How Wildlife Rescue Can Heal the Human Heart

NASHVILLE — As a young college student, I worked as a volunteer for the Alabama Wildlife Center, caring mainly for baby songbirds, squirrels and opossums. The infants entrusted to my care were all healthy enough that a teenager willing to begin the day with feedings at dawn, and to continue feeding every hour until dark, would be mostly successful.

Only once was I assigned an injured animal. It was spring, baby season, and maybe there weren’t enough veteran volunteers to take on yet another young cottontail, a species that is particularly stressed by human handling. This tiny bunny was so young that its eyes were still closed. All its littermates had been killed when a lawn mower ran over their nest. The one in my care had lost half of its nose to the blades. It did not survive the night.

That tiny rabbit, I know now, never had a chance. Maybe I knew it then, too, but knowing it would not have stopped me from weeping over its cold little body at dawn.

You may be wondering why a wildlife rescue organization would bother to take in an animal so severely injured. Maybe you’re wondering why they try to save these kinds of creatures at all. “But there are so many rabbits!” I often heard people say in my volunteer days. “We already have so many opossums and squirrels.”

Strictly speaking, they are right. The eastern cottontail rabbit is, so far, not endangered. Neither is the eastern gray squirrel or the Virginia opossum or the northern mockingbird or the American robin. Every wild baby I hand-raised as a college student belonged to a species that was not endangered in 1980 and is not endangered now.

Tell that to the traumatized teenager cutting the grass who discovers he has slaughtered a litter of cottontails. Tell that to the traumatized commuter who has killed an opossum with young clinging to her back, or to the person whose pet has killed a mama squirrel, leaving her babies to starve.

On a species level, it’s easy for people to say, “What’s one less squirrel?” But there is something in even the bitterest human heart that can’t help responding to the suffering of another living thing. Faced with a hungry squirrel kit desperately rooting between their fingers, people almost always feel compelled to feed it.

Nowadays, it’s illegal in most states to take in a wild animal without special training and a state license. That’s where wildlife rehabilitation experts and rescue organizations come in. These trained and licensed rehabbers are most often volunteers; many do this demanding work from their own homes.

But even for rehabbers in the best-equipped centers — those with ultrasound machines, lead testers and gas sedation equipment — to work in wildlife rescue is to have their hearts broken again and again. There is just so much suffering, and a huge amount of it could be avoided if human beings took just a little more care to share the land with other creatures. Why do wildlife rehabbers keep doing this heart-wrenching, physically demanding, time-consuming and often very expensive work?

It’s because they have a tender heart for the creatures who try so hard to adapt to our ways. I think they must also have a tender heart even for the human beings who unknowingly create the hazards that lead to so much pain and destruction. When someone calls, frantic that they’ve run over a turtle with a lawn mower, the wildlife rescue experts sigh and say, “When can you bring it in?”

Rehabbers go to extraordinary lengths to save every injured animal. If they can’t save the animal, they can at least give it a merciful death. And they can take the opportunity to explain why it’s so important to walk the yard before mowing, giving wildlife of all kinds a chance to flee. Each animal in rescue represents a human being who has learned something important about living more gently in the world. Rehabilitating the human heart may be the most important work these organizations do.

Henry the turtle being weighed and examined at the Nashville Wildlife Conservation Center last week. Credit…Aaron Hardin for The New York Times

Last week on Giving Tuesday, I focused my donations on the local wildlife rescue organizations I follow on social media: Walden’s Puddle, Harmony Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Nashville Wildlife Conservation Center, Lillie Birds Wildlife Rehabilitation and Ziggy’s Tree Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. All have been instrumental in my education as a naturalist. Some have taken in the hurt or orphaned animals I’ve found in my own yard. (Check Animal Help Now or your state wildlife resources agency to find wildlife rehabbers in your own area.)

Primarily through social media, but also through school- and community-outreach programs, wildlife rehabilitation experts can reach many more people than those who bring in injured animals and orphans. They play a crucial role in educating the community about how to be a good neighbor to wild animals struggling to live among us as development encroaches on their territories. They help us understand that these common backyard creatures are all extraordinary, each as unique among their own kind as we are among ours.

That recognition is the first step toward understanding that it is our moral obligation to do whatever it takes to sustain our own ecosystem’s biodiversity. The threat of extinction is not the only measure by which the health of an animal population should be measured, and many of our once common wild neighbors — songbirds, rabbits, turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders, just for starters — are rapidly losing ground. Every creature a rescue organization returns to the wild is one that helps to stem the losses.

From the social media accounts of these nonprofits, it’s possible to learn how devastating rodent poison is, traveling up the food chain and killing or weakening predators to the point at which they starve; why the increase in rodenticides might explain the increase in mange among red foxes; when to leave a baby bird alone; why it’s important to let fallen leaves lie; how to tell if a fawn is an orphan; the importance of keeping cats indoors; the unnecessary suffering caused by sticky traps; the survival benefit to bunnies of keeping tidy; why birds that hit windows need to be taken to a rehabilitation facility, even if they seem fine; what eye color reveals about the health of a box turtle; the many reasons not to mow, or to raise your mower to its highest setting. Plus countless other fascinating facts about the creatures who live just beyond our windows.

Just as it’s nearly impossible to see an animal suffering and not want to save it, whatever effort, inconvenience and expense might be required, it’s impossible to study the work of wildlife rehabbers and not come away in awe of the complexities of the other animals, and animal communities, that they work so hard to preserve. It’s impossible not to come away with an awe for the human capacity for compassion, too.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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