In the fall of 2015, I conducted internships with Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation at the San Antonio, Texas, location and with All Things Wild Rehabilitation in Austin, Texas. Both organizations aid injured and orphaned wildlife by offering medical treatments and a safe location to grow to an appropriate release size. This report will describe both organizations, discuss my activities there, and explore the relationship between human expansion and wildlife habitat loss.
Rescue, Rehabilitate, and Release: A Brief Overview
Founded in 1977 by Lynn Cuny, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation (WRR) serves the central Texas region. Their mission is “to rescue, rehabilitate, and release native wildlife and to provide sanctuary, individualized care, and a voice for other animals in need” (wildlife-rescue.org/about/mission-history-ethic). Release back into the wild is the ultimate goal for all orphaned and injured wildlife. Animals that are not candidates for release due to permanent injury or non-native status receive continuous care in a remote 212 acre facility near Kendalia, Texas.
Several buildings make up the Kendalia complex. These include a hospital and rehabilitation nursery where veterinary staff tend to injured wildlife; however, only the animal receiving building is open to the public. There are numerous animal enclosures, a nutrition center, and several other smaller buildings used for administration and housing. A second, smaller facility in a residential neighborhood in San Antonio serves as an intake center and main point of contact for the public. It was at this location that I spent the majority of my internship. Originally a residence, this space has limited public access. Animals are kept behind closed doors to limit stress and human contact. An outdoor aviary provides valuable space for birds to learn to fly, and squirrels to climb, before release. It also allows the animals to become reacquainted with the sounds of human activity in a safe environment. Healthy songbirds, squirrels, and cottontail rabbits remain in residence until they are released, while injured animals and all other species are transported daily to Kendalia for specialized care.
All Things Wild Rehabilitation (ATW) formally came together in the fall of 2012. Their mission is “to promote respect and compassion for all wildlife through public education and awareness; to rescue, rehabilitate, and release sick, injured, orphaned, and displaced wildlife back into the appropriate habitat; and to provide sanctuary for all animals in need” (http://www.allthingswildrehab.org/about-atw-1.html). Although their ultimate goal is also release, all animals are housed by state licensed individuals rather than at a centralized facility. Non-releasable animals become surrogates for orphaned babies or part of an out-reach education program as animal ambassadors. Attending meetings at schools, scout groups, churches, and service groups with the animals allows the group to further their mission of promoting wildlife conservation.
Since it is a new organization, all members of ATW currently operate out of their homes. Facilities differ among rehabilitators, but all have both indoor and outdoor areas dedicated to wildlife. Laundry rooms and spare bedrooms are most commonly used for baby mammals and songbirds, as they are unable to regulate their body temperature. Once they have achieved the appropriate size, animals are moved outdoors to secure cages. This allows them to re-acclimate to life outside while still being under the care of a rehabilitator until they are ready for release.
Although both organizations have similar goals, they have distinctive approaches to achieving them. WRR has dedicated facilities and staff available around the clock to attend to the animals. This also allows them to take in a larger number of animals. Conversely, rehabilitators with ATW rely only on themselves. They are not able to provide continuous care, and often put their own lives on hold to attend to the needs of wildlife. The number of animals they can accept depends on the time restraints already imposed by existing wildlife in their care. ATW has aspirations of building a dedicated facility. Doing so will allow them to take in more animals and accept volunteers to staff the facility. Their setup will likely be similar to the one already established by WRR. It will have an entry area accessible to the public for intake, a treatment room for injured animals, quiet areas for animals in distress, a kitchen for storing and preparing food, outdoor space for aviaries and re-acclimation, and lots of storage for cages and other supplies.
A Day in the Life of a Wildlife Rehabilitator
Most of the work associated with wildlife rehabilitation is unglamorous. Sanitation is of utmost importance to avoid the spread of bacteria or disease. There are never ending loads of laundry that need to be washed, folded, and put away. Cages need to be cleaned daily with all bedding, food, and water dishes replaced. Food preparation is also performed every day. Fruit and vegetables are chopped in varying sizes to accommodate the different species. Young mammals require milk replacers that must be mixed daily. Each formula has varying levels of protein, fat, and carbohydrates specifically designed to meet the nutritional needs of their species. During particularly busy periods, feeding can occupy most of the day. Frequency of feeding is dependent on species and size. Songbirds must be fed every 30 minutes to an hour, while squirrels require feedings every two to four hours.
Before beginning my internships, I was required to receive a series of three rabies pre-exposure vaccinations due to possible exposure to rabies vector species (RVS). Foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, and bats are classified as RVS because they have a higher than normal risk of carrying and transmitting rabies. Although the vaccinations do not guarantee immunity from rabies, they shorten treatment times if exposed.
Both organizations accept injured or orphaned wildlife brought directly to them. In cases when that is not possible, they will attempt to rescue an injured animal. Safety of both the animal and the rescuer are taken into consideration. Gloves are worn at all times when handling an animal. For birds and baby squirrels, latex gloves are sufficient. However, leather gloves are worn when handling adult mammals and raptors. Birds are caught with a net attached to a pole if they are able to fly. Animals that are grounded or otherwise contained are picked up by hand and transported back to facilities in carriers similar to ones used for domestic cats and dogs.
I was able to assist in a few rescues during my internships. Most memorable was the rescue of an injured Red Tailed Hawk. As the talons can inflict the most damage, we wore thick leather gloves to protect our hands. The raptor had an injured wing and did not offer much resistance. We were able to net it on the second attempt and safely bring it back for a full evaluation.
During the summer, WRR routinely visits the egret rookery (nesting grounds) in Brackenridge Park adjacent to the San Antonio Zoo. Egrets nest high in the trees along one side of the waterway. If a baby is pushed or falls from the nest, it is ignored and left to die. Abandoned or injured birds are collected and brought back for evaluation. During my visits to the park, I only observed two egrets with wing injuries. Of the two, we were only able to net one and bring it back for evaluation.
Unfortunately, these attempts are frequently unsuccessful, because the animal has often relocated before a rehabber is able to arrive, or the animal eludes capture by some other means. During one such attempt to rescue a goose with a hook stuck in its bill, I experienced this first hand. As soon as the net was produced, a futile chase ensued. I now understand where the term wild goose chase comes from!
Upon arrival, all animals are evaluated. Most wild animals become extremely stressed in the presence of humans. To calm down, they can be placed in a quiet room either in an incubator or a cage. Intake assessments include weight, hydration, mobility, ocular responsiveness, and visible trauma. Injuries, if present, are assessed and appropriate medical care is given. In cases of severe injury, WRR will send the animal to Kendalia to receive specialized veterinary care. Rehabbers with ATW do most of the treatments themselves. However, each has a veterinarian they work with who is able to assist when necessary.
After evaluation, the animal is moved into an enclosure appropriate to its size and species. If an injury is a consideration, a small cage is utilized to limit mobility, or it is placed in an incubator. The animal is kept indoors as it grows, but is routinely transferred to a series of larger cages with members of its own species.
Before the first feeding of the day, each animal is weighed to ensure that the correct amount of food is given. Squirrels up to 200 grams receive 5% of their body weight in formula at each feeding. Dependent on their weight, they are fed up to eight times per day. Additionally, once they reach 151 grams, they are given fruits, vegetables, and nuts twice a day. Hydration levels are also checked before each feeding by performing a skin turgor test. The skin over the shoulder is lifted, held for a few seconds, and then released. In a healthy animal, the skin will return to its normal position immediately. In a dehydrated animal, the skin is less elastic and there is a delay in the skin returning to its normal position. If the animal is dehydrated, fluids are administered either orally or subcutaneously. Each feeding session can last five to twenty minutes dependent on the cooperativeness of the animal. Squirrels have two mating seasons each year. My internship began at the end of the second season, and both organizations were inundated with orphaned squirrels. I spent quite a lot of time feeding them.
Wild animals, especially adults, understandably do not like being handled by humans and their natural instinct is to defend themselves. I learned that burrito wrapping is an essential skill for a wildlife rehabilitator to have. Burrito-ing involves wrapping the animal snugly in a blanket or towel where only the head is exposed. This ensures a level of safety for both the animal and the rehabber as it keeps the animal stable and unable to lash out with claws. Throughout my internship I used this technique for feeding squirrels and administering medicine to an injured opossum.
Prior to release, the animal is relocated to a large outdoor enclosure allowing them to become familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of the world. Avian species must demonstrate that they can fly and eat on their own before they are released, which can happen as quickly as two days. Squirrels at this stage can already self-feed. They remain outdoors for approximately three days before they are released.
Locating a proper release site is extremely important. Whenever possible, WRR returns animals to the site at which they were found. This allows the ecosystem and species populations to remain constant. Furthermore, raptors are returned to their original site so that they can be reunited with mates. Exceptions are made for predatory animals. They are taken to a remote area farther away from human population centers to further limit interaction. When the original site is unknown or unfavorable, a new site is chosen. It must contain water and trees/cover, and be at least 100 yards from a major roadway and heavy human traffic. Several parks in San Antonio are utilized since they provide ideal conditions in an urban area.
Most members of ATW engage in a “soft” release. Rather than taking the animal to an unfamiliar location, cage doors are left open once small mammals are eligible for release. This allows the animal the opportunity to forage for food on their own, but offers the ability to return if they are unsuccessful. Songbirds are released from the aviary once they are able to fly and catch insects on their own. Many choose to stay nearby because there are several well stocked bird feeders in close proximity. Rather than leave the cage door open, squirrels are relocated in their house to a nearby tree. The brackets for their houses stay up year round. When the squirrels are ready for release, the house (with squirrels inside) is removed from the cage with the door obstructed. The house is then taken to the yard and secured to a tree, the door is opened, and they are free to come and go as they please. We released nine squirrels in one afternoon this way!
Urban Environments and Wildlife
Both organizations exist to manage the problems created by urban and suburban development. Urban expansion often leads to wildlife displacement. This interaction with humans and domesticated animals often leads to injuries and orphaned wildlife. These animals end up in the care of wildlife rehabilitators.
The effects of urban expansion on wildlife have both positive and negative connotations. Pessimists theorize that urbanization has directly led to habitat loss, while optimists counter that many species are able to adapt to the “new stresses, food sources, predators, and threats in urban and suburban environments” (Hunter 2007: 316). Urban settings increase interactions between wildlife, humans, and predators, but also introduce new food sources and provide shelter. As a result, generalist species thrive in urban environments while specialists struggle to survive.
Human urbanization decreases biodiversity of both animals and plants. Urbanization processes which result in loss or modification of habitat and resources “are a primary cause of native species’ extinctions or are catalysts for changes in distribution” (Taylor 2013: 482). These processes include clearing land of vegetation, cutting and paving roads, and building homes and skyscrapers. Non-native plant and animal species may be introduced purposely by humans for cultivation, pets, or a number of other uses. However, they are also accidentally imported via transportation vehicles such as trucks, planes, and ships. A loss of diversity in native species occurs when native species are replaced by introduced species. This process promotes biotic homogenization, which in turn creates niche opportunities. Humans contribute to niche opportunities by “reducing (and often eliminating) natural enemies” (McKinney 2006: 249) such as predators by providing food subsidies, and by altering the natural environment.
Avian species are especially well suited to the urban environment. Humans provide food sources for birds both deliberately (providing seed) and unintentionally (trees and garbage). Nesting sites are also abundant since they are “passively provided by humans, such as cavities in buildings or broken awnings” (Taylor 2013: 495). Behavioral (phenotypic) adaptations are expressions of physical (genetic) adaptations, and both have been observed in birds. In cases where noise pollution is prevalent, some species have changed their song in order “to overcome anthropogenic background noise” (Hunter 2007: 317). Other species have a more noticeable reaction. Traditionally, tail feathers of the dark-eyed junco have been predominately white. Due to unknown pressures, the tail feathers have begun to show a significant change in color-specifically, they are less white (Hunter 2007: 317). Both birds and mammals have been shown to adapt behaviorally “by adjusting their food preferences, foraging behavior, anti-predator behavior, or extending the length of their breeding season” (Jokimäki et. al. 2011: 384). Adaptations prove that urbanization does not equate to overall loss of wildlife.
Locally, these effects may be observed on wildlife in several ways. Animals brought to wildlife rehabilitators needing medical treatment have often been attacked by domesticated animals, hit by moving vehicles, or injured as a result of their habitat being disturbed. Abundance of food and water draws wildlife into urban areas, which in turn brings predators such as hawks and coyotes. Occasionally, wild animals are kept as pets which are then later abandoned.
I am often asked why I don’t let nature take its course with injured wildlife. The environment in which we live is in large part unnatural. If an animal is near human dwellings, nature is already disturbed. Birds crash into windows of office buildings, squirrel and bird nests are destroyed by tree trimming for aesthetic reasons, domesticated animals attack wildlife, and collisions occur between motor vehicles and wildlife. All of these interactions are unnatural. Therefore, I feel morally responsible to offer aid to these animals whenever possible. During my internships, I was able to observe several animals go through the entire process of intake to release. Witnessing the transition from an orphaned infant squirrel to releasable adult was unexpectedly profound.
Hunter, Philip. 2007. “The human impact on biological diversity. How species adapt to urban challenges sheds light on evolution and provides clues about conservation.” EMBO Reports, 8 (4): 316–318.
Jokimäki, Jukka, Marja-Liisa Kaisanlahti-Jokimäki, Jukka Suhonen, Philippe Clergeau, Marco Pautasso, and Esteban Fernandez-Juricic. 2011. “Merging wildlife community ecology with animal behavioral ecology for a better urban landscape planning.” Landscape and Urban Planning 100: 383–385.
McKinney, Michael L. 2006. “Urbanization as a major cause of biotic homogenization.” Biological Conservation 127 (3): 247-260.
Taylor, Lucy. 2013. ”The impact of urbanization on avian species: The inextricable link between people and birds.” Urban Ecosystems 16 (3): 481-498.