Orphaned animal? Call an expert

  • Susan Smith of Bennington is trained to rehabilitate baby squirrels and bunnies. Courtesy photo

  • Susan Smith of Bennington is trained to rehabilitate baby squirrels and bunnies. Courtesy

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/4/2021 5:22:19 PM

If you found a baby animal crying for help, what would you do? Discovering a baby animal in distress can bring out any number of good intentions, but contacting a professional is almost always the best first step to take when you find a wild animal, for the animal’s health as well as the rescuer’s, Bennington resident and licensed wildlife rehabilitator Susan Smith said.

When some people find a baby animal, they pick it up, try to feed it, or even attempt to make it a pet, Smith said. Those gestures may come from a good place, but they can actually hurt the chances of the animal recovering and eventually making it on its own, she said.

Smith is one of 20 Granite Staters licensed to care for injured or orphaned wildlife. She specializes in squirrels and bunnies and takes them in from as far away as Rindge, but the rehabilitators in the state refer callers to whoever is best-equipped to help in a given situation, she said. Smith is currently caring for about 10 squirrels, and she expects to start receiving calls about bunnies in the next week or two, she said last Tuesday. Spring marks “baby season” for rehabilitators, as it’s the season when many animals give birth, and therefore also the season when people are most likely to find orphaned wildlife.

Two weekends ago, Smith responded to a report of four apparently orphaned squirrels in a nest on the Granite Block building in downtown Peterborough. She’d heard from people who worked near the nest that two had fallen out, but all the squirrels were gone by the time Smith could get a ladder to the scene. Smith spotted one in a tree near Harlow’s, where it appeared to be eating and doing well. She retrieved the other three from people who had been attempting to care for the squirrels themselves. Although they had notified the Peterborough police and attempted to care for the animals themselves, nobody had known to call Fish and Game or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Smith said.

Every situation presents unique considerations, Smith said, which is why it’s so important to get in touch with an expert before taking action. Sometimes, the babies haven’t actually been abandoned and the mother is just out foraging, Smith said. Googling animal care tips can turn up inaccurate information, Smith said, whereas a licensed rehabilitator can walk a caller through the precautions to take depending on the diseases a certain species is likely to carry, she said, and also direct them on what’s safe and not safe to do with the animal until they can take over its care.

It’s important to hold off on feeding anything to an animal until you consult an expert, Smith said. Each species of small mammal requires specialized food, and feeding an animal cow’s milk or store-bought formulas can create serious digestive problems that delay their recovery, she said.

It’s also very stressful for small animals to be handled, Smith said, regardless of how cute and cuddly they seem. It’s especially important that children not handle wildlife, she said, as even baby animals can be covered in lice or fleas and have intestinal parasites, and even small animals can scratch and bite. “I always wash my hands or wear gloves,” when handling wildlife, she said. Smith is also vaccinated for rabies, even though squirrels are less likely to carry the disease than some other animals.

Two of the three squirrels Smith took in from the Granite Block remain in her care, Smith said on Monday. “One ... has a few wounds on her face that I treated, she’s doing fine,” she said. One squirrel died after initially appearing to be doing well, she said, potentially due to internal injuries incurred by falling out of the nest. There is some stress and heartbreak involved in caring for wildlife, Smith said. An animal’s ability to survive often depends on the condition it comes to her in, she said, but successful rehabilitations are extremely rewarding, she said. “I want them to be wild,” she said.

Baby squirrels might stay with Smith for 10 or 12 weeks, depending on their age when she takes them in. “I won’t release them until I know they’ll be able to survive on their own,” she said. Smith takes precautions to prevent the animals from imprinting on humans, and keeps them in a separate building away from the house. Eventually they move into an eight by eight-foot cage, where they get accustomed to squirrel boxes that Smith brings along when she releases the animal into the wild. The box stays at the release site for a couple weeks as a place for the squirrel to find food or shelter as it adjusts, Smith said, but she rarely sees them return after she releases them.

Smith has been rehabilitating animals for more than a decade. She describes it as something she always wanted to do. “When I was a child we loved and grew up with animals,” she said, “but I didn’t know what to do if I found something,” she said. Years ago she had an opportunity to work the front desk at a veterinary clinic, which led her to learning the basics of animal care and eventually meeting a wildlife rehabilitator, before starting the trainings and apprenticeships to do it herself.

“It’s rewarding when you feed it and watch it growing, thriving, developing, eating seeds,” she said. Smith said she recognizes a red squirrel around her home that she’d previously raised and released close by. “I can’t go near her, she’s not imprinted on me,” she said, but that’s exactly the way she wants it to be.

Although there are limited opportunities for volunteers to work with existing wildlife rehabilitators, they can always use donations for medicine and supplies, Smith said, and interested people can go through training themselves via New Hampshire Fish and Game. There are also a number of other wildlife volunteer opportunities on the New Hampshire Fish and Game website.

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