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Heroes Help Wildlife—from Dolphins to Orphaned Owls—on Cape Cod

"I’ve worked as a stranding responder and as a wildlife rehabber, and the jobs are remarkably similar."

  • Specialized marine mammal responders are trying to help stranded dolphins off Cape Cod. Corbis

  • Cape Wildlife Center helps other kinds of wildlife, from birds to this opossum to foxes, every day on the cape.

by Sharon Young

What does a litter of orphaned squirrels have in common with a pod of dolphins stranded in the mud of a Cape Cod marsh? 

Both require dedicated people to save their lives. While the tragedy of stranded dolphins are making the national news, the similar work of saving baby squirrels or returning flight to a hawk with a broken wing goes on unseen. I’ve worked as a stranding responder and as a wildlife rehabber and the jobs are remarkably similar.

The heroic struggle to rescue dolphins stranded on beaches and in marshes throughout Cape Cod (over 100 stranded so far) has captured the media's attention. No one is sure why the dolphins are are stranding. Rescuers perform necropsies (animal autopsies) on those who die to try to find out if there are underlying physical causes. Although some of the animals have appeared ill, most have not. Cape Cod’s hook shape and gently sloping shoreline have been blamed for disorienting animals. The large, rapid tidal change can trap animals who venture into unfamiliar marshes at high tide to chase fish. Since dolphins are so social, and pods often contain family members; if one is in trouble, the others stick by them.

Responding to strandings is both heartbreaking and backbreaking. Listening to the cries of stranded dolphins who are trying to maintain communication with one another can be very emotional—it is a sound that haunts me to this day. Carrying dolphins that can weigh more than 250 pounds back to the sea requires strong backs. Rescuing so many dolphins requires skilled and coordinated teamwork. Being part of a team makes the hard work easier. Despite the best efforts, not all animals can be saved and being part of a team makes the losses easier to bear.

At the Cape Wildlife Center, skill and teamwork are a hallmark of saving animals. Orphaned mammals require feeding around the clock. A badly injured animal requires constant monitoring and specialized medical treatment. Teams of trained volunteers work alongside medical staff to provide care to the animals we fight to save. And this team can share the joy of a successful release back to the wild and console one another when we lose a battle to save a life. 

At the Wildlife Center we treated 1,700 animals in 2011. We celebrated the release of many back to the wild. People may take for granted the squirrels and chickadees and hawks that we see in our backyards, but their lives are no less an important part of the ecology of Cape Cod than the dolphins off our shore. 

Today there are dolphins who owe their lives to dedicated volunteers and staff who struggled to return them to the sea. And there are fishers, skunks, raccoons, opossum, hawks, owls and numerous songbird and seabirds that are still active and a part of the Cape’s extraordinary environment thanks to dedicated volunteers and staff at the Cape Wildlife Center.

Sharon Young is a former wildlife rehabilitator, the Marine Issues Field Director at The Humane Society of the United States, and a friend of Cape Wildlife Center.

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