Over the past few weeks Peace River Wildlife Center has been treating a juvenile bobcat. He came in with severe dermatitis secondary to notoedric mange (a skin infection due to a parasitic mite infestation.) The causative agent, Notoedric cati, is a mite that lives on the skin of cats and is similar to the sarcoptic mange mites that can infest dogs and man, causing scabies. Mite species are host-specific, each has their own particular mammal on which they can complete their life cycle, but every mite can hop onto and bite any species.
When a mite burrows into the skin and feeds it causes an intense itching reaction. Constant scratching at the skin can cause hair or fur loss and abrasions to the skin. Bacterial infections can set in once the skin has been compromised. If the skin infection goes untreated long enough, the individual can become septic or systemically ill as the infection spreads to the bloodstream. Most individuals exposed to mites do not end up being quite so sick. Our little kitten patient probably had a compromised immune system to begin with. It is possible that he was separated from his mother or that she had been killed just as he was getting to the age of independence. He is an older juvenile and should be capable of taking care of himself now that he is healthy again, but being on his own at such a tender age may have started a cascade of consequences for him. Now that he is parasite free, well hydrated and a healthy weight, he will be released and should fare well on his own.
The bobcat is at home in swamps, forests and urban neighborhoods from Canada to Central America. It will usually den in a hollow tree or rock cropping. While the female’s range is approximately five square miles, the male’s range is 15-30 miles, and he may mate with several females with whom his territory overlaps and can sire numerous litters in the same year. In Florida the bobcat breeds from August to March. After a 60 day gestation period, two or three kittens are born. They are weaned in approximately two months as mom teaches them how to become efficient hunters, but the young often remain with the mother until autumn of the birth year. They will eat rodents, birds and carrion and have the ability to swim and climb trees to facilitate hunting, which usually occurs after dark, but it is not uncommon to see a bobcat out during the day.
The average life span of the bobcat is 14 years. The adult can be two feet tall and three feet long and is often mistaken for a young Florida panther. The male can weigh up to 35 pounds and the female closer to 15-20 pounds, considerably smaller than the panther. The reddish brown fur of a bobcat is mottled with dark spots and he has a white belly. He has a fringe of fur around the edges of his face and white spots on the backs of his ears. The “bobbed” tail can be as short as one inch and as long as seven, and will have a black tip, which is markedly different than the panther’s long sleek tail at any age.
Our impatient patient will be taken back to the general area from which he was rescued in case his mother and sibling(s) are still there. He was rather docile upon admission, but has gotten quite feisty now that he is feeling better. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have such a snarly patient since it bodes well for his ability to take care of himself once released. Release back into the wild is always our primary goal for every patient admitted to PRWC and thanks to our generous supporters we are able to do just that for over 40% of the 2,000 patients we admit each year.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Bobcat after treatment
This week’s focus is on a group of animals that are not currently patients or residents at Peace River Wildlife Center. A family of red foxes is living a healthy and happy life in the wild and hopefully they can remain that way. PRWC recently asked the editors of the newspaper not to report the location when they print pictures submitted by their photojournalists or citizen photographers of wildlife. Quite often when the location of an eagle’s nest or a baby barred owl is disclosed, everyone wants to see it for themselves. While it is gratifying that so many people care about wildlife, it is disruptive to the animals when groups of people gather in such close proximity to their homes, especially if they are raising young and cannot easily move. So I will not say where this particular fox family’s den is. Suffice it to say it is, or could be, in a neighborhood near you.
While there is some dissention as to whether the red fox is a native species in North America or it was introduced by the European settlers, recent studies have supported genetic proof of the former. There is no question that red foxes were brought to the US from Europe because the colonists favoured the red fox as a hunted quarry. The native grey foxes would often outfox the hunting dogs by adeptly climbing trees, while the red fox is a much more terrestrial creature. Red fox populations did exist in the northwestern regions of the country and appear to have expanded east and south, judging by DNA studies done in 2012 and reported in an article in Journal of Mammalogy 93(1):52-65, entitled The Origin of Recently Established Red Fox Populations in the United States: Translocations or Natural Range Expansions? By Statham, M.J., B.N.Sacks, K.B. Aubrey, J.D. Perrine, and S.M. Wisely. (http://www.mammalsociety.org/articles/origin-recently-established-red-fox-populations-united-states-translocations-or-natural-ran)
The Florida native grey fox has a lot of red fur also, but the red fox is easily distinguishable by its tail—the bushy red tail has a black ring at the end with a prominent white tip. The red fox is genetically similar to the dog, but has some unique characteristics. The red fox is approximately the size of a small dog, weighs about 10-15 pounds and is about two feet long, plus another foot of tail. The weight is deceptively low for its size; being half of what a similarly sized dog would weigh. Its bones are much more narrow and lightweight than other canines allowing it to run faster and leap higher. It is also quite adept at swimming. It has semi-retractable claws, similar to a cat, which keeps the nails sharp by reducing contact with the ground as it walks and runs.
The red fox’s stomach is half the size of a dog’s, further reducing its body weight, but necessitating frequent feeding. To assist with that requirement, the red fox has very acute senses. Its eyes are especially adapted to finding prey in low light situations. It has elliptical pupils, more rods (for increased ability to detect movement in low light) than cones (the dominant structure in human eyes which help us see colour and vivid images), and a tapetum lucidum, a layer at the back of the eye that reflects what little light there is back onto the retina. The red fox’s senses of smell and hearing are also keen and help with hunting. It has long whiskers, or vibrissae, on its snout and wrists which further assist in finding food in dim light.
All of these adaptations help the red fox find prey. It primarily eats mice, rabbits, squirrels, and rats. This true omnivore will also eat small birds, reptiles, amphibians and fruit. When food is plentiful, the red fox will even store a cache. It will not attack pets like dogs and cats, especially if the owner is close by. The red fox is an elusive creature and prefers to slink away or hide in its den as soon as it hears or sees a person or dog.
The red fox breeds in late winter or early spring, giving birth to 1-10 kits, average litter size being five. The family will usually stay in the area of the den until the kits are six months old, at which time the juveniles will head out on their own. The parents mate for life and will often return to the same den the following year. The den is almost always found within a few hundred yards of water and usually has multiple openings.
The family in these pictures took over a large gopher tortoise burrow. The kits have been exiting the den slowly over the past few days. First one brave baby ventured out, and then two were seen. Now at least five kits can be seen romping about at dawn, jockeying for position in the pack and learning to hunt. It is rewarding to watch wildlife in a natural setting; a sight that is getting all too rare these days.
Help PRWC keep wildlife wild, safe and abundant. Use native or Florida friendly plants in your garden. Tread lightly when you visit a natural area—take only pictures and leave only footprints. Intervene only when an animal is in need of assistance. Learn everything possible about the species that interest you and pass it along. In the immortal words of Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Red fox mom monitors playtime with 3 of 5 kits
Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a glossy ibis this past week that had been hit by a car. The bird’s wing had been fractured at the distal end of the humerus (near the “elbow”.) White ibises are quite common in our area of southwest Florida, but we do not often see glossy ibises. This is a reverse trend worldwide, where the white ibis is a rare find outside of the southeastern US coastline and into the Caribbean, while the ubiquitous glossy ibis is also found in Europe, Asia, Africa, India and Australia.
The glossy ibis has dark feathers that may look black in low light, but seen in bright sunshine, gleam like bronze highlighted with brilliant green and purple tones. He has a downward curving, or decurved, bill which he uses for tactile foraging in and around shallow fresh water and swampy areas, eating primarily insects and their larvae as well as small arthropods. He also feeds on land, locating prey visually, using his long bill to probe into the soil.
Our primary goal at PRWC is to rehabilitate injured wildlife and get it back out into the wild. When we get an animal for which that goal is unattainable, we have to assess whether or not that particular individual would make a good permanent resident here or at another facility. Not every bird is comfortable being so close to what they perceive (not necessarily incorrectly) as one of their largest predators—man. A few calm down over time as they come to trust us, while some never do. Our recent glossy ibis patient was a refreshing change of pace in this usual dance to trust. He has been very calm since his arrival.
This ibis had to have part of his wing amputated due to the damage caused by the trauma from the accident. The bone was too severely injured to pin or plate back together so it could heal. Birds’ bones are thin and hollow which is advantageous for facilitating flight, but not so much for surviving impact. The bone shatters into tiny pieces and is rendered useless.
Normally after such a surgery, a bird will take days to recover from the anesthesia, be terrified by the frequent bandage changes and confinement within a tiny cage designed to limit his movements and possible self-inflicted further damage, not want to eat due to the unfamiliar surroundings and the antibiotics and pain medication being given to him. Once the bird is strong enough he will be moved from a hospital cage to our woodflight habitats, where we recover the releasable birds away from public eye. After a long period of acclimation, if the bird seems content he will then be tested on display. This entire ordeal can take weeks to slowly go through all of the steps in the bird’s recovery process, preparing him both physically and mentally for the changes and challenges ahead.
Our new glossy ibis friend was out on public display, at least temporarily, after only a few days. We often have to keep amputation stumps wrapped so that the bird does not beat it against the cage wall and open the delicate tissue. That was not the case for this bird, who after only two days was able to have his stump left unwrapped which will help speed the healing process. He was unwilling to eat on his own in the hospital cage, which is not unusual since he probably does not recognize what we are offering and the manner of presentation as “food.” (Imagine you were abducted by aliens and placed in a box with a live cow. The aliens are confused when you refuse to eat, since they have done their homework and know that humans eat “beef.”) In the shore bird habitat, a much more natural environment, he will be surrounded by other birds, be even more at ease and hopefully learn from their example.
We hope our new glossy ibis will continue to heal and feel at home here at PRWC. He will be a beautiful addition to our permanent residents on educational display, open seven days a week from 11a.m. to 4p.m. for public visits.
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of … turtle murder. No disrespect meant to Alfred Tennyson or the myriad of people who think they are helping the hapless reptiles, but doing the wrong thing when you find a turtle can be more detrimental than doing nothing at all.
Let’s start with a little science lesson. Within the Kingdom Animalia (animals, as opposed to plants), Phylum Chordata (basically, having a spinal cord) is the Class Reptilia. This Class is composed of the Orders Crocodialia (25 species-crocodiles, alligators, etc.), Sphenodontia (a single living species found only in New Zealand), Squamata (9,600 species-lizards, snakes, etc.), and Testudines or Chelonia (400 species-turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.)
It is rather an American convention that all chelonians are called turtles. Other languages do not seem to relish the confusion that the English language within North America stirs up with rampant ambiguity of certain words. All tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. There are no fewer than seven ways to pronounce the letters “ough” (rough, cough, drought, dough, bought, through). Be thankful if you learned English as a child because as second languages go, it’s a doozy.
Quit trying to distract me from the science lesson. Sit still and be quiet; it’s almost over. So with some 400 species how does one know the correct way to help a chelonian in trouble? It is difficult to memorize the many breeding times, exact fit within the families, and at which stage of life a particular animal prefers water to dry land. We could be here until next Tuesday going over the specifics of each Family, Genus, and Species. I can see your eyes glazing over already. Let’s make this simple. Look at the feet.
At Peace River Wildlife Center we have heard people relating the following story many times. “We tried to return that ungrateful turtle to the water, but he just kept crawling back out.” Upon further questioning, it is ascertained that the “ungrateful” reptile in question is a land dwelling tortoise. Surprisingly, they can hold their breath and walk across the bottom of a shallow creek or pond occasionally. But if repeatedly thrown into deep water, especially the ocean, they will drown.
Obviously people are trying to be helpful. Especially at the beach, we hear so much at this time of year about sea turtle nesting (May through October.) Most egg-laying and hatching is done at night, but it is not impossible during the day to see a mother who got caught up in a lawn chair that was left out or a hatchling that got confused about which way to go to get to the water. Hence the admonishments at this time of year to remove all items from the beach overnight, fill in any holes dug in the sand, and keep lights from shining toward the water. But there are also gopher tortoises that live in the dunes by the beach. Placing one of them into the water could be a death sentence.
There are four main categories of chelonians with which to be concerned. There are sea turtles, land-dwelling tortoises, land turtles, and fresh water turtles, but only two basic differences that matter in the long run. Does the animal spend most of its time on land or in the water? The most obvious way to discern that difference is to look at the feet. A turtle with webbing between the toes belongs in the water. A tortoise or turtle with blunt feet and long nails for digging belongs on land.
Of course there is some overlap of these areas. Most turtles that live in the water will lay their eggs on land, so do not be too quick to help these little ladies back into the water. You may see a gopher tortoise at the edge of the sea. It is not known if they actually drink salt water or use it to cool down, but this sight is not uncommon. As they walk back toward the dunes to their home burrow, please do not try to throw them back into the water.
Most gopher tortoises are rescued when they attempt to cross roads. People wishing to help with this are advised to ensure their own safety first and foremost. If the tortoise is not injured, simply place it a few feet away from the edge of the roadway in the direction it was heading. If its progress is impeded by a curb or wall, try to get the animal around the obstruction to the other side and back to the direction in which it was heading as if the curb, bridge or building was not there.
Pond-dwelling turtles can be found in parking lots and on roadways as well. These animals can be returned to the nearest water, often a retention pond. Simply place them at water’s edge and the turtle will enter if it wants to.
If you see a turtle or tortoise in its natural environment, even if it looks like a baby, and there does not appear to be anything wrong with it, leave it alone. Tortoises and most turtles are very slow growing. A gopher tortoise of only a few inches can be up to three years old. Even immediately after hatching every chelonian is precocial, meaning it is not dependent upon a parent and can feed itself.
Sometimes the best thing we can do to help the environment is to sit back and enjoy it. If you want to take a more active role in helping wildlife in distress, educate yourself as to what is best for each species and what you need to do to keep yourself and the animal safe. If you really want to get involved, PRWC (or your local wildlife rehabilitation facility) needs volunteers to help in the hospital now that baby bid season is in full swing.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Gopher tortoises have blunt feet with sharp claws for digging
Sea turtles have flippers or webbed toes for swimming
The Easter Bunny dates back to the late 17th century, when German folklore reports that a hare would deliver eggs to good children. Since most birds begin to lay eggs in the early spring and rabbits and hares are quite prolific breeders, both have become to be associated with the earth’s rebirth after a long cold winter. The image of a jauntily dressed rabbit passing out brightly coloured eggs to good boys and girls is a time honoured tradition. Taken one step further, though, this springtime ritual can have serious ramifications.
Some people cannot resist the urge to usher in the Vernal Equinox with live bunnies and chicks instead of ones made of chocolate and marshmallow. Adopted into a loving family that understands the level of commitment that this new pet will require, the “living toy” can lead a full and happy life. Unfortunately there are people who do not consider that this new member of the family is a living breathing entity and will require time and attention. It will need a special diet that will change over time as the animal matures. If not fed and housed properly an animal can get metabolic bone disease which can cause bones to be malformed or possibly even too soft to provide support. The average lifespan of a domestic rabbit is 8-12 years, while that of a domestic chicken or duck is 5-10 years (with chickens only laying eggs for the first two or three years of their lives.)
These pets have special housing considerations as well. Some can live in the yard or in the house in specially designed cages, but attention must be paid to the proper location of these enclosures—not too hot, not too cold, away from direct sunlight, far from an air conditioning duct, out of the wind, safe from predators, etc. Quite often the cages sold in pet stores for these species are not appropriately large enough for an animal to spend all of its time there. If the pet will not be permitted free range time daily, larger housing will be needed. The habitat must be cleaned properly and often, to assure the pet’s health and comfort, and enhance the family’s enjoyment of the pet. No one wants to spend time near a smelly cage or animal. Spoiler alert—these animals poop. A lot.
Every year Peace River Wildlife Center and shelters all over the country deal with the fallout from this unethical practice. As soon as the children lose interest, the cute fuzzy little baby turns into “just another animal”, the parents get tired of cleaning up after it, the vet bills start rolling in, and a million other reasons; the rabbits, chickens and ducks get abandoned at a shelter. Many of these young animals are euthanized because there are not enough homes for them. Is this the lesson parents should be teaching their children? Do we want to portray life as precious or disposable? Is it appropriate to abandon a pet that has outlived its usefulness and make it someone else’s problem? These kids are the ones who will grow up to make decisions on Mom and Dad’s care in their dotage.
Releasing a domestic animal into the wild is not an alternative either. These pets do not have the skills to fend for themselves in the wild. They will either starve to death or be killed by predators—either domestic dogs and cats or wild animals. The few that do survive run the risk of upsetting the natural balance of the native flora and fauna. They may eat the plants that our endangered native species need to survive. Or they may interbreed with our native species and risk wiping out an entire population that way.
No one can deny that baby bunnies and chicks are adorable, but unless you are willing to do the research and make a commitment for the lifetime of the pet (up to 10 years), do not give a live animal as a gift or buy one on a whim. Please fill your Easter baskets with chocolate bunnies, marshmallow chicks, and jelly beans. (FYI Jelly Belly is my personal favourite brand.) Stuffed animals can be just as endearing and have none of the long term consequences. For the live animal experience, visit a zoo, animal shelter, or animal sanctuary. Or better yet, visit Peace River Wildlife Center! For those who are really serious about nurturing baby animals, we offer volunteer opportunities to help us during this busy baby season. Enjoy the warm weather, delight in the blooming flowers, and have a happy spring.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Mama muscovy duck and babies