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Animal Rehabilitation: On a Wing and a Prayer

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Human progress can come at a terrible price for wildlife, but animal rehabilitation centers offer many injured and orphaned animals a second chance. Karla Nagy shares the stories of two such local centers.

Dawn Keller, founder and director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington, releases a peregrine falcon that has fully recovered from its injuries. (Phil Hampel photo)

It’s happened to all of us, at one time or another. A baby bird has fallen out of its nest. A squirrel in the backyard is limping. A baby bunny is injured by a pet. A bird flies into a picture window.

And most likely, we’ve debated about what to do. Do we put the baby back in the nest? Do we take on the role of surrogate parent? Do we try to nurse the injured creature back to health? Do we call animal control? Or do we “let nature take its course”?

Wildlife rehabilitation centers have the answers. Their numbers are small; they operate solely on grants and private donations, and rely largely on volunteers for staffing. But they do provide places to take sick, injured and orphaned wild creatures for proper care and treatment, with the ultimate goal of returning them to their natural habitats.

Hospitals for Wildlife

The ramshackle house, located at the entrance to the Elburn Forest Preserve, seems an unlikely place for treating animals.

“This is our intake section,” says Ashley Flint, director of Fox Valley Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, 45W061 Hwy. 38, Elburn. She leans on a table in the middle of the room. “Here, we examine the animals, administer injections, change bandages, put on splints. We have a veterinarian who helps with major cases, but we do some things ourselves, like put in sutures, set broken bones, give intravenous fluids.”

Flint is one of only two paid employees at Fox Valley. A registered nonprofit organization, the center isn’t associated with the forest preserve. To augment their annual budget, the volunteers hold an annual fundraising dinner and sell a few branded items like calendars, notecards and T-shirts on the facility’s website. In 2012, the center’s 60 volunteers helped nearly 2,800 animals.

The center’s rural setting belies the reason for its existence. “Most animals come here because of some sort of interaction with humans,” Flint says.

Suburban sprawl is increasing that interaction. Just off a busy four-lane highway in Barrington, down a winding lane, is a quiet, wooded subdivision. Here, among the family homes, is Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation. A narrow unpaved drive leads to a two-story house, set back from the road on top of a hill. Cages are stacked outside.

“We’re doing a clinic renovation inside,” explains Flint Creek founder and director Dawn Keller. A former corporate executive with degrees in chemical engineering and finance, Keller used her own funds to start Flint Creek, which began accepting animals in 2004. A registered nonprofit, its funding comes from donations and grants; Flint Creek has no paid staff – not even Keller.

Keller and more than 100 volunteers at Flint Creek care for more than 3,400 animals annually. “We treat all animals, except for bats, skunks and raccoons,” says Keller. “We treat rabbits, fawns, flying squirrels, coyotes, foxes, reptiles. But in a typical year, 80 to 85 percent are birds, and we treat more than 250 raptors per year.” Keller is especially fond of birds of prey.

In 2006, Flint Creek opened a satellite facility at Northerly Island in Chicago, across from Soldier Field. “The Chicago Park District has donated the space,” Keller says. “Before we were downtown, Cook County had no facility for treating injured wildlife. The intake and triage there has increased survival rates for city head traumas, from 70 percent to 90 percent.”

Wild Kept Wild

It’s late fall, so Fox Valley has fewer patients than usual; most have been released back into the wild.

“This is the bird room,” Flint says. As she enters the small room adjacent to the intake section, a cacophony of squawking, flapping and cooing ensues. Three-tiered shelves line two walls, each shelf filled with rows of wire cages and plastic pet travelers. Another table holds three incubators. Any cages with inhabitants are covered, to limit human exposure.

“Since it’s October, we’re slow now, but usually, all of these are full, and you can’t imagine the noise then!” Flint says with a laugh. “Right now, we have a pine siskin with tendon issues, four rock doves and a savannah sparrow with an injured wing. Many places won’t take non-native species, but we believe that every creature deserves a chance.”

Flint indicates two cages curtained with black cloths. “Since we’re slow, we have some mammals in there,” she says. “Squirrels mate twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. We have a four-week-old baby squirrel, late for a fall birth. Over there we have two baby possums, also late for the season. I checked earlier for pouches, and one is a girl.”

Depending on their rates of growth, these babies may be released in a few weeks, or may end up spending the winter. There’s also a juvenile cottontail rabbit with no eyes, most likely the victim of a pellet gun.

In the basement, Flint says, more stacked, covered cages hold a variety of recuperating birds, an owl, a Canada goose and a snow goose that was injured while migrating. “He clipped his shins on a car, and both are broken,” Flint explains. “It’s an unusual injury, but he should make a full recovery.”

Every inch of space here is devoted to wildlife. With baskets of fruits and vegetables, bins of insects, pans of raw chicken legs and livers, and buckets of feed and seed covering countertops, open shelves, tabletop and floor, it’s clear that the kitchen is used solely for the preparation of non-human meals.

In the backyard, surrounded by a privacy fence, a variety of cages and pens extends several hundred yards into the woods. A mulched path, built just this spring as an Eagle Scout project, runs between the enclosures.

“These outside cages are the next step to an animal being released,” Flint explains from the porch. “The farthest-away forest cages are the last. We have a red fox out there that was purchased at a pet store and brought here by his owner when he was about a year old. He was completely imprinted. He’s been here since July, and we weren’t sure we’d be able to release him, but after two weeks out there, he’s finally turning into a fox.”

Five other red foxes have arrived at Fox Valley for the same reason, and Flint explains that in Illinois, pet stores can sell wildlife that’s bred in captivity. “It’s unfortunate, because wild animals aren’t meant to be pets, but we can’t stop it – we tried.”

At Flint Creek, rehabbed animals are off limits to visitors. Keller strides up the hill away from the house, taking a wide berth around several screened-in wooden enclosures raised up on wooden decks. If not for the animal silhouettes inside, they could be gazebos and summer houses. “Any building we put up is usually permanent,” she says. “We stay as far away from the animals as possible, to keep them calm and avoid any imprinting. We’ve done most of our releases for the season, but we still have a few animals that aren’t quite ready.”

Wild No More

Not all of these animals will return to the wild. In the kitchen at Fox Valley in Elburn, a Canada goose moves between two volunteers, begging for attention – or a treat. “That’s Lucy, our mascot,” Flint says. “She’s four years old and was raised as a pet from a gosling, so she doesn’t know she’s a goose. Lucy pretty much has the run of the place.”

Yodi the coyote was brought in with two other pups, by a lady who had tried to raise them. “His siblings were able to be released, but he’s completely imprinted on humans,” says Flint. Because he’s so comfortable around humans, Yodi will live out his life at Fox Valley, serving as an educational animal.

Behind the three-car garage, a makeshift pen topped with durable netting holds a sandhill crane. A small plastic pool filled with water serves as a food bowl. “We put live fish in there so that he would learn how to catch them,” Flint says. The crane pecks at his caretaker’s shoe and twists his head sideways to watch her reaction. She reaches out her hand and receives a gentle nibble. Excited to have company, the crane unfolds his wings and begins to dance around the enclosure, even fluttering a few feet in the air. Flint attempts to leave, and the crane stands in front of the gate with wings outstretched, until she moves.

As many as four mirrors lean against the walls, but unlike those for a pet parakeet, they aren’t for amusement. “We wanted him to know what cranes look like, so he would imprint on his own kind,” Flint explains. “We did everything we could. I even dressed up in a bird outfit when I brought him food.”

However, when Flint tried to release him in an Indiana spot known for its large population of sandhill cranes, he didn’t leave. “He wasn’t a bit interested in the other cranes,” she says. “He saw them, and a couple even came over to check him out. But he wouldn’t have any of it. He’s totally imprinted on humans. It was really disappointing.”

Without the space or facilities to keep him at Fox Valley, staff members are searching for a zoo that will take the crane. “I really wish we could [place him],” Flint says. “Look at the detail in his feathers. He’s just magnificent.”

Sometimes, non-releases end up serving a special purpose, such as the bald eagle at Barrington’s Flint Creek. A severe wing break left the four- or five-year-old sub-adult male unable to survive in the wild. Keller can pinpoint the age, she says, because his white head and tail aren’t completely white yet.

In July 2011, while still caring for the sub-adult eagle, Keller received a call that two eaglets at Mooseheart, a residential childcare facility near Aurora, were out of their nest. “Eagle nests are very heavy, and we discovered that huge storms had broken off the top of the tree, bringing it and the babies down,” she recalls. “We had to relocate the nest to the tree next door.”

Volunteers watched the nest for two days, and when the parents didn’t return, Keller brought the babies to Flint Creek. “Our bald eagle fostered the eaglets, and he did an outstanding job,” Keller says proudly. “We released eaglets at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, where the wintering birds arrive early.”

Wild for Wildlife Education

In front of the windows, a red-tailed hawk peers intently, its tail feathers trimmed almost to its rump, leather jesses (tethers) swinging from its legs as it shifts nervously on its perch.

“This is Zihna, which is Indian for ‘spinning,’” says Flint. “When he came in, he had a neurological injury from being hit by a car and was just spinning in a circle. That’s how he broke off all of his tail feathers. We didn’t think he’d make it, so he’s one of our miracles. Unfortunately, his brain damage is so severe that he won’t survive in the wild. I’m training him for educational use.”

If they have the correct temperament, wild creatures that can’t be released are used for educational programs. “We get calls from schools, senior centers, Boy and Girl Scouts, and we take live animals whenever we can,” says Fox Valley’s Flint. “We try to educate the public about our wildlife – how they live, what threatens them – as well as what to do to help them.”

Wooka, a northern flicker with no eyes, and Ernie, a rock dove who’s missing some toes, are other educational birds. Representing the mammals is Snitch, a female possum.

“She was hit by a car, and the impact dislodged her ocular nerve, so she’s completely blind, but she’s a sweetheart,” Flint says, picking her up. Snitch nuzzles her snout under Flint’s chin. “She loves to snuggle and be petted, so she’s a natural for our school programs. Toby’s popular with the kids, too.”

Toby, a three-toed box turtle, probably started out as someone’s pet. “He’s totally habituated to humans, and there’s no wild strain of his species here in northern Illinois, so he can’t be released,” Flint explains, stroking his shell.

Behind the barn at Flint Creek sit two more sturdy, raised buildings that look like summer camp cabins. One is a 100-foot flight chamber covered with shade cloth to limit the birds’ views of humans.

Ashley Flint, director of Fox Valley Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, is training this bird, Zihna, for educational use. The red-tailed hawk has recovered from the physical injuries of being hit by a car, but has suffered brain damage that prevents his release.  (Karla Nagy photo)

Ashley Flint, director of Fox Valley Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, is training this bird, Zihna, for educational use. The red-tailed hawk has recovered from the physical injuries of being hit by a car, but has suffered brain damage that prevents his release. (Karla Nagy photo)

The other is screened and shaded, divided into several spacious enclosures. Each space contains an infrared heater and is outfitted to match the resident’s natural habitat and accommodate any physical limitations.

Turkey Jr. is an eight-year-old turkey vulture found on the ground in winter, suffering from lead poisoning. He lost all but three of his toes to frostbite and can’t survive on his own. He immediately flies to his front perch and eyes the visitors. Next door is Meepy, a 20-year-old barred owl who spreads her wings at the sight of company. Across from Meepy is Old Red, a 28-year-old red-tailed hawk that was the first one that Keller ever handled; a photo of Old Red in flight served as the template for Flint Creek’s logo.

A clacking noise from next door turns out to be Pennsylvania (aka PA), a female great horned owl. “Beak snapping is a warning,” Keller explains. Across from her are two adult male great horned owls, who retreat to the back of their enclosure.

“Notice PA’s size, compared to the males,” Keller says. “She weighs two times more than either of them. See the tiered steps we’ve put along the walls, and the different heights of the perches? That allows her to get up and down more easily.”

Other inhabitants: Zen, a Cooper’s hawk; Pip, a barn owl; Sovereign, a peregrine falcon; Darwin, a 13-year-old male kestrel; and Journey, an eponymously named Ferruginous hawk. “He was hit by a train in Canada, and was stuck in the plow until the train pulled into Franklin Park,” Keller says.

Cost in Time and Money

Wildlife rehabilitation centers are scarce, and because few veterinarians treat wild animals, finding help is difficult.

Most areas have rehabilitators who work out of their homes, but they typically specialize in one type of animal, such as raccoons, squirrels or songbirds. Also, becoming a wildlife rehabilitator requires classes and licensing, on-the-job experience, the ability to provide proper on-site enclosures, being on call for emergencies and sometimes, digging into your own pocket.

“No matter the number of volunteers or the discounted medical services, there’s a cost to providing quality medical care for wildlife,” Keller explains. “A veterinarian may donate services, but we still pay for the testing, medicine and supplies.”

Cost per animal per year varies. “Squirrels cost about $40 each, and we had 75 at Fox Valley this year,” says Flint. “Raccoons are the most expensive – $200 per – since they need parvo and distemper vaccines – and we had more than 200 this year.”

Also, since raccoons require dedicated enclosures that can’t be used for other animals, because of a parasite unique to them that’s fatal to other species, some centers won’t accept them.

“We operate 365 days a year, even if there’s no intake,” Keller says. “Every day, the animals need to be fed and watered and given medicine, have their cages cleaned or bandages changed. It doesn’t matter if there’s a blizzard, or if it’s Christmas.”

People for Wildlife

Flint and Keller took very different paths to helping wildlife.

“I’ve wanted to be a zookeeper since I was three, and I got experience at Willowbrook [Wildlife Center, Glen Ellyn], two years as a volunteer and three summers as paid staff,” Flint says. After receiving a biology degree at Olivet Nazarene College in Bourbonnais, Ill., she interned at Brookfield Zoo and ended up with a seasonal position working with primates.

“It was fun and unique, but it was exactly the same every day,” she says. “This is much more rewarding.”

In contrast, Keller, a former corporate executive, admits that she didn’t always have a strong affinity for animals. “I just didn’t have a lot of exposure,” she says. “I was volunteering at Springbrook Nature Center, which is now closed, and that’s when I got the idea to open my own. “I planned to do it later, but I found an injured possum and struggled to find help for it. That experience drastically changed my course.”

Both women share a strong love of animals and a firm conviction to helping wildlife.

“Every animal deserves the best possible care, and no animal deserves to suffer,” Keller says. “Some people may question whether helping a wild animal is worth their time, but why not give it the best possible chance to survive?”
Donations, supplies and volunteer assistance are always welcome, and a “wish list” of needed items is available online.

“We’re always looking for release properties,” Flint says.

For photos, a list of upcoming events and more ways you can help, visit FoxValleyWildlife.org and FlintCreekWildlife.org.

Basic Steps for Wildlife Intervention

Every animal and bird species is unique. For step-by-step guides on how to respond to various situations, visit FoxValleyWildlife.org and FlintCreekWildlife.org. Here are some general guidelines.

Baby animals are always better off reunited with a parent, if possible. If you find babies alone, it’s probably best to wait and watch from a distance. “We get many babies that would have been fine if they had been left alone,” says wildlife rehabilitator Ashley Flint.

Remove an animal from immediate danger. If found in the road, for example, move it from the road.
If an animal is immobile outdoors, place a box over it to keep it calm, and keep pets indoors and away from it.

Keep an injured animal in a quiet, dark place.

Don’t handle or bother the animal.

Don’t feed or water the animal. “If done improperly, the animal aspirates – takes it into its lung – greatly diminishing its chance of survival,” says wildlife rehabilitator Dawn Keller.

Be careful when picking up an animal – use gloves if possible. Injured, frightened animals will bite and scratch, and raptors have razor-sharp talons.

After following these steps, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator. If you can’t locate one, a veterinary office often can provide a contact telephone number.

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