Most of the stories that make it to publication are success stories—the warm, fuzzy stories about rescues, rehabs, and releases that went according to plan. It sounds so easy and rewarding when focusing only on the positive outcome, but believe it or not, there is a seedy underbelly to the glamourous work that is wildlife rehabilitation.
Most of our patients are brought to us by the people who find the injured or orphaned animals. Sometimes Charlotte County Animal Control (CCAC) will pick up the animal and deliver it to us. After hours, on holidays, or hen the animal is in Lee, Desoto, or Sarasota County, Plan B gets put into action—sometimes with varied results.
Earlier this year Peace River Wildlife Center got a call from Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) that there was a great egret on the side of the road that had been hit by a car. The officers said they would stay with the injured bird until we got there to pick it up. I wasn’t sure why they didn’t bring it in, but luckily it was my day off and the location, just over the Lee County line, was fairly close to my house.
When I arrived, the officers pointed out the bird, just in front of the swale on the side of the road. Net and sheet in hand, I approached the bird. As I stepped to the edge of the seemingly shallow puddle the bird was perched next to, I slipped on the algae and sank up to my waist in stagnant water. But I got the bird! I wrapped the sheet around its wings and head to calm it and tried to climb back up the incline.
Between the slippery slope and the weight of the soaking wet sheet and my clothes, my ascent was considerably slower than my descent. Think “I Love Lucy” meets “World’s Dirtiest Jobs.” I was impressed with the FWC officers’ professionalism; they did not laugh hysterically (until I drove away, I’m sure!) The bird had some minor contusions from being clipped by a car and was released a short time later. My clothing, however, did not survive the ordeal. There was no getting the stink out of them.
Then there was the yellow-crowned night heron hat was caught up in fishing line dangling from the mangroves across the canal from someone’s home. Of course it was early spring, of course none of the neighbors were home, of course no one in the area had a boat. The water was low enough in the canal, so I decided, after numerous other attempts filed, to walk across the canal.
Since my work boots weigh 40 pounds each when dry (that may be a slight exaggeration; I’ll bet they’re really only 37 pounds), I didn’t want to think about trying to life my feet in them soaking wet. My water shoes were in my other car along with all my other rescue equipment. These calls always come in when I am otherwise engaged. My sister, who happened to have been with me when the call came in, was wearing flip-flops, which she graciously offered me. I slipped them on, went down over the seawall via our caller’s ladder and proceeded to wade into the canal.
I picked up my foot and stepped right out of flop-flop #1 and watched it sail on downstream. Flip-flop #2 stuck in the mud and ripped apart when I struggled to lift my foot. Luckily, the mud was present only at the edges of the canal. After that, it was all sharp rocks and oyster shells. Did I mention that the water was ice cold? The bird’s luck was better than mine—there was no hook, so the damage was minimal after removing the line.
Sometimes the rescues are a success, but the outcome is not. I was called in to work on a deer that had impaled himself on a fence by almost jumping over it. Two FWC officers and a CCAC officer carried the deer into our surgical suite before leaving, and the rehabber on duty had the deer anesthetized by the time I arrived. We worked diligently to staunch the bleeding and suture the torn muscles back together.
Once we were finished with the surgery, the two of us looked at each other: Now what? The recovery pen was out the door, down the stairs, around the corner, and through a narrow passageway. Between the two of us, we barely outweighed the buck. There was no way we were going to effectively carry this unconscious patient out there.
Leaving the deer on the table under the rehabber’s watchful eye, I ran out to Ponce de Leon Park to find a couple of strapping able-bodied young fishermen who could help us. Maybe the anesthesia gasses were getting to me. Of course, what I found was a bench full of retirees, who were nevertheless quite willing to lend a hand. They not only gently delivered the deer to his recovery bed, but handed us $50 for their effort.
Unfortunately, the deer did not make it. The blood loss and a condition called capture myopathy, a severe reaction to stress that can cause complete muscle failure including paralysis and respiratory arrest, proved to be too much for this magnificent animal. The hard work of a dozen people could not save his life.
While we were devastated to lose this patient, we had to dive right back in to trying to save the next one. Because if there is one unfailing constant about wildlife rehabilitation, it’s that there will always be another sick, injured, or orphaned animal that needs our help. And the wonderful people of Charlotte County and the surrounding areas make it possible for us to continue or work, by bringing injured animals to us and by supporting us with monetary donations and items from our wish list. Thank you so much for your support.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
This week’s “cutest little stinker” award goes to a pair of eastern spotted skunks. This brother and sister duo was found in someone’s garage and quickly evicted. They are resting comfortably at Peace River Wildlife Center now.
Spotted skunks are nocturnal creatures, with weasel-like bodies and fine, silky fur. They are slightly smaller (at 1 to 2 pounds) than the more common striped skunk (4 to 9 pounds), and much more agile. They are the only skunk that can climb trees.
Outside of breeding season, they travel around seeking temporary shelter from the heat of the day in rock and brush piles, long grasses, and abandoned gopher tortoise burrows, although they can dig their own dens. They are also not averse to a nice shady garage, so watch out for uninvited guests. It is not unusual to find many females together in a den, but males are normally solitary other than when searching for a mate or two. During late spring and early summer, the male skunks will visit harem sites and attempt to breed with as many females as possible.
Fights between male skunks for breeding privileges can involve scratching and biting, but they do not spray each other. The skunk’s malodourous musk is reserved for warding off predators like great-horned owls, coyotes, bobcats, and dogs (an us, of course.) They will normally stamp their feet in warning first. If that doesn’t work, they will go into a handstand. If the predator still hasn’t taken the hint, they can then shoot a stream of foul-smelling liquid as far as 15 feet.
Once pregnant, the female skunk will find her own den and return there the entire time she is raising her young. She gives birth to two to seven babies and is solely responsible for the care of her litter. They are born fully furred, with the same coat pattern as adults, but their eyes and ears will not open for a few weeks.
By the time they are four weeks old, the babies will accompany mom on excursions to find food. As omnivores they eat small rodents, snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, fruits, nuts, berries, and just about anything they can dig up, sniff out, or overpower.
The babies will be weaned by eight weeks—about the same time they develop musk and the ability to protect themselves from predators by spraying. At four months of age, they are fully grown and will leave mom’s den to seek their own refuge.
Spotted skunks have good hearing, but poor vision. The average lifespan is only one to two years in the wild, but they can live up to six years in captivity.
Some wildlife facilities specialize in different species: otters, skunks, raptors, sea turtles, etc. At PRWC we rescue, rehab, and release many different species, including mammals, birds, and reptiles—but we know our limitations. If we do not have the time, talent, or proper facilities to give any individual animal the best possible care, we will network with our contemporaries and find the proper place to transfer that animal. Conversely, PRWC will accept transfers from other facilities when we have the better infrastructure for a given species or injury.
Our tiny patients will be transferred to another facility that has other skunk babies already. Spotted skunks are fairly rare in SW Florida, so each wildlife rehabilitation facility does not see them often. By networking, we can have the babies raised together with others that have been orphaned, abandoned, or evicted. That will lessen the impact of human handling and better their chances of survival once released.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
I’ll bet many of you didn’t even know we were expecting here at Peace River Wildlife Center. We didn’t know ourselves until Wildlife Center of Venice (WCV) called to ask if we could provide a permanent home for a fledgling barred owl that they had taken in and would not be able to release.
A few months ago, my hero, Kevin Barton of WCV, had performed his magic to re-nest a fallen nestling barred owl. The youngster had been admitted to WCV uninjured and the parents were still onsite at the nest. Kevin was able to climb the tree and plop the baby right back up there where he belonged.
Barred owls, with their distinctive “Who cooks for you?” call, were historically found on the east coast of the U.S., mainly in old-growth forests because they prefer to nest in natural cavities and hollows of mature and dead trees. As this type of habitat becomes scarce, they’ve adapted and will now nest in man-made structures like boxes or steal stick nests built by crows, hawks or even squirrels. They do not migrate and usually spend their entire lives within a six-mile radius. This species has been expanding north and west, into Canada and now down into northern California, where they are pushing northern spotted owls out of their habitat.
Breeding season in Florida is late January to March. Hatchling barred owls are born covered in white fluffy down, which is replaced in nestlings at two to three weeks by a secondary greyish-buff down. At six weeks, the fledglings start to get their adult feathers, beginning on the back, over the scapular or shoulder area. Then the abdomen, flanks, and upper breast get feathers, in that order. By four months of age the head will still be downy. The young barred owl will have complete adult plumage by six months.
By three weeks of age, a baby barred owl is normally moving around the nest and will snap his bill and lie on his back, presenting his talons, if threatened. At four to five weeks, the branching baby will perch on the edge of the nest and climb out onto nearby branches. If he drops to the ground, he can even 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, and will remain there while his parents protect and feed him. The barred owl’s primary predator is the great horned owl, although raccoons can be a threat as well. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, man can be nature’s worst enemy.
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 it 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. At some point, they realized the homeowners were paying a little too much attention to the baby owl. Concerned that the parents weren’t feeding it enough, the people lured the owl down from the tree and fed it ground beef off of their shoes. I have heard some wacky advice people claim to have gotten from the internet, but that was a new one for all of us.
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 was too habituated to people and would never be able to live free. He 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. He is currently learning the ropes as a glove-trained bird and will go to outreach events and greet visitors at the Center as soon as he is ready.
We believe his birth date to be in February of this year, making him about 5 months old now. A blood test showed the bird to be a male, so we are in the process of choosing a name for him. So far, we have had a few suggestions:
A little owl stares at a big world. Photo by Josh Olive
Orion—the constellation named after a hunter in Greek mythology.
Rigel—the brightest star in the Orion constellation.
Betelgeuse—(pronounced “beetle juice”) the second brightest star in the Orion constellation and one of the largest stars known (950 times as large as our sun.)
Shakespeare—because he is a barred (bard) owl.
If you have other suggestions, email us at PeaceRiverWildlife@yahoo.com or comment on our FaceBook page.
In the meantime, don’t forget to visit all of PRWC’s residents, who get a little lonely during the summer months. If you have extra time on your hands during the lazy, hazy days of summer, consider volunteering at PRWC. We need habitat cleaners, tour guides, gift shop clerks, and hospital helpers. It’s hot and dirty work, but you never know what will turn up in the course of a day. Around here, we always expect the unexpected.
by Robin Jenkins, DVM
In case you missed Fashion Week in Paris, do not despair. It’s time for Couture Week at Peace River Wildlife Center. This week we will be hosting a “Who Wore It Better?” campaign. As seen on Facebook (the harbinger of fashion sense worldwide, as well as the People of Walmart) we will compare a few fabulous creatures wearing the same apparel and leave it up to you to decide who wore it better.
A few weeks ago, someone donated a pair of pillowcases in a pretty pastel coral colour with a ruffled edge. I mentioned that it looked like a skirt and everything went downhill from there. Maybe we are all getting a little punch-drunk from the 20 admissions per day. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from taking care of all the baby mammals in home care. But every now and then you just have to take a step back and laugh at yourself (or your fellow coworker, as the case may be.)
I took one of the pillowcases home and turned it into a skirt, leaving the other behind as a cage liner as intended by the donor. As luck would have it, I happened to have a blouse that matched it quite well, both in colour and style. I was feeling pretty plucky, and so decided to challenge the patients at PRWC to see if they could wear said garment with the same panache that I did.
First up is a gallant gopher tortoise. She throws the shrug over her shoulders and poses like a prima donna. She was admitted after having been hit by a car and has a fracture on her carapace (upper shell.) She is recovering nicely from her physical wounds (but may need some serious counselling if her friends and family see these pictures.) Luckily, this tortoise will be released soon, but not all are so fortunate. If you see a tortoise crossing a busy roadway, stop only if you can do so safely. Help the tortoise to the side of the road it was headed toward and place it as far from the shoulder of the road as possible.
Don’t hate the beautiful opossum
Our next model is a young Virginia opossum. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” she emotes. Many people fear opossums, but these mild-mannered creatures are extremely beneficial to the environment. They eat disease-carrying ticks and venomous snakes without getting injured. Due to their low body temperature, they do not carry many of the viral diseases that most mammals can get. Being naturally docile creatures, their primary mode of defense is to roll over and play dead, looking and smelling the part. So, while she may look lovely in her couture, I’m fairly confident that I smell better at least.
Our final contender is a pair of eastern cottontails working their adorable magic. They snuggle into the pleats like they belong there, making them their own. These two neonates were found in the middle of a fenced dog yard, in a shallow divot with a few blades of grass, a couple tufts of hair, and no mother.
Cottontails snuggle into the pleats
While that may sound like an inappropriate place for a rabbit nest, it is a common scenario. Mother rabbit does little to construct her nest and places it where she can observe potential predators coming at her new family from a distance. She only visits her nest twice a day to feed her young, to lessen the chances of predators following her to her babies. Unless they look dehydrated or injured (or not well-dressed), leave the bunnies alone.
We’ve all seen Hillary in her vacuum cleaner bag and The Donald facing off against an ear of corn and a troll doll. Now you get to decide who you think makes the best fashion statement at PRWC. Because with everything that is wrong with this country and the world today, fashion faux pas are definitely the biggest issues to focus on.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Dr Robin sports her pillowcase pleats
“Have you tried turning it off and then back on again?”
I’m sure the on-call technicians for computer services get tired of hearing the same problem and giving the same advice over and over. The rehabbers at Peace River Wildlife Center have a similar challenge. Most of the calls we get at PRWC are pretty basic. If the caller is willing and able to follow our advice, the situation can usually be resolved quickly and to the benefit of both the caller and the animal.
“There was a bird or squirrel nest in the branch we cut off a tree.” “There were screech owls or woodpeckers nesting inside a dead palm we cut down.” “There were baby bats in the dead palm fronds we trimmed.” “ We patched a hole on our soffit and then found a family of raccoons living in our attic.” “There is a nest of baby bunnies in our dog yard.”
Our mantra is simple: Put the babies back. Whenever possible, we try to reunite the babies with their parents. Wild animals always do a better job raising their offspring than we can. In the event that mom has been killed or cannot be located, we do the best we can to raise the babies and get them back out into the wild—but there is no substitute for a mother’s love, attention, and education.
Whenever possible, take nesting seasons into consideration when doing household maintenance and yard work. Spring and summer are when most birds and mammals are raising their young. If you must trim, patch, remove, etc. please check for animals first before firing up the chainsaw, nail gun, or machete.
That being said, we do get some unique stories occasionally. This week it was a pileated woodpecker who was admitted after having had quite an adventure. The people that brought her in said she had flown into a spider web on their lanai, then fallen into the pool, and when they tried to release her outside, she got tangled in Spanish moss. We certainly don’t hear that story every day!
The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in North America with a body length of up to 19 inches and a wingspan of almost 30 inches. It is readily identifiable by its large blackish body, white stripes along the sides of its head, and a shock of bright red plumage at the crest, from which its name derives. The female has a red crest starting just above her forehead, while the male’s crest goes from the top of the beak to the nape of his neck. He also has a red “mustache” at the edges of his bill.
The long, strong, chisel-like bill is proficient at drilling into dead and dying trees. The pileated makes distinctive rectangular-shaped holes in rotting wood, up to a foot in length. It has been known to cut a smaller tree in half with its aggressive pecking after ants and other woodboring insects.
These large excavations can attract other species as feeding and nesting sites. In this way, the pileated is considered a keystone species—one that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. Other woodpeckers and songbirds often feed at the site of a pileated excavation. Screech owls, wood ducks, and other cavity nesters, even small mammals, will use the site for breeding purposes.
The pileated’s appetite for woodboring insects can help control forest beetle populations that could be detrimental to the health of woodlands. And its proficiency at tearing apart rotting wood helps to accelerate decomposition and nutrient recycling, helping to make the forests even healthier for new growth.
Our young female woodpecker patient appeared to be a little neurological upon admission. She had suffered mild head trauma trying to get out of the lanai. She was frantic and uncoordinated when admitted, but soon calmed down. After a couple days of rest and symptomatic treatment, she was stronger and able to fly again.
She was taken back to the area from which she came for release. Her parents will still be in the area, since pileated pairs maintain their territory throughout the year. The young are cared for through autumn of their birth year, before striking out for a new territory to call their own.
While our little girl is old enough to fly and feed herself, she definitely needs some guidance from her parents. A video of her recent escapades would have looked like an audition reel for a revamp of the “I Love Lucy” show, redhead and all. We have dubbed her “Grace” and hope she can stay out of trouble.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM