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Safe Harbor: The Day's Patients

Cape Cod facility cares for ailing and orphaned creatures while helping humans and wildlife live in harmony

All Animals magazine

  • Heather Fone/The HSUS.

Upstairs in the mammal ward, new volunteer Faith Augat is hand-feeding a female squirrel kit brought in by a local resident who found a litter in a downed tree. First the woman tried for three days to feed the infant squirrels herself, but all except this one died. “People don’t realize that you can’t feed newborn animals cow’s milk—they need electrolytes at first for hydration, and then special formula,” says Fone.

Indeed, the kit, who is under a month old and has not opened her eyes yet, is getting a specially formulated milk replacer made for young squirrels, opossums, and cottontail rabbits. After Augat finishes feeding her young charge from a small syringe, she gently wipes the squirrel’s mouth and puts her back in an incubator, next to a fleece cap that substitutes for other squirrels’ fur. The kit burrows into the cap, then starts wrestling with it, instinctively feeling for the other bodies that she normally would be rolling around with. “She needs a buddy. It’s very sad when siblings die,” Fone observes.

In one downstairs ward, a diminutive eastern screech owl squints into the light from the depths of a pet carrier. A woman found the owl lying in the middle of Barnstable’s winding main road with a head injury, possibly after hitting a car in flight. Stitching has left the owl with a lopsided ear tuft, and one of her eyes is still bloodshot, but the little bird is all attention when Fone arranges a rolled-up fleece blanket in her hutch and props three defrosted dead mice on it. Lunch is served.

Two tanks on the adjoining table hold eastern box turtles, classified as a species of special concern in Massachusetts, where many of their woodland and marsh habitats are being developed. One was run over by a car and has a dull crusty brown patch on his shell that is still healing; the other has a rear foot missing for unknown reasons. Aguilar is also treating another threatened reptile: a diamondback terrapin with an eye infection, back for his second visit this year. The terrapin hails from Long Pasture, a wildlife sanctuary across the road run by Mass Audubon, the largest conservation organization in New England. To give these rare marsh dwellers a head start, Mass Audubon raises hatchlings and gives them to local schools to raise for future release to the wild. “They’re gull food otherwise,” says Fone. The CWC works regularly with the sanctuary, treating its sick and injured animals and conducting releases there.

"We give them everything we can, and then we let them go...They're not ours to keep." 

The most eye-catching patient is a mute swan who was found 70 miles away on the mainland, emaciated due to severe frostbite in her feet that kept her from foraging. Now she’s gaining strength, and her feet have healed enough to let her stand and move about. Her digestive system is still recovering, so she is fed cereal meal floating in a bowl of water, which is easier to stomach than dry food. The swan has spent the morning reacclimating to the outdoors in one of three large waterfowl pens behind the main house. But it’s feeding time, so volunteer Brian White puts a calming hood over her head, wraps her body in a blanket, and carries her back to her private bay in the animal ward. The bird gives a long guttural hiss when the hood comes off, but then starts gracefully scooping mouthfuls from her feeding bowl.

Staff aim to treat, rehabilitate, and release animals within 90 days. “We give them everything we can, and then we let them go. The sooner we get them out, the better off they’ll be,” says animal care technician Joy Frankio, who coordinates releases. “They’ll learn about foraging and predators. It’s kinder to them. They’re not ours to keep.”

Frankio will consult with state wildlife officials to determine where to put the box turtles, since one of them can’t be returned to his habitat, which has been developed. Finding release sites can be tricky: She researches potential areas to be sure they offer enough water, appropriate food sources, and space to survive and stay wild. She is required to confer with the state when releasing animals who are considered potential rabies vectors, and state officials also attend releases of predators they want to keep distant from humans, such as foxes, coyotes, and fishers. The swan will be an easier case, since she belongs to a common species—and as Frankio points out, “birds fly off and go wherever they want.”

The center’s work extends beyond the animal ward. Fone, Frankio, and the 55 volunteers spend much of their time teaching Cape Codders how to deal with minor wildlife issues directly instead of bringing animals to the center. By their count, they have already coached neighbors through renesting several dozen baby squirrels this spring. “We tell people to put them in a box lined with an old T-shirt, wrap a soda bottle filled with warm water in another T-shirt, and put it in as a warmer. Then put the box as close to the downed tree as possible, and leave the area,” says Fone. “The mother will come and take the kits one at a time to a new nest.” Similarly, young birds on the ground usually have not fallen from their nests but are learning to fly, and parents will fetch them if left alone.

In some cases, callers are reluctant to handle even tiny creatures themselves; in others, staffers have to push well-intentioned rescuers to return animals to the outdoors. “If you follow up and ask how it’s going, they get comfortable and see that they can manage it. When it works, people get all excited—they feel as though they’ve given the animals another chance,” says Frankio.

Other cases are better handled at the CWC. The center has modified an entire barn for species that can carry rabies, and everyone who works there has been vaccinated. Inside the barn, a full nursery for baby raccoons (the center rehabilitates dozens each year) features incubators, tabletop wire cages for bottle-fed kits, and tall cages for weaned young. A sign on the door admonishes: “Keep voices low. No talking to the raccoons,” a policy intended to prevent the animals from developing positive associations with human voices. Coyote pups go in a former box stall, and there’s a pen for ducklings on the second floor. Like the swan, mammals nearly ready for release go through acclimation in large outdoor pens designed for various species’ needs: Bird pens have swimming pools filled and drained through underground pipes, and raccoon pens have logs for climbing.

Safe Harbor, Part 3: Teaching and Learning »


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