By Steve Metsch
ALMOST everybody loves rabbits, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s crazy about opossums because, let’s face it, even as babies they’re kind of creepy.
Cheryl Beste doesn’t fall into that category. She loves the critters, and as a licensed rehabilitator, often helps raise baby opossums when their mother is killed.
“I care for them because a lot of people don’t like them and I feel badly for them,” Beste said. “Actually, they’re very much needed. They’re the little scavengers of the earth. Without them, the earth would be a much dirtier place.”
In the early days of spring, there are lots of opossum babies around–and raccoon, bird, squirrel, rabbit, skunk and deer babies, too. That makes it a busy time for folks like Beste. When people find motherless baby animals in their yards, they seek out local veterinarians and animal shelters.
Beste works with the South Suburban Humane Society Shelter in Chicago Heights, IL. She lives in the south suburbs, but won’t say where “because I’d be flooded with callers seeking help if I told you.”
Baby opossums can be as small as a kidney bean and require constant care. They suffer from a condition similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and need to be given antibiotics and kept in an incubator, set at 110 degrees, for several weeks.
Beste also cares for baby squirrels, which aren’t as high maintenance but still need special care. Forget about giving baby wild animals an eyedropper of cow’s milk. Despite the good intention, the milk could kill them.
“It’s more work than people think,” she said.
Her advice for anyone finding wild young in their yards is: “If they’re not afraid, scoop them up in a towel in a cardboard box and keep them warm until they get to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.”
Dispelling An Old Myth
While it’s not surprising at this time of year for homeowners to find baby wild animals in their yards or houses, it is a common misconception that you shouldn’t touch them or move them to safety.
“That’s a widespread myth, if you touch a wild animal you’ll wind up killing it,” said Laura Simon, field director of urban wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States. “We’ve all heard that we should not touch a baby bird because the mother will know and abandon it. Birds have a poor sense of smell, and the mother will never know you touched the baby bird.”
And that applies to all the wildlife you might see.
“Mammals don’t really care if a human touches their baby because the maternal instinct is strong,” Simon said. “The only animal that might notice is the rabbit because they are sensitive to disturbances and to the human scent. I tell people to wear gloves if they’re concerned about it, but even the mother rabbit, if she smells a human, will be happy to have her young back.”
The humane society and local animal control businesses are flooded with calls this time of year from people who find young animals in their yards, and sometimes it’s best to do nothing at all, she said. Mother Nature has been doing quite fine for centuries without human help, she said.
And even if an animal appears to be abandoned, that may not be the case, she said. Rabbits and deer, for example, often leave their babies alone for hours, lest the mother’s scent attract predators.
In other words, it’s OK for the babies to be alone.
Adapting To Humans
Mike Klinger, owner of Trap This in Western Springs, IL, thinks wildlife has done a better job adjusting to humans than the other way around.
“Animals have adapted to urbanization,” Klinger said. “Some of these towns have been here for 100 years. It’s best to let Mother Nature let the animals be wild without man in the way. But everybody’s got a soft heart.”
His company is kept busy in the west and south suburbs.
“I was just in Orland Park, IL the other day getting a Muskrat out of a house. A window in a window well was open. The Muskrat fell into it, climbed through the window and was running around the basement,” he said.
And this is the time of year when baby squirrels are being born, perhaps in your attic, Klinger said. Squirrels and raccoons like attics that provide cover from the weather. If you spot a baby squirrel that has fallen out of its nest in a tree, it’s best to let them be, said Ty Holden, owner of Wildlife Police Inc. in Willowbrook, IL.
“The mother will find them and retrieve them, or they may not. In general, it’s best to leave them alone,” Holden said.
For the Birds
Marilyn Reid, of Crete, IL, is an approved human investigator for the South Suburban Humane Society Shelter. She nurses baby birds who have been orphaned, but said they are “are very difficult to raise” without the proper training.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the parents are in the area and will come back. I don’t give any tips for raising them. My suggestion would be to call someone who is licensed to care for them,” Reid said.
If a bird is found on a sidewalk or street, it’s best to move them to a grassy area and then leave it alone.
“They will call out to their parents, and their parents will call to them. They’ll find the babies,” Reid said.
Tips On What To Do
Baby Squirrels: If they fall from a tree being cut down, stop the tree-cutting and leave the babies out for the mother to retrieve. If it’s cold, put them on a heating pad on “low” using an extension cord, and place a flannel shirt beneath them so they don’t overheat. Call a wildlife expert if the mother has not returned by night.
Fawns: It’s is normal for mother deer to leave their fawn alone for long periods of time to avoid attracting predators with the mother’s scent. The young are odorless and safer without mom around. Call for help if the fawn is wandering around or if the dead mother deer is found nearby.
Baby Rabbits: They are often left alone, and the mother tends to visit briefly twice a day, again so her scent does not attract predators. Call for help only if they have been attacked by an animal or injured.
Baby Raccoons: These are rarely left unsupervised, so if you find babies alone for more than a few hours, it’s a sign something happened to the mother. The mother will likely move them when they are around six weeks old.
Baby Skunks: Due to poor eyesight, they sometimes get separated from their mother. If you find a nose-to-tail line of baby skunks running through their neighborhood, place a laundry basket over them, upside down, to hold them in place and give the mother a chance to find them. If she does not retrieve them by the next morning, call for help. Remember, even baby skunks can spray if they feel they are in danger.
Baby Birds: Birds will not reject their young if touched by humans. Feel free to place them back in their nest. If the nest is too high or destroyed, you can secure a nest-sized wicker basket near the original nest. The parents should take over the new nest without a problem.
Fledgling Birds: If you see a bird on the ground, don’t think it has a broken wing. Chances are, it is learning to fly from the ground. How can you tell if its parent are around? If there are bird droppings on the ground, indicating the young bird is still being fed. –Sun Times