Of Maggots and Scorpions

Most often, our opossum patients were babies found wiggling or scurrying along the road nearby where their mother had been hit by a car.  Sometimes, the babies were so young they were still latched onto the dead mother's nipples and had to be pried off.  This is how the mother transports the youngins in their first couple weeks of life.
Most often, our opossum patients were babies found wiggling or scurrying along the road nearby where their mother had been hit by a car. Sometimes, the babies were so young they were still latched onto the dead mother’s nipples and had to be pried off. This is how the mother transports the youngins in their first couple weeks of life.

Some of the required duties of an animal caretaker are absolutely revolting. I’m not talking about menial chores like scraping feces out of enclosures or pulling out fresh carcasses from crates. This is more along the lines of tasks as disgusting as the “Meat Run.”

An adult opossum came in one night, rescued off the side of the road. Having been struck by a car a day or two earlier, he was in fairly bad shape. Apprentice Emily had been upstairs cleaning his wounds when she resurfaced on the ground floor.

“Um,” she started, “does anyone feel particularly excited about helping me clean maggots out of an opossum’s rear end?” (She of course used a more scientific term for “rear end,” but I don’t find it appropriate to write here.)

Evidently the idea of wiggling white worms in mass numbers causes most people to cringe. I stomach this better than seeing the sawed off head of a horse staring at me from a bucket in the freezer, so I volunteered. We used fluid-filled syringes to force out the maggots. Boy, did those maggots keep on coming. They gushed out by tens then hundreds until a total of nearly three hundred had washed out of the crevices of this poor creature.

Tarantulas have the same effect on me that maggots have on most other people. At the sight of them, my skin turns in on itself, a hair-raising tickle creepy-crawling up the length of my body. I thought I would never see a tarantula again until my return to Ecuador. Then I ended up in Texas, one of only a few states in the U.S. that provides suitable territory for these hairy beasts. My primary goal while in Kendalia was to avoid tarantulas at all costs. I escaped with only photos and stories of sightings by others. As it turns out, I should have been more concerned about the scorpions.

Newborn opossums were kept in crates with sleeping sacks to mimic their marsupial mother's natural pouch.  Once weening from syringe feeding began, they were moved into wire cages.
Newborn opossums were kept in crates with sleeping sacks to mimic their marsupial mother’s natural pouch. Once weening from syringe feeding began, they were moved into wire cages.

One night around eleven, I answered the 24-hour hotline about a deer needing rescue. Groggy and donning my pajamas–and needing to be at work in just seven hours–I opened the door to my trailer. A staff member was driving by while doing the clinic closing rounds, so I put my hand over the mouth of the phone to call out to her. But as I leaned out the door, one of my bare feet stepped over the threshold and above the door step, landing directly on a baby scorpion. The pain from its sting was instant, hurting more than a bee sting. Especially with my luck, my foot happened to find one of the itty bitty scorpions who have more toxin than the adults. I screamed wildly, mixing the pain with anger, sleepiness and frustration. Evidently, I threw the phone down because when the staff member came running toward me, I noticed her peering through the open doorway. The phone lay on the floor inside, the battery rolling next to it.

Okay, okay, so I over-reacted to the scorpion sting, but can you blame me? It hurt, I’ll tell you that much. However, after three hours of constant ice in the form of frozen vegetables, the pain was gone. Unfortunately, I still had my disheveled appearance and beaten pride to remind me of the episode.

At the juvenile stage, the opossums are running about.  Once on a solid diet, they were ready for release upon reaching a certain size and weight, approximately the size of a human hand.  Many well-intended people brought us a juvenile they thought was orphaned due to its small size, when, in fact, it was perfectly equipped to be out on its own.
At the juvenile stage, opossums are running about. Once on a solid diet, they were ready for release upon reaching a certain size and weight, approximately the size of a human hand. Many well-intended people brought us a juvenile they thought was orphaned due to its small size, when, in fact, it was perfectly equipped to be out on its own.

Embarrassment, however, does not come easily for me. This is one reason why I take it upon myself to be publicly foolish, with or without a stage. The weekly karaoke nights at a local bar in Blanco, the next town over, provided me spotlight opportunities to do just this. Really, I’m all about having a (level-headed) good time. My karaoke escapades included covering for a co-worker who gave up mid-way trying to sing a Spanish song. I had never heard the song before but I understood the lyrics, so I made up my own tune while acting out the words I sang. I also surprised myself and many others by serenading my then-boyfriend with “Kiss the Girl” in the Jamaican accent of Sebastian the crab from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I do not flaunt PDA so I really confused the boy on how to respond to the serenade. (Come on, people. You know me. It was all G-rated.) And perhaps my favorite, I performed my signature literal interpretation song and dance to a triage of hit karaoke tunes. On my birthday, I was so entranced by the music that I closed my eyes and bounced up and down while belting out the lines of “It’s Raining Men.” That’s when I bit the microphone. It was bound to happen. My mouth was open and I lost my balance, eyes closed, all that jumping, when my teeth came slamming down on the mike. The crowd of regulars hooted and howled. Me? Well, I kept on singing and dancing.

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Majestic to the Very End

“Old Red,” the geriatric mountain lion, poses for the camera. Underweight with cataracts, Old Red had been retired from a zoo.

When I was in Ecuador, I fell asleep to the deafening sounds of insects buzzing about the rainforest canopy.  In Europe, my head hit the pillow amidst hushed whispers of fellow backpackers determining their morning plans.  At WRR in Texas, I closed my eyes to the sound of a rescued African lion roaring in the hills nearby.  I can’t think of many places around the globe where a lion lulls you into a reverie, but little Kendalia, Texas is certainly one of them.

As I worked my way up to “senior” status, more opportunities were extended to me, such as being able to assist with caretaking of the exotic animals.  Most of the primates found sanctuary here after years of laboratory research at various facilities throughout the U.S.  I guess I can’t blame the Rhesus macaques for being angry all the time.  They had had it pretty rough, and while we tried to offer them a glimpse of paradise, their bodies and brains were still slaves to the haunted aftermath of a poor living environment.

Many of the lemurs were ex-pets.  Someone, somehow, discovered at some time that lemurs and domestic felines–your average household Fluffy–can, in fact, co-exist.  And so, one of the enclosures housed two lemurs and a family of feral cats.  One of the ring-tailed lemurs taught himself to mimic the typical cat “meow” so that you only had to look at him and make the noise to receive a similar response.

One of Old Red's lady friends feasts on a piece of meat.  Most of the mountain lions at WRR are retired from zoos.
One of Old Red’s lady friends feasts on a piece of meat. Most of the mountain lions at WRR are retired from zoos.

Aside from ex-research and ex-pet animals, many of our sanctuary friends were retirees from zoological settings.  One of the black bears was the retired mascot of Baylor University.  Many of the moutain lions (also called cougars or pumas) were rescued from roadside zoos.  The oldest mountain lion in our care came from a zoo that had deemed him “too old for public viewing.”  It is not uncommon for zoos to follow the adage “out with the old, in with the new.”  We gave this geriatric feline as much of a grandiose lifestyle we could.  During my six month stay, his health began declining beyond more than just cataracts.  The mountain lion stopped eating, ceased mingling with his lady friends, and spent practically every hour of the day sleeping.

On one of my rounds with a staff member, Matt, we moved the other two cougars from the enclosure into the lock-out because the old guy was resting out of sight and needed to be checked on.  He was expected to pass on any day, and so it came as no surprise when we discovered that he was no longer breathing.  Matt and I lifted the heavy, limp body onto a tarp and dragged it to the front of the lock-out, where we gently laid it down so that the other mountain lions could investigate.

Different species of animals have unique mourning rituals, with elephants perhaps having the most notable.  As there had been three pumas living together in this enclosure, removing one without reason could disrupt the natural hierarchy and behavior of the others.  Lying the old man within reach of his buddies would allow for these creatures to understand that he had died.  Matt and I stepped out of the enclosure and observed their interactions.

WRR took in many retired animals--ex-zoo and ex-research like this decrepit capuchin pictured here.
WRR took in many retired animals–ex-zoo and ex-research like this decrepit capuchin pictured here.

The females paced back and forth along the fence that separated them from the geriatric mountain lion’s corpse.  They sniffed madly, taking deep inhalations of his scent.  A few moans and whines escaped them as well, differing from the intimidating, high-pitched roar I was accustomed to hearing.  About five minutes passed, and then both of the females backed away to resume more normal behavior.  Matt and I took this as our cue that the goodbyes had been said, and it was time to remove the body from the enclosure.  We radioed for the tractor and loaded this soft, majestic, lifeless animal into the backhoe.

I took a moment to press my bony hand to the massive paw, with tufts of fur protruding through the cracks in the foot pads, a moment to smooth down the fur just between his ears.  It was such a humbling few seconds, to be that close to an animal revered for its magnifcent stature and gait, cradling a head that housed the deadly fangs feared by regional night-hikers.  If this animal stayed like this, bending to my affection and casting aside all wild instincts, I could see why someone would want him as a pet.  “If only” is a clause that so many cling to, repeat, and eventually come to believe.  Thankfully, I know better.  Being reared by humans could never have extinguished that very basic, innate nature of the beast that lay within this body.  If his heart were beating, he could rip my face off.  And so I quietly regrouped from dreamland to join in the burial preparations.

The geriatric mountain lion's appetite decreased significantly during his last weeks, but we still made sure to entice him with food as long as possible.
The geriatric mountain lion’s appetite decreased significantly during his last weeks, but we still made sure to entice him with food as long as possible.

Animal Rescue Tales

Equally dreaded and exciting, the 24/7 rescue service run by WRR interns makes for a score of Emmy Award worthy stories.  The tales (pardon the homophone) could produce either roof-roaring, knee-slappin’ laughter or knotted stomachs and wrenched hearts.  Ninety-nine point seven percent of people would rather hear the funny material, so I’ll get right to it.

My first rescue was double-teamed with intern Laura.  I was bubbling with anticipation as we wound our way through the streets of San Antonio.  We were responding to a call about a goose in woman’s kitchen.

Yes, that’s right, a goose in someone’s kitchen.  Instinctively, I questioned the caller’s sanity but unlike the woman with the “bear,” two people got on the other end to corroborate this story.  On the drive over, Laura also mentioned a similar case she responded to the day prior.  The caller in that instance was a man, but a man with a goose in his kitchen nonetheless.  When asked how the goose got inside the house, the man said through the open back door.  Laura told the man to shoo the goose out but evidently the avian had taken up refuge in the house, napping in the corner of the man’s living room.  The animal was brought in for “rehabilitation” the next day.

Avians of all shapes, sizes and species could find a safe haven at WRR.  Many parts of the sanctuary, in fact, gave the feeling of being on a farm.  Those birds with injuries stayed in the clinic--with some lucky ones getting aquatic therapy like this duck pictured here.
Avians of all shapes, sizes and species could find a safe haven at WRR. Many parts of the sanctuary, in fact, gave the feeling of being on a farm. Those birds with injuries stayed in the clinic–with some lucky ones getting aquatic therapy like this duck pictured here.

Arriving at the goose house, we were greeted by three young children, excitedly asking questions: “What is that for?  Why are you wearing gloves?  Can we keep him?”  The capturing process entailed a bit of do-si-do between human and goose but nothing exaggerated like mud wrestling to the ground or falling into a pool.  At least not with this rescue.

Seeing as this was the second call about geese in kitchens, Laura and I toured the neighborhood, asking residents if they had noticed any out-of-place feathered friends or if anyone in the area had a domestic goose farm.  We received no helpful information.  Both geese were released onto WRR’s nearly two hundred acre property, instantly fitting in.

Unfortunately, an abundance of the rescue cases dealt with wild animal abuse.  I once cradled in my arms a Muscovy duck with a broken neck, the vertebrae damaged by a BB pellet.  There was a report of animals seen with darts by a nearby pond, including a big fat bullfrog and a red-eared slider turtle.  These scenarios point a finger at intentional abuse.  However, negligence played a pivotal role in our need to rescue as well.  Twenty-two Muscovy ducks were reported seizing on a neighborhood road after ingesting anti-freeze, probably mistaking a chemical spill for a puddle.  By the time the ducks were transported back to WRR, only nine were still alive.  I worked in the bird room that day, and all twelve hours were spent rushing seizing ducks to the vet room for a liquid charcoal remedy that worked to lessen the intensity of the seizures.  When dusk rolled around, all of the Muscovy ducks were dead.

An infrared heat lamp helped to keep these orphaned ducklings alive.  We often enriched their enclosure with leaves and dried grass from the outside.
An infrared heat lamp helped to keep these orphaned ducklings alive. We often enriched their enclosure with leaves and dried grass from the outside.

For my first skunk rescue, I donned protective goggles, a pair that looked exactly the same as those I wore during my days in the chemistry lab.  Because the animals we were dispatched to rescue were incapacitated in some way–either too young or in poor health–capturing a skunk was surprisingly simple.  That is, as long as the animal was roaming through an open area.

Fellow intern Trae and I had to remove a probable distempered skunk from under a shed.  His burrow was conveniently sized for only a six-inch shoulder width–not that I had any intentions of climbing in after the skunk anyway.  Certainly he was disoriented from distemper, but that only meant he wasn’t in the condition to flee from us.  His scent gland was still intact.

Trae and I arrive an hour before dusk.  We shined our flashlight in and tried to block the skunk from moving any deeper under the shed.  That was moderately successful, but we still needed the animal to exit the burrow.  Take home this random fact of the day: skunks go loony tunes for salmon.  Prepared, Trae and I had a bit of food that we placed just outside the entrance to the burrow.  It was dark outside by the time the skunk emerged.  I threw a sheet over top of the rascal, tucked his tail under as a preventative measure in case he sprayed and placed him in the crate.  We felt accomplished on the drive home, but feelings aside, we looked accomplished.  Nothing beats digging in the dirt for two hours trying to lure out an animal with a highly-developed scent gland.

Raccoons: Masked Bandits, Not Pets

A juvenile raccoon takes in his new surroundings upon release by a nearby lake.  As protocol, animals were always released close to a water source.
A juvenile raccoon takes in his new surroundings upon release by a nearby lake. As protocol, animals were always released close to a water source.

I’ve mentioned before how Good Samaritans can unintentionally be bad.  Sprinkled among these Good Samaritans is a smattering of people I would consider mentally unstable.  (Honestly, who would think a lion makes a good pet?  And why would someone ever continuously feed an animal Three Musketeers chocolate bars?)

Sometime in May, a woman brought in a pair of juvenile raccoons, two of six that survived since she “rescued” the litter at birth.  Perhaps not knowing it is illegal to rehabilitate animals without a license, this woman thought she’d help the cute, cuddly, furry critters.  Not only would her coddling ultimately deem them non-releasable, but the mixture of dog and cat milk she was feeding the babies caused their skin to turn white and their fur gray, to the point that they didn’t look like raccoons.  In an effort to save the last two, she dropped them off at WRR–hugging the rabies vector species to her chest–hoping we could keep the last of the litter alive.  It was too late; they died after a week due to heart failure from malnourishment.

It’s one thing to have the mindset that infant raccoons are harmless, but it’s another to think nothing wrong with keeping an adult raccoon as a pet.  Some of the animals brought to WRR were confiscated by Animal Control, while others were turned over to us as “ex-pets” from the “owners”.  Ex-pets are the most trivial cases for release because they are often so accustomed to human presence and so dependent on human care that there is little chance of survival in the wild.  Nevertheless, this does not stop us from attempting to distance their reliance on humans and work toward an eventual release.

People must have a soft spot for raccoons because we had a number of these ex-pet masked bandits.  A particular case with which I became quite familiar was an adult female who had been living off of dog food and Cheez-Its.  Cheez-Its?  Really?  The minute that coon came through our doors, she was on a weaning plan.  Normally, weaning plans are designed for mammals graduating from formula to solids.  In this instance, we had to wean a raccoon off of Cheez-Its, which meant someone from WRR went to the store to pick up bags of livestock feed, bird seed and monkey chow, and a box of Cheez-Its.  When I left Texas three months later, the raccoon was off the cheese crackers and had been upgraded to a large outdoor enclosure.

Since I seem to be engrossed in the topic of raccoons at the moment, it might be fitting to share my raccoon enrichment story now.  All animals need enrichment, whether wild, captive or pet.  Forms of enrichment differ greatly depending on the animal’s environment.  For example, a wild dolphin can enrich himself by creating and shaping his own bubbles in the open ocean or by using echolocation to hunt.  A captive primate, such as an ex-research Rhesus macaque in permanent residency at WRR, might have his dexterity and mind enriched by having to open up a box to get to his food, instead of receiving it on a silver platter.  And you can be assured that my guinea pig has ample enrichment in the form of human contact (snuggling), exercise (free roam of the bedroom) and hiding (an oatmeal container for every occasion).

At only 3 weeks old, this orphaned raccoon was still getting used to his arms and legs and was still being bottle fed.  It's easy to forget these animals don't make good pets when you see how cute they are, but important to remember they belong in the wild.
At only 3 weeks old, this orphaned raccoon was still getting used to his arms and legs and was still being bottle fed. It’s easy to forget these animals don’t make good pets when you see how cute they are, but important to remember they belong in the wild.

Any free time in the animal rehab world–a rarity–I put my creativity to work designing enrichment for animals.  One time I pieced together pennies and a broken mirror (seven years bad luck for me, oops) for the exotic birds, hanging it out of pecking reach, of course, so that no shiny objects would be ingested.  Another time I put mini fields of wheat grass in with the juvenile skunks and opossums, watching them stomp their feet on the soft blades instead of pillowcases and wire cages, the only surfaces to which they had heretofore been introduced.  For eleven ducklings, I brought the outside inside, spreading leaves and sticks around their net cage.

My favorite self-assigned enrichment creation was for an ever-curious group of juvenile sibling raccoons.  Rescued from their hit-by-car mother, the orphans already had grown from closed-eye newborns to wide-eyed fluff balls under our care.  In the laundry room storage, I discovered a series of wooden blocks hanging from a horizontal wooden rod.  The donated toy was constructed so that the blocks could rotate 360 degrees or just swing back and forth in the same manner as a pendulum.  Raccoons love peanut butter, so I slathered some creamy Jif on the front and back of all five blocks.  Then, to make the toy even more interesting, I dropped pieces of chicken, fruits, vegetables and dog food onto the peanut butter.

Similar to almost all animals, but especially true of raccoons, they are incredibly food motivated and have the attention span of a two-year-old.  Knowing this, I engineered a device that was nutrition-oriented but would take time to be defeated.  I watched enthusiastically as their paws repeatedly batted at the blocks, their brains working on problem solving how to get food off the block when it just kept spinning.  The reason I was so proud of this environmental enrichment device (EED) was the fact that I miraculously succeeded in holding the raccoons’ attention.  I could visualize their cognitive thought processes; I was witnessing an animal learning.

And to clarify, “EED” really is the zoological term for a peanut butter covered shoe or egg carton or ball of yarn presented to an animal, mainly because it sounds smarter than “toy.”

When Death Comes Knocking, Don’t Answer the Door

An orphaned skunk explores its new digs.  Before their scent gland develops, they stomp angrily at predators. It's incredibly adorable.
An orphaned skunk explores its new digs. Before their scent gland develops, they stomp angrily at predators. It’s incredibly adorable.

In a fast-paced workplace filled with high amounts of stress and the occasionally somber atmosphere, it is imperative to fit in a smile or a laugh whenever possible to lighten the daily load.  Naturally, with every job, I do my best to make sure that this task is fulfilled, within professional reason.  It’s always a welcome surprise when the plan somehow backfires.

A head-on collision with a particularly fruitful baby season left staff and interns frazzled beyond capacity.  One great aspect of this field of work is the exceptional teamwork, outfitted with any wildlife rescue organization.  Picking up where others left off is a recurring theme in the animal care world, and my intern friend Amanda and I were asked to do just that.  A staff member requested that we clean out one of the pre-release enclosures outside, so we frolicked to the cage door to survey the scene.  Most recently, Amanda and I had watched the wrangling of a bobcat for transport out of this bivouac.  The feline looked cute and cuddly until the wrestling match, during which I could visibly see droplets of saliva spraying out of her open, sharp-fanged, hissing mouth.  Mature bobcats might only grow to the size of a medium house dog, but they are equally as ferocious as a starved adult male lion presented with the opportunity to dig into a five-course meal.  And to think someone had kept this cat as a pet.  No wonder she had been handed over to us.

Thinking the enclosure lay completely empty after the removal of the bobcat, Amanda and I stepped inside.  As I leaned down to pick up the crate from the floor, Amanda asked me if there was something inside.  Seizing the opportunity to pull a practical joke, I replied with a “no” but immediately followed that up with a class act of hissing noises and thrashing of the crate.

“No, really, I think there’s something in there,” she said.

Realizing my impersonation of a bobcat had not been convincing, I started to reply.  “No, there’s nothing–” I cut myself off.  Seeing a tuft of hair, I immediately thought it was the bobcat, somehow still in the crate inside this cage that we were told was no longer inhabited.  However, a double-take revealed the distinctive white stripe of a skunk, now dangling from my extended arm in a crate not more than a foot from the rest of my body.  A quick recap of what I had just done–the hissing and the crate rattling–and a run-down of potential consequences of said actions–a spray to the face landing at number one on the list–resulted in immediate action on my part.  I set the crate on the ground and booked it out of there, abandoning a gaping Amanda.

While collecting my pride, Amanda started to laugh.

“He’s not alive, you know.”

“Wha?” I breathed.

Slowly, I approached the enclosure, and Amanda turned the crate to me so that I could see the skunk was indeed no longer with us.  Eventually, it came to light that someone forgot to remove the skunk after he was euthanized.  The staff member instructing us to clean out the cage also did not anticipate that we would encounter a deceased animal.  All said and done, it was definitely not how I would have reacted to removing a carcass if I had been forewarned, but it certainly makes for an entertaining story.  And from there on out, I made sure to quadruple check all future enclosures I was asked to clean, for animals both alive and dead.

One of the saddest parts of this job is when an animal dies in your hands.  It happens to every rehabber, but I learned not to sit back and let death run its course when it seems all hope is lost.

A litter of orphaned skunks already weaned off the bottle will playfully fight for food.  Their meal, at this stage, consists of fruits & veggies, dog chow & cooked meat.
A litter of orphaned skunks already weaned off the bottle will playfully fight for food. Their meal, at this stage, consists of fruits & veggies, dog chow & cooked meat.

Barricaded in the skunk room, I busied myself filling syringes with warm formula for the newborns.  Mammalian formula is specialized for each species with a carefully calculated ratio of fat to protein, mimicking the female’s milk as close as possible.  Oftentimes, Good Samaritans will try to nurse a baby animal on his or her own, using cat or dog or powdered or whole milk, not realizing the repercussions of their actions.  Even if the infant survives through juvenile or adulthood, residual issues almost always remain.

I removed a baby skunk from an incubator, so young that his eyes were still closed.  His breathing was shallow, and I gave him the injections and oral medications he was receiving.   As I was situating him to begin the syringe feed, my heart caught in my throat.  I could no longer see a rise and fall of his back.  Putting my hand near his nose, I didn’t feel any air escaping either.  Maybe it was all the black and white in the room but in the middle of an exasperated sigh, I started thinking of the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians.  I envisioned the somber scene in which Roger, the owner of Pongo, the pups’ father, sits in a chair holding what appears to be a stillborn puppy.  Instead of accepting death, Roger begins intensely rubbing the puppy’s back to the point of revival.  The scene reminded me of the act of mammalian stimulation, rubbing the nether regions of newborns during feeding time to get them to defecate.  Rehabbers mimic this motherly, instinctual act with cotton balls.  Combining these two thoughts, I instantly set to stimulating the baby skunk and rubbing his back.  I cannot be sure how much time passed, as we all know moments of distress disobey the laws of time, but I likely continued rubbing for nearly a minute.  And all at once, without forewarning, the skunk gasped, an incredibly loud noise for such a small creature.  His breathing evened out and I squeezed my hands in a comforting, restraining gesture of joy and relief.  He was alive!

After all was said and done, I learned a valuable lesson that day; when death comes knocking, don’t answer the door.  Instead, yell at him to go away, for life has only just begun.

Ah, the General Public

Another aspect of this internship, dreaded almost as much as the “meat run,” entailed answering the wildlife rescue hotline.  One of the few positives of this shift was the fact that it lasted exactly ten hours.  No other shift offered a ten-hour guarantee.  Occasionally, people on the other end of the phone were pleasant, welcoming the information we gave them.

“Ma’am, the bird has not been orphaned.  He simply fell out of his nest.”

“Oh really? Really?  Okay, good.  So what do I have to do?”

“If you know where the nest is located and can reach it, put the bird back into the nest.”

“Do I have to wear gloves or anything?  Because the mom won’t come back to her babies if she smells humans, right?”

“Actually, that’s a common myth.”

“Well, I’ll be…”

Or something like that.

Oftentimes, a Good Samaritan mistakes a fledgling found on the ground for an orphaned bird.  If the bird has some feather plumage, it is likely learning to fly and you can place it back in the nest.  It is a myth that mother's will abandon the nest if their is a human's scent.  Some birds, like this yellow crowned night heron, are actually orphaned and need to be cared for at a licensed rehabilitation center.
Oftentimes, a Good Samaritan mistakes a fledgling found on the ground for an orphaned bird. If the bird has some feather plumage, it is likely learning to fly and you can place it back in the nest. It is a myth that mother’s will abandon the nest if their is a human’s scent. Some birds, like this yellow crowned night heron, are actually orphaned and need to be cared for at a licensed rehabilitation center.

But more likely than not, a frantic, ungrateful and impatient, or, my personal favorite, crazy person, called the hotline.  On one of my hotline shifts, I received a call from the Texas Wildlife Commission (TWC) with whom WRR worked closely.  I was given a number to call regarding a woman needing placement for a bear, a cub that she had been feeding bananas and Three Musketeers.  The following is a real conversation from my hotline shift.

Night hawks were a species of bird I had never seen up close.  They soon became my favorite with their large mouths and eyes.  Remember to monitor a nest once you put a potential fledgling back to make sure the mother comes back.  If she is alive, she will!
Night hawks were a species of bird I had never seen up close. They soon became my favorite with their large mouths and eyes. Remember to monitor a nest once you put a potential fledgling back to make sure the mother comes back. If she is alive, she will!

“Hi, my name is Stacey and I’m calling from Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation.  I was given your number by TWC regarding a bear?”

“Oh yes, I need help.  You can help me?  No one else will help me.  I have a bear in my house.”

“How long have you had the bear?” I said, ready with a pen to fill out the form requesting permanent residency for an ex-pet.

“Three weeks.”

“And you would like us to take the bear?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, I have to get some information first.  How did you come across this bear?”

“I didn’t come across him.  He came into my house!”

“Oh… and you decided to keep him?”

“No, he won’t leave!  I need someone to take this bear!”

Now, with reason, WRR has a policy that before going out to handle a wildlife crisis, we need to be well-informed.  In this instance, I was taken completely off-guard, having thought the woman no longer wanted this bear as a pet (which P.S. no one should ever have a bear or any other wild animal as a pet–more on that later).  New information was brought to the table suggesting a bear had entered this woman’s house and taken up residency for the past three weeks.

“Ma’am, how did the bear get into your house in the first place?”

“He came in through the back door, I think.”

“What have you done to try to get the bear out?”

“He won’t leave!”

“I understand.  But how have you attempted to remove him up to now?”

“I can’t get rid of him!”

Inhaling deeply and as quietly as possible, I rephrased the question.  “Do you have an exit way for the bear?”

“What?”

“Well in order for him to leave, you need to open up your doors and windows to give him an exit.  Then you can shoo him out.”

“No, I need someone to come remove this bear.”

With the conversation going in circles, I started asking different questions, subsequently creating an entirely new understanding of the situation.

WRR is home to a handful of ex-pet, ex-show and ex-zoo bears.  Baylor University's bear "retired" to the facility to live out the rest of his life.
WRR is home to a handful of ex-pet, ex-show and ex-zoo bears. Baylor University’s bear “retired” to the facility to live out the rest of his life.

“How big is the bear?” I said.

“I don’t know, three or four inches.”

I started to write that down but then stopped, puzzled.  No bear cub is three to four inches even at birth.

“Do you mean feet?”

“What?  Feet?  Yes, it has feet.”

“No, how big did you say the animal is?”

“I already told you, about four inches.  Are you sending someone out to pick up Baby?” Enter jaw-dropping moment of realization… this lady is crazy.

“I’m sorry, to pick up who?”

“Baby.  That’s what I named him.  But I don’t want Baby in my house anymore.”  At this exact moment, I distinctly remember placing my hand over my mouth to stifle a laugh.

“And how did you come to the conclusion that the animal is a bear?”

“Well, it looks like a bear with those little ears.  They’re like a Teddy bear’s.”

“Ma’am, are you feeding this animal?”

“Well he only eats bananas and Three Musketeers.”

“Okay, Ma’am, please stop feeding the animal.  Take away the food–”

“But he needs to eat.”

“Yes, but if you take away the food and open up a door, he will have to move around to look for food.  Eventually, the animal will leave.”

“But–”

“Ma’am, please do not under any circumstances continue to feed this animal unless it is to lure him outside.  Is it possible for you to take a photo of this animal and send it to us?”  Let’s face it folks, I had no idea what we were dealing with.

“No, I cannot do that.  You need to come get Baby right now.”

“Is the reason that you cannot send us a photo because you don’t have access to a camera?”

“I don’t have one, no.”

“Could you possibly borrow one from a neighbor or a friend, and ask them to e-mail us the photo?”

“No, I don’t like my neighbors.”

The situation was clearly frustrating, but I was also getting a kick out of it all.  “I understand that you want the animal removed,” I said, “but we do not remove healthy animals as we are a non-profit organization advocating coexistence with the natural world.  I can give you the number for Critter Control.”

Black bears and brown bears got along well in the same enclosure at WRR.
Black bears and brown bears got along well in the same enclosure at WRR.

“They won’t help me.  I am not paying them.”

“Is there anyone else who has seen this animal, who can maybe identify him?”

“Well, the police man was here but he tried to get it out with a broom and scared it into a corner.  I told him not to, but he didn’t listen.  He didn’t listen!  I’m going to call them and file a complaint!”

I found that starting my questions with “Ma’am” helped make my delivery calmer.

“Ma’am, has anyone besides the police officer seen this animal?”

“Yes, my Meals on Wheels lady and homecare lady.”  And that was the kicker.  But there was more.

“And get this,” she continued.  “He’s racist.”

“I’m sorry, he’s racist?”  My forehead was now pounding on the desk.

“He ran away from the homecare lady, and she’s white, just like the police man.  But he didn’t run from the Meals on Wheels lady, and she’s black.”

“Interesting.  Ma’am, can I call–”

“So what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna call up the police station and tell them to send over a black police man with a net so he can trap the bear and get him out.”

“Ma’am, we are receiving a high volume of calls now, so I need to attend to some other calls but I will get back to you shortly while I discuss this situation with my supervisor.”

It’s true; we were receiving a high volume of calls as baby season had exploded upon us.  But I really needed to talk this over with someone who had a little more sanity.  At the end of the day, I told the woman we would look into the situation, and it stayed an on-going case.  Three days later, it came to light that the “bear” had babies, resulting in four animals being fed bananas and Three Musketeers.  We surmised that the animals were a family of raccoons.  Eventually, we stopped hearing from the woman, and, after I had a conversation with her about ghosts, labeled this an illegitimate case.  But still, I turned in the form, putting on my most serious face, roaring with laughter as my supervisor’s look turned to complete bafflement the further she read.

The “Special” Pasture

Emus, rheas and ostriches are from the same avian family but are found in different regions of the world.  A family of emus and one rhea found refuge at WRR.
Emus, rheas and ostriches are from the same avian family but are found in different regions of the world. A family of emus and one rhea found refuge at WRR.

Of the exotic animals I worked with in Texas, the mischievous, annoying emus were a definite favorite.   Emus and rheas are similar to ostriches, all large flightless birds with long necks.  Their coloring differs as does their place of origin, emus hailing from Australia and New Zealand, rheas from South America and ostriches from Africa.  Though I found the one rhea on property more beautifully plumaged than the emus, the bird’s elusive nature kept me from having any close encounters.  But in an avian beauty pageant, emus would come in a close second.  As they mature, the iridescent black along their necks pewters out to just their heads, leaving their soft, finely-bristled body feathers a light speckled brown.

Six emus roamed inside one of the pastures, the enclosure dually dubbed the “Special Pasture” and the “Land of Misfits.”  Co-habitants of this field included my three amigos, Rocky the sheep with paralyzed rear legs, and the kid goats Zeus and Dash, both a little off their rockers in goat standards.  Long Horn, the extremely skinny yet surprisingly well-nourished Texas Longhorn with a non-descript name, roamed among the goats, pigs, sheep and emus.  Mr. Tumnus the goat could easily be mistaken for a sheep or a sheep dog, his eyes often undetectable under a layer of woven hair.

Though not as plentiful as sheep, a handful of cows called WRR their home, including a Texas longhorn.
Though not as plentiful as sheep, a handful of cows called WRR their home, including a friendly Texas longhorn.

Also inside the gate were two pigs with uncontrollable metabolisms, leaving their chins sagging so low I feared the day they tripped over their chin fat.  Like Rocky, Puddin’ the goat was amazing to watch as she moved around.  She was from a litter of triplets.  Sometimes, triplet births are difficult for goats.  The babies can be stillborn or handicapped, exemplified by Puddin’ who was born with inversed knees on the front legs.  It would be like a human walking around on all fours using elbows in the front but feet in the back.  Puddin’ got along just fine, developing calluses over the years to protect her knees from daily wear and tear.

Every morning that I opened the gate to feed the Land of Misfits, an emu ambush was inevitable.  They attacked the buckets of feed, nudging the low-riding livestock to the wayside.  In addition to stealing the food not intended for them, the emus had a fetish with my hair.  Something about my long ponytail, light-colored enough that it looked shiny (or maybe Herbal Essence does give it that extra silky shine) made them fixated on my scalp.  Instead of galloping away to steer clear of bird thieves, I ran to protect my head from incessant pecking.

Rocky the sheep was my favorite animal at WRR.  Paralyzed in his back legs and with an overbite so severe we had to feed him a special soft food diet, Rocky amazed with his perseverance.
Rocky the sheep was my favorite animal at WRR. Paralyzed in his back legs and with an overbite so severe we had to feed him a special soft food diet, Rocky amazed with his perseverance.

On a blustery night while working the clinic closing shift, we received word that a storm was raging, honing in on little rural Kendalia.  Texas is not prepared for rain, or for any weather other than blistering heat.  When it rains in Texas, it pours.  Flooding is imminent, and therefore animals in enclosures need to have access to higher ground.  The night of this storm was the first night Zeus and Dash were out in the pasture, having graduated from the clinic to the big open yard.

Myself and two other co-workers drove the cart to the fence line, stirring up puddles of mud like we were on a paintball shooting range.  Earlier, I traded in my contacts for my glasses, a mistake when attempting to forage through a lightning, wind and rain storm.  Our only light came from my head lamp, but the beam did not penetrate far through the thick sheet of water that splattered our vision and drenched our clothes.

Dash was brought to WRR as an orphan soon after Zeus.  Though they are not brothers, they had fun head butting each other (and their human caretakers) when their horns began growing in.  I owe my newfound love of goats to them.
Dash was brought to WRR as an orphan soon after Zeus. Though they are not brothers, they had fun head butting each other (and their human caretakers) when their horns began growing in. I owe my newfound love of goats to them.

Expecting the goats to be under the lean-to, we were disappointed when the whites of their eyes were not staring back at us among those of the other livestock.  Calling for them, we heard their baying just before a flash of lightning lit up the pasture, revealing a lengthy, sharp, pointed horn not more than six inches from our faces.  Long Horn was standing right next to us, and while he’s not a mean fellow, he doesn’t realize his goring potential.  And in a loud storm, he could easily be startled.  Taking deep breaths, we retreated a couple steps and wound our way through the dark toward the baying goats.  They did not resist handling as I scooped up Zeus and someone else picked up Dash, the third co-worker guiding us blindly back toward the cart.

After retrieving a few other animals from outdoor enclosures with the help of some off-duty workers, the clinic floor was left with a stagnant river of muddy footprints and hay.  Changing into some dry clothes and finishing up the remaining feeds, we only had to clean the clinic before we could call it a night.  In the end, we got out of work at three a.m., only three hours before the morning shift arrived to dirty up our freshly mopped floors all over again.

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.