By EMILY CRISMAN, Chattanooga Times Free Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Now is a time of year when many species of wildlife are having babies, and it’s also a time when humans often encounter orphaned, sick or injured wildlife.
“Really, this is our busy season, because baby season is when people tend to get out there trimming trees, and they’re coming across birds,” said Mary Marr, songbird caretaker at Camp Wildernest. “Sometimes, birds that are just learning to fly, people think that they’re hurt or injured, but actually, their parents are nearby and they’re just in the process of learning how to bird.”
Camp Wildernest is among the wildlife rehabilitation centers in Chattanooga that help animals in need heal and get back into the wild. Its efforts focus on songbirds, turtles, flying squirrels and chipmunks.
At Opie Acres, founder Jerry Harvey specializes in opossum rehabilitation. He’s currently caring for 128 of the nocturnal creatures, which have poor eyesight and are prone to getting hit by cars.
He also has nine raccoons, 13 skunks in various sizes, two groundhogs and a weasel. Harvey will also take in other animals, such as bobcats and deer, until they can be transported somewhere that can better care for them.
The only animals he cannot take per Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are coyotes, which are considered “nuisance animals”; bats, which tend to spread rabies; and armadillos, which are an invasive species.
Kate Kinnear of Marshall Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center focuses on squirrels and rabbits.
Camp Wildernest is an offshoot of Happinest, a rehabilitation center on Signal Mountain run by Alix Parks that focuses on raptors.
“A wildlife rehabber is always going to be better able to just focus on one or two things, rather than everything,” Marr said. “That just gets kind of difficult with regards to volunteer training and just general care.”
While spring and summer are the busiest seasons at Camp Wildernest, cat-caught birds are frequently brought into the center year-round.
“All the volunteers here love cats,” Marr said. “It’s just safer for the cat and the birds when cats are kept inside.”
Aside from cats, another common danger for birds is getting stuck in sticky traps people set to catch mice and insects.
Sticky traps are an inhumane way to kill animals, which die slowly as they struggle to break free, she said.
When a bird sees an insect in a sticky trap, the bird tries to eat it and gets stuck as well. Birds will badly injure themselves trying to break free, and those that are freed by rehabilitators have to be bathed multiple times to remove the glue. Every time a bird is touched by a human, it causes more trauma, she said.
Instead of sticky traps, Marr suggests two-door live animal cage traps, such as those by Havahart, which are available at Tractor Supply Co., Home Depot and Amazon.
She also recommends companies such as Mosquito Joe that provide all-natural outdoor pest control. Even just putting peppermint oil around the baseboards of a home can be helpful in deterring pests, she said.
“I know that a lot of people have a problem and they want a solution right away,” Marr said. “Sometimes there are things that you can do that would still be successful that maybe take a little more than just going to Lowe’s in order to figure out exactly what to do, but they can always call us if they have a question about something like that. .”
Wildlife safety is one of many reasons to avoid littering, as trash can lure animals like opossums out into the road, Harvey said.
In this region, opossums have two birthing seasons a year — once in late February and early March, and again in late June and early July.
If people come in contact with a baby opossum, raccoon or other small mammal, the first thing for the human to remember is to keep from getting injured.
“Baby opossums are pretty much harmless for the most part,” Harvey said. “A baby raccoon, surprisingly, can actually give a pretty good bite.”
Most infant animals people find are easy to pick up with a cloth and put into a box. If the animal is defensive, gardening gloves may be necessary for protection, or a broom can be used to sweep the animal into a cat carrier or box, he said.
Once it is confined, it can be transported to wildlife rehabilitation centers, which sometimes have volunteers who can provide transportation.
The most important thing to know is to never feed the animal.
“Wild animals’ diets are so specific to their species that giving them the wrong thing one time can actually kill them,” Harvey said.
People who find a turtle in the road can help it to the other side if it can be done safely, Marr said.
People who come across a baby bird in their yard should leave it alone to see if its mother, who is best equipped to care for it, returns — as long as there is a fence to keep out other animals that may harm it.
Or a laundry basket with a towel or blanket over the top can be placed over the bird to keep it safe. The mother will often show up. If she doesn’t, Camp Wildernest can take over from there.
While 128 may seem like a large number of opossums, there are times when Harvey has cared for a lot more than that. Last year, around 800 opossums were rehabilitated at Opie Acres.
“We’ve had to limit our intake this year because we’re so shorthanded on volunteers,” Harvey said.
Camp Wildernest is also in need of volunteers, and both rehabilitation centers provide training to volunteers. To learn more, contact the various centers, which are all nonprofit organizations run on donations by volunteers.
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