coming to the Center to tour our permanent residents’ habitats and learn more about native Florida wildlife. Other people that we see are a result of outreach programs at schools, civic organizations, and community events.
PRWC’s mission is to rehabilitate orphaned, injured, and ill native Florida wildlife and get the healthy individuals back out into the wild. Our secondary mission is to educate the people living in and visiting this area how to peacefully coexist with the abundance of wildlife with which we are fortunate enough to share this little corner of paradise.
While the rehab staff consists of a few highly trained (if not-so-highly paid) rehabbers and technicians, the rest of PRWC’s staff comprises volunteers from all walks of life. More than 100 people a year give their time, their hearts, and often their own money to help keep PRWC open, clean, and operating smoothly. Even our paid staff members can be considered volunteers if one realizes that they could be making significantly more money in the private sector than working for a small non-profit.
This past Wednesday, we celebrated and thanked our staff (both volunteers and employees) with a special dinner in their honour, immediately after our annual membership meeting. Held at Laishley Crab House, the event was well-attended and a huge success.
We are grateful for our volunteers at PRWC. We appreciate their hard work as they clean each cage and habitat every day. They scrub, scoop, and rake. They chop food, wash laundry, and sweep floors. They provide tours, man the gift shop, and answer phones. They are hospital aides, tour guides, gift shop clerks, maintenance engineers, cleaners, board members, office staffers, rescuers, outreach reps, and home care techs. They rescue injured animals, pick up donated items, go to outreach events, and cobble our crumbling facilities together with duct tape and promises of the future.
This amazing little army keeps PRWC running and has been responsible for most of the major changes and improvements over the years. Without them we could not function on a daily basis and could not provide the level of care that we do to our patients and resident animals.
The Annual State of the Organization Address was extremely positive. Adequate funds have been raised for the online gift shop start-up. We are close to 80% of our goal towards our capital campaign. We have had an infusion of fresh blood into our board and the seasoned members taking over new positions as officers are excited to carry on the legacy of their successful predecessors.
Thanks to our staff of volunteers and employees, Trip Advisor has rated PRWC as the #1 Thing To Do in Punta Gorda. We get visitors from all over the county, state, country, and world. Many of them come to see our star attraction, Luna, the leucistic (albino) owl.
Speaking of Luna, PRWC is having our second annual bluegrass celebration as a fundraiser this weekend. LunaTunes will be Saturday, March 3, starting at 1p.m. at Florida SouthWestern State College Campus (26300 Airport Road, Punta Gorda.) We had such a great response last year, we sold out of tickets and had to move to a larger venue.
Featuring three well-known area bluegrass bands—Southwind Bluegrass Band, The Bugtussle Ramblers, and The Sawgrass Drifters— LunaFest tickets are only $10 each and available at PRWC’s office or online at www.prwc.rocks . Food and drinks will be available onsite (Big John’s amazing barbeque) so no coolers, please. You are encouraged to bring your own chairs. For more information go to www.peaceriverwildlifecenter.org or call 941-637-3830. Tickets may be available at the gate.
by – Robin Jenkins, DVM
Luna Tunes 2018 poster
In early January 2018, Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a bald eagle that had been burned by a power pole discharge. While it isn’t a common injury for us to treat, an electrical shock is not unheard of. When we do have an incident like this, Florida Power & Light is extremely responsive. They investigate and repair the pole (and numerous poles on either side of it) to make sure the poles are safe going forward, for both the wildlife and workers who may encounter it.
The word “electrocution” was first used in the late 1880’s in the United States to describe a new form of electrical execution via the electric chair, which was invented by a dentist, who apparently was no longer content to just torture patients in his dental chair. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who was a patient of Dr. Goldy, the pediatric dentist I was sentenced to as a child.)
Originally it referred only to death by that method, but quickly caught on as a term to describe accidental death by shock since no word for that existed. Electrocution is now also used to describe serious but non-fatal injuries due to electric shock, the results of which may vary depending on the strength of current and length of exposure.
When an electrical current passes through the body, it can cause immediate death by stopping the heart or respiration. It can also cause more insidious damage when the current flows in one part of the body and out another. Quite often those relatively minor-looking injuries will become life-threatening over the course of the next few days. The tissues—nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and organs—between the entrance and exit wounds can become necrotic, leading to the eventual death of the victim.
Luckily for the eagle, we believe our patient had been burned rather than shocked. (If you can consider being burned all over your body a stroke of luck.) The bird had just landed atop the power pole with a fish he caught in a nearby canal. According to one witness, a large spark arced from the line next to the eagle into the ground a few feet away. Our patient was burned by the heat emanating from that arc. He was blown or jumped into the canal, which seems like adding insult to injury, but may have helped save his life. The intense heat on his feathers and skin was immediately quenched by the cool water.
When he got to PRWC, the eagle’s prognosis was guarded. He could have inhaled the heat or water, causing damage to his lung tissue or pneumonia. He could have broken bones in his wings or legs when he fell. The delicate tissue of his eyes could have been destroyed. A serious incident like this can have long-lasting repercussions.
We dubbed the eagle Icarus, after the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea. Whether it was hubris or hunger that initiated the event, our Icarus didn’t drown, and he is now recovering nicely from his injuries. He suffered burns on most of the feathers all over his body, head, and wings. The skin on his face and feet were singed. But the sensitive tissues of his eyes and respiratory systems seem to have been spared. He has no broken bones and with a recent development of his predilection to perch on top of a doorway, we have reason to believe he may be able to fly again someday.
The skin on his feet and face is healing well and his appetite is good. He will be placed in our 100-foot flight cage soon while the rest of his feathers molt. It can take up to three years for an eagle to molt every feather on his body, and Icarus had almost all his feathers affected. With the damage that was done to his skin, we are cautiously optimistic that his body will go into overdrive and replace the seared feathers more quickly.
In the meantime, we will continue to care for this decrepit soul until he is once again the majestic bird he once was—and will be again, thanks to the community’s support.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Icarus getting feisty.
Icarus perching atop the door.
Peace River Wildlife Center invites you to celebrate the first birthday of the latest addition to our family of glove-trained birds. Orion the barred owl turned one on February 14 this year. He is our Valentine baby, and lives up to all that entails by being such a love.
Orion was transferred to PRWC last year as a fledgling from our sister organization, the Wildlife Center of Venice. They had helped to re-nest the barred owl chick when he was found on the ground, but subsequent exposure to the people at the site caused the bird to get habituated to humans and unsuitable for life in the wild.
Barred owls, with their distinctive “Who cooks for you?” call, were historically found on the east coast of the U.S., but have been expanding north and west into Canada and now down into northern California, due to changing habitat. They do not migrate and usually spend their entire lives within a six-mile radius of where they hatched.
Breeding season in Florida is late January to March. Hatchling barred owls are born covered in white fluffy down, which is slowly replaced by adult feathers as they age. The young barred owl will have complete adult plumage by six months.
At four to five weeks of age, the “branching” (an age between nestling and fledgling) baby bared owl will perch on the edge of the nest and climb out onto nearby branches. If he drops to the ground, he can usually climb back up his tree or a neighboring one using his talons and beak to dig in, while fluttering his wings to get to lower branches. He will remain there while his parents protect and feed him. This unique behavior is what got Orion in trouble when people interacted with him and lured him down from the tree to feed him.
During a re-nesting, we normally ask the homeowners in the area to keep an eye on the baby and let us know if it falls out of the nest again. We will re-nest another time or two, but if a hatchling continues to end up on the ground, we assume there is either something wrong with the baby or there are larger siblings that will not allow the smaller one to eat and rest comfortably. I know that feeling, having had an older sister who used her height and weight advantages to torture me throughout our youth.
When WCV heard nothing more about the status of the barred owl, they assumed all was well. Until it wasn’t. The homeowners, concerned that the parents weren’t feeding the owlet enough, were luring it down from the tree to feed it ground meat off their shoes. Eventually they called WCV back to say they were now concerned that the young owl wouldn’t go back up into the tree.
The owlet was taken back into rehab and placed with foster parent barred owls to try to wild him up again. But by then, the damage was done. He had been habituated and would not know how to feed himself or associate with members of his own species.
Luckily, PRWC was able to obtain a permit to keep the owl as an education bird. We named him Orion, after the hunter from Greek mythology and the constellation, although he would actually never be able to hunt in the wild. He took to glove-training easily and is one of our most sought-after birds for outreach events and greeting visitors at the Center. Orion will be at the Peace River Woodcarvers Show at the Turner Agricultural Center in Arcadia on Saturday February 17 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Or stop by PRWC to wish him a happy birthday. He likes dead mice if you want to get him a gift.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Orion’s baby picture–when transferred to PRWC.
Orion is now a 1 yr old
Peace River Wildlife Center has received numerous calls recently concerning rabies. After a brief lull in occurrence in Florida, this lethal virus seems to be rearing its ugly head again. According to Florida Department of Health rabies surveillance data, there were 60 reported cases of animals testing positive for rabies in 2017 around the state (through the month of September.)
This appears to be an alarming increase from the low numbers of three and seven in 2016 and 2015, respectively. That is, until you look back even further. In the preceding 10 years the average number of rabies cases was 126 per year, with 2005 topping out at 201.
Rabies is a viral disease that any warm-blooded mammal can contract. (Birds, fish, and reptiles do not get rabies and cannot carry it.) It can be prevented, but not cured. Attention must be sought immediately after a potential exposure to initiate treatment for the best chance of success. The virus attacks the central nervous system, and ultimately the brain. It is essentially 100% fatal once symptoms have started.
The disease is usually spread from the bite of an infected animal. In Florida, most cases are in raccoons, followed by bats and then other wild mammals. Each year, domestic cats are still represented in a few reported cases. It is very important to protect your companion animals (cats, dogs, and ferrets) by keeping their vaccinations current, neutering them to decrease the likelihood of wandering, keeping them on leash or in a fenced yard, and feeding them indoors. If you must feed outside, do so during the day only, bringing the food in after dark. Keeping your trash covered and contained also helps reduce the attraction of wild animals to your location.
If you find a wild animal known to be a rabies vector species (raccoon, bat, fox, otter, coyote, skunk, bobcat, etc.) that you think may be injured, do not touch it with bare hands. Even if you think it was just hit by a car, there may be a reason it wandered into traffic in the first place. Call a wildlife professional from PRWC or Charlotte County Animal Control to assist with the capture. At the very least, use thick leather gloves, a thick towel, or a shovel or board to gently nudge the animal into a box or kennel if it is not active and alert.
You do not have to be bitten to be exposed to rabies. The animal’s saliva can get into a recent scratch or any area of broken skin. If you think you may have been exposed, report it immediately to PRWC, CCAC, and the county health department.
We should always use an abundance of caution when dealing with wild animals, but being overly paranoid can be almost as dangerous. Treat every animal that appears to be ill or injured carefully, but not all of them will be rabid. Less than 1% of all bats may actually have rabies. While raccoons are normally more active at night, seeing one during daytime hours does not mean it is rabid, or even sick at all. It may be a nursing mother looking for food, or it may be searching for water during a dry spell.
All of the native species of wildlife have a job here in Florida. Bats eat thousands of mosquitoes and other flying insects that can make our lives uncomfortable. Raccoons are opportunistic omnivores that eat rodents and even carrion. We don’t need to rid ourselves of the wildlife that surrounds us—we just need to learn to live with them. A few simple precautions can help keep us, our pets, and wildlife safe from each other.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Brazilian free-tailed bat