Rescue, Rehabilitation, (Vaccination!) and Release for Local Wildlife

From interview with Pamela DeFouw by Lori Ortega

As we approach the fall season, and wildlife babies become more abundant, The Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida (WCSWFL) gets busy hosting a variety of orphaned animals in need of rehabilitation and care. Located in Venice, Florida the center will treat a variety of species; birds, mammals, and reptiles. Although each season brings its own variety, Fall is the peak season for opossums, squirrels, raccoons, rats, and rabbits. I recently spoke with Pamela DeFouw, Executive Director at WCSWFL to give us more insight on how the animals are rehabilitated and vaccinated during their stay. Since the babies are so young, immediate care is vital for their survival, development, and eventual release. 

Pam’s involvement with wildlife rehabilitation began 11 years ago. She left the corporate world, started volunteering, and immediately fell in love with the job. To see the animals, once so small and helpless, thrive, and get reintroduced back into the wild, is a feeling of satisfaction that cannot be described in words. Pam continues to research wildlife medicine to aid injured and orphaned animals return to the wild. She strives to improve the standards and conditions for wildlife rehabilitation. 

Pamela DeFouw, Executive Director of Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida.

The babies can lose their mothers and become orphaned for a variety of reasons including getting hit by cars, being preyed upon by mostly domestic animals such as cats and dogs, or simply getting lost during portage. At this early age, the babies are fully dependent on their mothers for food and survival. Knowing how vulnerable they are, the WCSWFL will receive them, assess and observe, and begin the species-specific process for recovery. The main goal is to get the babies nourished and into a group close to their own age for proper development. Unless there is a medical condition or outstanding factor that might require isolation, the babies are always put into groups of similar age. This will allow for better survival as most species are pretty social and born with kin. The WSCWFL will try to replicate their natural upbringing and environment. 

Fall is the peak season for squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, and opossum populations. The WSCWFL will mimic each species’ natural environment as best they can to achieve the best results for growth and development of the orphaned animals. A considerable amount of research has been done for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, which allows for the center to provide the best care. At the early stages, hairless babies are incubated with proper humidity levels to simulate their natural environment. Newborns are also fed nutrient-rich, species-specific formulas which provide the best protein to fat ratios. Calcium, phosphorus ratios are also important as complications from an offset, improperly balanced diet could result in metabolic bone disease, impaired joints, malnourishment, fatigue, and even death. Diet is a critical part of the early stages of rehabilitation and is looked at carefully. 

How is rehabilitation different for each species?
Let’s take a look at each animal species. 

Squirrels

Newborn squirrels are syringe-fed formula with the proper protein to fat ratios specific to their species. They will stay on this for a few weeks until it’s time to supplement their diet and introduce solid foods. At about 14-16 weeks, after they have gained a little weight, can eat solid foods, and are showing signs of strength and mobility, they are placed into a larger aviary with other age-appropriate squirrels to aid in behavioral development. One of the more social species, squirrels thrive in groups for better development. This is when they will learn to be squirrels. The enclosures are similar to their natural environment where they can run, jump, climb, play, and look for food while still being protected and observed. The conditions for release are based on physical conditioning, physical weight, natural behavior, and overall health. 

Eastern Cottontails

According to Pam, the Eastern Cottontail is the most abandoned, or kidnapped baby species in the community area. The center sees roughly 900-1,000 orphaned cottontails every year. This species has a high-stress level and must be treated with the utmost care. When they first arrive, their young benign gut is very sensitive to bacteria; baby rabbits do not have a functioning pancreas and must be treated to species-specific standards and conditions. Special formula has also been developed for them, which is intended to replicate the nutrients they would receive from their mothers at the time of birth to independence. During rehabilitation, they are fed at dusk and dawn to simulate how they would eat in the wild. Rabbits transition from formula to a diet heavy in different kinds of greens and rabbit pellets pretty quickly. The developmental period for rabbits is approximately 21 days. They grow up fast, by the time they are about 150 grams or the size of a tennis ball, they are ready to be on their own. 

Raccoons

Baby raccoons are also bottle-fed as infants, at about 8 weeks old they are offered a milk bowl and eventually are introduced to a solid diet. The center tries to wean them off assistance as soon as possible so they don’t become overly familiar or reliant on humans. The raccoon enclosures are at the furthest part of the facility, so they get minimal interaction with humans and keep that wild spirit about them. They are handled only while bottle-fed and receive the least amount of contact. Raccoons are also vaccinated for feline and canine viruses at 4-6 weeks with boosters at around 5-5.5 months because they are very susceptible to both. Their release is based on overall health, behavioral factors, climbing, and weight. 

Opossums

Opossums are rarely orphaned without a group of siblings as they are usually born in a group and, as marsupials, live together in the mother’s pouch. Commonly, opossums become orphaned because their mothers were hit by a car. They can survive for a short amount of time in the pouch until brought to the center. Depending on the age and condition upon arrival, they are incubated with higher levels of humidity, tube-fed protein-rich formula, and monitored. They will transition to milk bowls and then onto a solid diet as well. Adult opossums are more solitary than the other species, so the center will start to break up the group at the juvenile age and continue to monitor them until they are ready for release. When they’re about 7-8 inches long, they can be reviewed for release back into the wild. 

Precautionary measures for health and safety

The center is equipped with an isolation area that is used for observation, testing, and treatment. While under the care of the WCSWFL staff, the babies are fed, vaccinated, and introduced to an environment that best mimics their natural one. The care they receive is to ensure the best possible chance of survival after their release. Vaccines are established to safeguard the animals in the wild. Raccoons, for example, receive vaccines for both canine and feline viruses such as canine distemper, canine parvo, and feline panleukopenia virus (Feline Parvo). Raccoons also have their own strain of parvo and are treated for this as well. 

Most of the various mammals will begin vaccination treatment at about 4-6 weeks, and most will receive booster shots at around 5 months to further protect them from harmful or detrimental diseases and viruses before release. Maternal antibodies also help to protect in the beginning stages of their life.

Wildlife and the Ecosystem

Each species plays an important role in our ecosystem and contributes to our communal efficiencies. Most people might not understand the vital role of each species. For example, squirrels and rabbits are prey species, which means they’re heavy on the food chain for other animals like large birds or raptors and snakes. Raccoons are very important in cleaning up and controlling the rodent and bug populations by keeping them at bay. Raccoons are one of the smartest mammals, they are highly intelligent. 

Opossums are one of the most misunderstood species, they look unfriendly, but their bark is much worse than their bite. They are huge contributors to the natural cleanup process as well. They eat lots of bugs and ticks. The fact that they are marsupials and not mammals means that they are not prone to most of the diseases out in the environment. They are immune to tick-borne diseases, which is why they eat them. If you don’t like having insects or rodents near your home, be nice to raccoons and opossums. 

Most people fear what they may not understand. And just because wild animals look a little different than cats and dogs, it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve a rich and healthy life. Each species plays a very important role in society; you can’t eliminate a species out of an environment without creating drastic or even detrimental changes. 

If you would like to better understand these animals, please do your research and find credible sources. And please Do Not disrupt their natural way of being. Although some may not want these species in their backyard, it is important to let them be in their natural habitats. You never know if trapping an adult animal will leave behind orphaned babies, or if relocating wildlife will introduce the animal to new parasites or viruses they will not recover from. You can also introduce a virus to a new area by relocating wildlife, and cut their survival down by 50% because they will need to compete for territory in an area with which they are unfamiliar. 

If you would like to support The Wildlife Center of Southwest Florida’s Baby Season Campaign, please consider making a donation, volunteering, or other ways to make an impact. To report injured or orphaned animals please call (941)484-9657, or (941)416-4967 for an after-hours emergency line.

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