NASHVILLE — As a young college student, I volunteered for the Alabama Wildlife Center, mostly caring for baby songbirds, squirrels, and opossums. The infants in my care were all healthy enough that a teenager willing to start the day with feedings at dawn and continue feeding hourly until dark would most often succeed. .
Only once was I assigned an injured animal. It was spring, baby season, and there might not be enough veteran volunteers to care for another young rabbit, a species particularly stressed by human handling. This little bunny was so young that his eyes were still closed. All of her littermates had been killed when a lawn mower ran over their nest. The one I was caring for had lost half of his nose to the blades. He did not survive the night.
This little bunny, I know now, never had a chance. Maybe I knew then too, but knowing it wouldn’t have stopped me from crying over her cold little body at dawn.
You might wonder why a wildlife rescue organization would bother to take in such a badly injured animal. You might be wondering why they are trying to save these kind of creatures. “But there are so many many rabbits!” I often heard people say during my days of volunteering. “We already have so much opossums and squirrels.
Strictly speaking, they are right. The cottontail rabbit is, so far, not endangered. Neither the eastern gray squirrel, nor the Virginia opossum, nor the northern thrasher, nor the American robin. Every wild baby I hand-raised as a student belonged to a species that wasn’t endangered in 1980 and isn’t now.
Tell that to the traumatized teenager cutting the grass who finds he’s shot a litter of rabbits. Tell that to the traumatized commuter who killed a possum with cubs hanging from its back, or the person whose animal killed a mother squirrel, leaving her babies to starve.
At the species level, it’s easy for people to say, “What’s one less squirrel?” But there is something in even the most bitter human heart that cannot help but respond to the suffering of another living being. Faced with a hungry kit squirrel rooting desperately between its fingers, people almost always feel compelled to feed it.
These days, it is illegal in most states to take a wild animal without special training and a state license. This is where wildlife rehabilitation experts and rescue organizations come in. These trained and approved rehabilitation workers are most often volunteers; many do this demanding work from their own homes.
But even for rehabilitators at the best-equipped centers — those with ultrasound machines, lead testers and gas sedation equipment — working in wildlife rescue is heartbreaking again and again. Again. There is so much suffering, and much of it could be avoided if human beings were just a little more careful to share the earth with other creatures. Why do wildlife conservators continue to do this harrowing, physically demanding, time-consuming, and often very expensive work?
It’s because they have a soft heart for the creatures that try so hard to fit into our ways. I think they must also have a tender heart even for human beings who unknowingly create the dangers that lead to so much pain and destruction. When someone calls, scared they’ve run over a turtle with a lawnmower, wildlife rescue experts sigh and say, “When can you bring it in?”
Rehabilitators go to extraordinary lengths to save every injured animal. If they can’t save the animal, they can at least give it a merciful death. And they can take the opportunity to explain why it’s so important to walk the yard before mowing, which gives wildlife of all kinds a chance to escape. Each rescue animal represents a human being who has learned something important to live more peacefully in the world. The rehabilitation of the human heart is perhaps the most important work of these organizations.
Last week on Giving Tuesday, I focused my donations on local wildlife rescue organizations that I follow on social media: Walden’s Puddle, Harmony Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Nashville Wildlife Conservation Center, Lillie Birds Wildlife Rehabilitation and Ziggy’s Tree Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. All contributed to my training as a naturalist. Some have taken in injured or orphaned animals that I found in my own yard. (Check Animal Help Now or your national wildlife resource agency to find wildlife rehabilitation centers in your own area.)
Primarily through social media, but also through outreach programs in schools and communities, wildlife rehabilitation experts can reach many more people than those bringing in injured animals and orphans. They play a crucial role in educating the community on how to be a good neighbor to wild animals struggling to live among us as development encroaches on their territories. They help us understand that these common backyard creatures are everything extraordinary, each as unique as we are among our own.
This recognition is the first step towards understanding that it is our moral obligation to do whatever it takes to maintain the biodiversity of our own ecosystem. Threat of extinction isn’t the only measure by which the health of an animal population should be measured, and many of our once common wild neighbors – songbirds, rabbits, turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders, just to start – rapidly losing ground. Every creature that a rescue organization returns to the wild helps stem the losses.
From the social media accounts of these nonprofit organizations, it is possible to learn how devastating rodent poison is, moving up the food chain and killing or weakening predators to the point that they die of hunger ; why the increase in rodenticides could explain the increase in mange in red foxes; when to leave a baby bird alone; why it is important to let dead leaves rest; how to know if a fawn is an orphan; the importance of keeping cats indoors; unnecessary suffering caused by sticky traps; the survival benefit for rabbits of keeping tidy; why birds that hit windows should be taken to a rehabilitation center, even if they seem fine; what eye color says about a box turtle’s health; the many reasons for not mowing or raising your mower to its highest setting. Plus countless other fascinating facts about the creatures that live just beyond our windows.
Just as it is nearly impossible to watch an animal suffer and not want to save it, no matter what effort, inconvenience, and expense may be involved, it is impossible to study the work of wildlife rehabilitators and not be impressed by the complexity of other animals, and the animal communities they work so hard to preserve. It’s impossible not to come away with an admiration for the human capacity for compassion, too.
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