Long before there were wildlife hospitals and people who specialized in providing care to wildlife, there were compassionate people who found orphaned and injured wild animals and did the best they could. The most caring individuals made formulas for babies out of ingredients used for humans and domestic animals and dressed injuries with whatever they found in the medicine cabinet. Some of these animals survived and were released, usually those with less severe injuries and which were older babies when they were found. Many animals which received this kind of care became tame and were treated as pets. Many were released but did not survive. Many died. In the early 1980’s, the formation of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association signaled a new era for wildlife care by addressing the needs of wild creatures as separate and different from those of domestic animals.
The books we relied upon when Fellow Mortals was organized in 1985 are no longer in use today, the information superseded as more experience was gained, more research done, more observations made. Some of that early information proved to be not just incorrect but inhumane and dangerous. The field of wildlife rehabilitation has changed and the approach to wildlife care has become professional—a good thing, because more animals survive critical injuries, more wild orphans receive proper nutrition to prepare them for maturity. Wildlife veterinarians have devised specific treatments and medical protocols for injured wildlife, wildlife nutritionists have studied the composition of natural milk of wild species and developed substitute formulas which provide the necessary nutrition for healthy organs, strong bones and healthy feathers and fur.
Along with advances in medicine and nutrition, came better understanding of wild animals’ natural history and behavior and the importance of making sure that wild animals in rehabilitation not become improperly bonded to humans or pets, but remain wild so as to have a better chance of successfully integrating into wild populations and raising young of their own. When possible, wild animals are raised with a foster parent of their own species. When that is not possible, they are raised with other babies of the species, but never by a domestic animal. While the pictures showing baby squirrels nursing on a dog or cat are sweet and show us what we wish the world could be like, it is important to remember that dogs and cats are predators of this and other species in the wild.
Wildlife rehabilitators work very hard to make sure that our patients are not habituated to animals which will present a threat to them upon release. The majority of the baby rabbits, squirrels, ducklings and birds which come to us as injured orphans have been injured by a pet dog or cat. Humans are also a risk to wild animals, especially those which belong to species which are legally hunted, such as deer, squirrel, ducks and geese. It is for the protection of wildlife at the hospital or at a rehabilitator’s home that we do not interact with our wild patients any more than necessary to provide care. This is also the reason that we are not allowed to have you visit the animals at the hospital.
One of the most important jobs of the wildlife rehabilitator is to give everything we have to the wild animal in our care without bonding with it. A wild animal that is taken out for release and turns around to run back to its caregiver is the most heartbreaking sign of failure imaginable.
Dr. Pat Hourigan, a veterinarian with Fellow Mortals for 25 years, once wrote: “Working on wildlife is a humbling experience. …the one successful outcome is measured by how quickly my patient flees away from me.”
Everything we give, everything we do, is all about that moment.