Raccoons, Rabies, and the Rest of the Story

Raccoons, Rabies, and the Rest of the Story

A big shout out to Josh Olive, the esteemed publisher of WaterLine, for looking out for me.  I don’t always have time to write an article for the Charlotte Sun insert every week.  Sometimes I’m just too busy taking care of babies, patients, and residents of Peace River Wildlife Center, not to mention staff, volunteers, and board members (oh, no she di’ent).  It’s not like I’m just sitting around playing Candy Crush.  There are also times, and this will come as some surprise to anyone who knows me at all, I simply run out of things to say.


During just such a time recently, Josh reran one of my older articles.  How sweet that he presumed I was busy being overrun by baby squirrels and not that I was trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle on my iPad.  He picked that particular article, by his own admission, because he liked the picture of the cute little kitties that accompanied it.  Careful there, Josh, you will blow your macho cover.  Don’t worry, you’re secret is safe with me.  I would never reveal to anyone how much time you spend watching cat videos on YouTube.  (It’s okay, no one really reads this stuff, do they?)


I know for a fact most people don’t read everything in its entirety.  I got a lot of grief after the article about the bobcat kittens reran from people wanting to see them, not believing that we had bobcats, or wondering why I would lie about something like that.  Even though Josh had printed a disclaimer at the beginning of the article that it was a reprint.  My faithful WaterLine readers (yes, both of you!) aren’t the only ones who look at the picture, skim the headline, and make up their own story to fit their preconceived notion of what’s not right with the world.


PRWC has an active and very engaged following on Facebook.  While we love our followers, they need to carefully read a post before heatedly replying to it.  Noting International Raccoon Appreciation Day this past October 1st, we posted a few fun facts about that rascally species.  One of the things we mentioned was:


-Seeing a raccoon during the day doesn’t automatically mean it’s rabid. Healthy moms and juveniles can be seen during the day searching for food.


To which the following reply was made:


I really wish you would not have said ALL raccoon seen during daylight hours have rabies…I know the word ALL was not used, but it was implied by the post.


Really?  Because that’s not how I read it.  To repeat—just because a raccoon is out during the day does not mean it has rabies.  Quite the contrary, most raccoons will forage during daylight hours, particularly a mother and youngsters and especially if there is a source of food in the area.  Sources of food include food left out for cats or birds, unsecured trash receptacles, and tourists.  You all know who to whom I am referring.  The people that delight in feeding French fries to the “seagulls”, hot dogs to great blue herons, and marshmallows to raccoons and alligators.  I think indigenous peoples just told visitors that animals had bad diseases so they would leave them alone.  Like a mother telling a child the mother bird will smell if a human touched her baby.  Other than vultures, very few birds have any sense of smell at all.


Whoa, I kind of got off on a tangent there.  My point was…  Wait. What was my point?  I think it was a really good one too.  Maybe I’ll remember by next week.  In the meantime, don’t believe everything you think you read.  Especially if I wrote it.


by–Robin Jenkins, DVM


A recent raccoon patient with a pale coat.

A recent raccoon patient with a pale coat.

Baby Raccoons

Baby Raccoons

The end is NOT near

The end is NOT near


Once upon a time there was a sweet, innocent wildlife rehabilitation center that loved nothing more than to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured and orphaned wildlife.  Representatives of this magical facility skipped through the forest, scooping up hurt animals, and made them all better.  This facility never had any needs unmet.  They had all the volunteers, supplies, food, medications, staff, and money they could possibly desire.  I wish I could write that story, but Walt has the market cornered on singing mice and sewing birds in the land of plenty.


Then there is the tale about the villainous condo developer who steals the land right out from under the well-meaning volunteers who only want to help the very animals that this heinous scoundrel and his cronies have caused harm.  The developers come in and cut down trees, uproot dens, destroy nests, causing havoc and mayhem at every turn for the unsuspecting animals that were the original inhabitants of the areas designated for “improvement.”  But as heartrending as a new chapter in the never-ending FernGully saga might be, I can’t write that story either.


How about the one where the corrupt government officials take money from the highest bidder and close the orphanage so they can turn it into a parking garage?  Brokerage office?  Private men-only smoking club?  I’m not really sure where that one goes at all.  Someone with an intense conspiracy theory bent suggested the beginnings of that one, but never really got to the point of where it was leading.  No money was exchanged and no favours were granted, so that story is out as well.


Let’s begin at the beginning.  On June 5, 1996 Peace River Wildlife Center moved from its founder’s overcrowded back porch to an unused area at the far west end of Marion Avenue in Punta Gorda.  The city gave PRWC a 20-year lease and the entire fee was paid by an anonymous benefactor.  The property boundaries were determined at that time by an aerial GIS map and were undisputed by the then owner of the adjacent land, PGI Incorporated.  Cages were built, prefab buildings were brought in, and the volunteers that had started PRWC in 1982 were able to assist many more animals than ever before.  Birds that were unable to be released were kept on educational display to the public instead of having to be euthanized.


In March 2005 PRWC asked the city if we could expand our back fence line by a few feet.  When we were granted the additional 1,045 square feet, Habitat for Humanity came in and helped us build some new pre-release cages.  Grande Harbor Group closed on a warranty deed in April 2005 to purchase the (buildable) land at the corner of Ponce de Leon Parkway and West Marian Avenue.  Although a survey had to have been obtained for this transaction, PRWC was not informed that our facilities were on private property at that time.


Early in 2014 PRWC approached the city of Punta Gorda about the possibility of building a new hospital and surgical facility.   Our current buildings are old and not in very good shape.  We were also considering shrinking the footprint of the buildings, combining the separate hospital, surgery, and laundry shed, so we could have more room for habitats and cages for the animals.  It was at this time that we were informed that part of our facility “may” be on private property.  The initial inclination that the back corner of a walkway, about 2% of our facility, may have to be reconfigured turned into the realization that over 90% of the entire compound is on private property.


We immediately halted expansion plans.  We have been idling while waiting for a resolution to this conundrum.  The city has been very supportive.  They are trying to help us resolve the issue with the developer, but also looking at other city owned property to which they could help us relocate if that becomes a necessity.  The developer has been respectful and helpful.  He is trying to work with us also, but he is a businessman and rightfully has to do what is in the best interests of his assets, investors, and eventual condo purchasers.


So where does that leave PRWC?  Right where we have been for almost 20 years.  Our current lease is good through June 2016 and the developer has stated that he will honour that contract.  We are still working with him and the city to find an arrangement that will be in the best interests of all parties involved, including the innocent animals caught up in this mistake.  PRWC is still taking in injured and orphaned wildlife.  We are still rehabilitating over 2,000 animals each year.  We still play host to over 75,000 people each year who come to visit the over 100 unreleasable birds on display to the public seven days a week from 11a.m. to 4p.m.  We are still in need of support to continue our mission, and continue it we will.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014 Opus restaurant at 201 West Marian Avenue in downtown Punta Gorda will host our first fundraiser of the season starting at 5:30.  Our first annual Fall Fur and Feathers Fat Tuesday will include hors d’eouvres, entertainment, auctions, resident “adoptions”, an open bar, and a chance to get your photo taken with the star of our show, Luna, the leucistic screech owl.  Call PRWC for information at 941-637-3830, but please hurry because tickets are limited and going fast.


–by Robin Jenkins, DVM


Opus Flyer

Opus Flyer

Party 'til you drop like this squirrel

Party ’til you drop like this squirrel

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to PRWC

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to PRWC

An alert Arcadia Florida resident picked up a hitchhiker last May.  While we do not generally encourage this sort of reckless behaviour, we are happy to report a positive outcome for this incident.  She found a fuzzy little “sandpiper” chick along the side of a busy road and attempted to hand raise it.  After three months she decided she should let the professionals take over and brought the fledgling to Peace River Wildlife Center.  The bird turned out to be a black-necked stilt, a species we do not often see here along the coastal waterways of Southwest Florida.  They are much more common around the Lake Okeechobee area.


We routinely see a plethora of the “usual suspects” in rehab here at PRWC.  Of the approximately 2,000 patients we admit annually, over 60% (1200) of them are in the most common eight species: raccoons, eastern cottontails, eastern grey squirrels, Virginia opossums, mourning doves, northern mockingbirds, common grackles, and gopher tortoises.  The remaining 800 individuals are an eclectic collection of over 120 other species.


While we are grateful that we are able to provide care for this unusual youngster, it would have been best for the rescuer to get it to us immediately after having found it.  PRWC is much more capable of providing proper nutrition and habitat for a growing bird or mammal to ensure his or her successful eventual release back into the wild.  We are also raising two juvenile opossums right now that presented with metabolic bone disease because people found them as infants and were trying to raise them at home on inappropriate diets.  The internet is a wonderful source of information.  Unfortunately not all of it is accurate.  If you want to help raise baby birds and mammals, please do so under the guidance of a trained and licensed rehabilitator.


The black-necked stilt is found in marshy areas and flooded pastures.  It is a relatively small bird with very long slender legs which allows it to find select morsels in deeper waters than other wading bird species.  It normally eats aquatic invertebrates and fish.  The female usually lays up to four eggs in her nest.  Nests have been found to contain more than four eggs and it is presumed that more than one female is sharing the nest because of the difference in patterns on the egg shells.


When the last of the eggs in a clutch hatches after an approximate 25 day incubation period, the entire brood will move away from the nest.  The precocial hatchling is capable of walking within one to two hours of birth.  After only 22 days the baby can make short hopping flights and sustained flight when a mere 30 days old.  These amazing birds have a ten year life span in the wild.


Hopefully our little stilt, “Wilt”, will be releasable.  He shows signs of delayed progress in his ability to fly, but no obvious physical pathology.  Like fellow hitchhiker Arthur Dent, he has already had many adventures and has at least another 42 to look forward to.

by–Robin Jenkins, DVM

MBD Opossum

Young Virginia opossum trying to overcome metabolic bone disease.

Coastal Cleanup 2014

Coastal Cleanup 2014

I will be out on the beach on Manasota Key this Saturday morning picking up trash.  That is how I spend every weekend that I can manage to get away from Peace River Wildlife Center.  The unusual thing about this weekend is that I will not be alone.  Not that I find myself strolling a deserted beach very often.  This weekend marks the 28th anniversary of the International Coastal Cleanup and I will be joined, at least in spirit, by kindred people from all over the globe.  According to Ocean Conservancy’s web site, “last year an astounding 648,015 volunteers in 92 countries picked up more than 12.3 million pounds of trash” in their respective sites.

The Coastal Cleanup is not offered as a solution to the problem of pollution, but rather as a snapshot of what is fouling the world’s waterways in a given moment in time.  People from around the area, across the country, and around the world will be pitching in to help protect the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers.  This is a wonderful way to bring attention to the sheer volume of garbage that ends up in and near our waterways and the potential damage that can be done by all that waste.  I love this idea so much I don’t just do it once a year.  That is why I can often be found perusing the beach from Stump Pass Park to Blind Pass Beach with a bag in my hands.  While many of the people I pass have bags full of shells and shark’s teeth, my “treasures” are literally trash.

My family and friends find my pastime a little odd.  I can only imagine what passing strangers must think.  As a wildlife veterinarian I like to think of it as preventative medicine.  Every plastic bag I pick up is one less intestinal obstruction for a sea turtle that would have mistaken it for a delicious jellyfish.  Those burst helium balloons, released with the best of intentions to celebrate a wedding or honour the beloved deceased, with their dangling strings will not get wrapped around some poor bird’s feet, wings or beak—or worse yet, all three, as is often the case.  Each renegade fishing hook I discover is one less nasty puncture in the foot of a child frolicking in the surf.  I must have been Florence Nightingale in a previous life.  I’m kidding, of course.  I was a fly.

When people joke about reincarnation, they were always someone famous (or infamous).  Everyone was Betsy Ross or Hannibal Lecter.  No one was ever King Tut’s embalmer or just girl #3 sweeping floor.  If there is anything to this business of reincarnation and dim remembrances of past lives, I’m pretty I can follow my ascent to the top of the food chain.  My innate fear of spiders points to my aforementioned life as a fly, cut short to sustain a hungry arachnid.  I can commiserate with the rabbits in our care at PRWC as they flinch and jump at every loud sound because of my own intolerance for loud noises leads me to believe I spent time as one of “nature’s French fries”—a prey species that every other species likes to eat.  My poor eyesight was probably my undoing as a bird of prey.  I must not have spent any time as an elephant or surely my memory would be much sharper than it is.

As a human I try to be mindful of all other life forms with which we share this planet.  We are so fortunate here in Southwest Florida to share our home with many different species.  From alligators to tarpon, eagles to raccoons, and gopher tortoises to the plants lining the dunes of the beach, we must respect and protect them all.  They all serve a purpose and we have encroached on their territory, so try to be a good neighbor.

If you would like to get involved with a formal cleanup crew, Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center is meeting at Cedar Point Environmental Park in Englewood Saturday morning September  9/20 from 9-12.  Call them for more info at 941-475-0769.  Or join me for a bit of informal fun and walk the beach, a path, nature trail, or even your own neighborhood and pick up any litter you find.  Remember, we don’t  inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.


by–Robin Jenkins, DVM


A laughing gull entangled in improperly discarded fishing tackle.

top 10

Top 10 items found during Coastal Cleanup 2013

Eagle Soars Again

Eagle Soars Again

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I, just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.


  “Some keep the Sabbath” by Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite childhood poems, often echoes through my mind while working at Peace River Wildlife Center.  And quite often that work is being performed on a weekend.  Injured and orphaned animals need help on weekends and holidays too, so the staff and volunteers at PRWC don’t get to keep “banker’s” hours.  The events of a recent holiday weekend were no exception.   In April of this year a bald eagle was admitted with a wing injury.  A subluxation, or partial dislocation, of the elbow joint had grounded this youngster.  We estimated her age at approximately three years old since the dark feathers on her head and tail were mottled but not yet white and her beak was nearly completely yellow.  Most birds do not recover well from an injury like this.  In most cases the joint will freeze in place and since the wing cannot be bent and extended sufficiently, the bird can never fly again.  This is especially the case in a large bird like a bald eagle, the females of which weigh an average of 10 pounds.   With little hope of this bird’s eventual release, we immediately started looking for permanent placement for her.  It is always a challenge for us to find a facility that has met the strenuous criteria to be permitted to house an eagle, but does not already have one.  In the meantime, the eagle progressed from her hospital cage to an outdoor woodflight with a little more room.  When the time came that we needed the woodflight cage for other recovering patients, we got permission from USFW to move the young female in with our two permanent resident eagles, Bilfred and Arthur.  We are only permitted for two residents, but in extenuating circumstances have been allowed to temporarily house another eagle with them.  It helps us to find placement if we can tell the interested facility that the bird has been on public display and is calm, eats well, and handles life on exhibition without stress.  We do not keep birds that are anxious about being in captivity.  Our goal is to alleviate suffering, not induce it.   The last time we housed a juvenile eagle with our residents, she ended up being a bit of a bully.  She would hoard all of the food we placed in the habitat and would stake her claim to the best perches.  This time our old timers had had enough.  They started off by bullying the juvenile and showed no signs of getting accustomed to her being there.  She would often jump and flutter the entire length of the habitat, so we decided to place her in the 100’ flight cage to see just what she could do.   From the moment she was placed in the flight cage she could bound from one end to the other in three hops.  By the next day she could do it in two hops. Each day she got stronger.  Within days she was flying the entire 100 feet, but only one or two feet off the ground.  Soon she was three to four feet in the air.  Then she could fly up to the six foot perch.  After less than a month she was able to fly twenty feet up in the air, bank around and glide back and forth numerous times.   This young eagle had beaten the odds and was ready for release.  Since our flight cage is off-site, we enlist special volunteers to help with the feeding and care of these particular patients.  Some of our board members helped take care of this bird and were present for her release.  That sure beats sitting around a stuffy board room debating stock options and the price of futures.  Or whatever it is that board members at “real” companies do!  PRWC’s board of directors had a tangible influence on the actual future of this magnificent bald eagle, who is now soaring over Charlotte county again.   There were scattered showers on the afternoon of her release.  As we arrived at the site, the rain stopped.  As I took her out of her transport carrier, the sun came out.  She flew off into the distance, banked around a clump of trees and was gone from our sight.   Watching a bird, whether it is an eagle or a dove, fly away after it would have died from its injuries had we not intervened, is very gratifying.  Since many of those injuries are related to manmade incidents and devices, it is only fair that we help mitigate some of that damage.  THAT is why we do what we do.   So instead of getting to Heaven at last—I’m going all along.


by–  Robin Jenkins, DVM

BAEA at rest

Bald eagle with injured wing.

BAEA flying

Injured bald eagle exercising in cage.

BAEA flies away

Eagle flies away after release.