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March 22, 2010

Baby Time at the Wildlife Care Center

Spring brings more orphaned, injured wildlife babies

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Thanks to a special incubator developed by staff at the Wildlife Care Center, these babies have a good prognosis. Stefan Harsch/The HSUS

  • The babies cuddle together like they would in the mother's pouch. Harsch/The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

When an opossum was brought to the Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale, she was wet, cold, exhausted, and in shock. It was early March, the start of Florida’s baby wildlife season, and she had been found in a backyard pool struggling to stay afloat.

Sick Mom

As soon as the opossum arrived, the center’s medical team went to work on her. But they quickly discovered something was terribly wrong.

“She had a completely macerated, infected, rotten tongue,” said the center’s veterinarian Antonia Gardner. “The whole tongue was horribly damaged.”

Gardner also discovered the opossum had seven beautiful babies in her pouch, dependent on her for nourishment and warmth, even as she faded from disease.

“We were all surprised that mom had been in the pool, but the babies were alive and fairly dry,” Gardner said. “Mom had somehow protected them.”

Although most of the opossums who come into the care center have been hit by cars, these animals face a variety of threats in both wild and urban environments. In springtime, this can be especially tragic because a dead mom means orphaned babies.

On a good day, a Good Samaritan brings an injured or dead opossum to the clinic, where the medical team often finds babies nestled in her pouch. Sometimes, the mother and babies can be saved. Other times, the team must pull the babies from their mother and send them to the center’s opossum specialist, Peggy DiMauro, who along with workers at the center developed a special incubator that closely mimics the mother’s warm and humid pouch.

Tiny Babies Survive

After a thorough examination, Gardner realized that the mother opossum found in the pool would have to be humanely euthanized due to the advanced stage of her infection. The Wildlife Care Center team wondered if the tiny babies in her pouch were old enough to be saved.

“Opossums are marsupials and basically preemies when they’re born, barely beyond the embryo stage” said Stefan Harsch, the center’s director of veterinary services. “The gestation is between 11 to 13 days and then they are born and go into the pouch, and that’s where they develop.”

Harsch said that because little joey and jill opossums are so small in the pouch, they often have a low survival rate when being raised by humans. “Baby opossums don’t suckle, so you can’t bottle feed them,” he said, explaining that the mother’s long nipple goes down the esophagus.

“The babies latch onto that teat and never let go.” The mom continuously secretes small amounts milk into her baby’s stomach. To overcome this challenge, the center staff uses a gavages-type feeding system akin to nature, depositing just enough fortified fluid directly into the baby’s tummy.

Under the care of Di Mauro and the team, the seven baby opossums have made progress, Gardner said. They now weigh almost 40 grams from a mere 30 when they first arrived, and are growing—almost ready to graduate to the juvenile care room.

Wildlife Baby Season Descends

The progress reflects the center’s overall success in recent years with baby opossums because of their innovative techniques and dedication to the little marsupials. 

At the Wildlife Care Center—one of five animal care centers operated by The HSUS—wildlife baby season begins in early March and peaks in April and May (although baby raccoons come in year round).

Along with baby opossums, the center takes in orphaned rabbits, squirrels, skunks, songbirds, raptors, shorebirds, deer, coyotes, turtles, and other species. Although the team works diligently with the public to keep baby animals in the wild whenever possible, they received up to 85 baby animals each day during last year’s nesting season. Some babies are more difficult to raise than others.

“Many of the baby bird calls we get are really just fledglings who have left the nest and are still being fed by their parents,” Harsch said. Incoming calls are screened by the center’s staff trained to ask questions to determine whether the animal is actually orphaned or not. Employees and volunteers who go out into the field also are trained to make that determination and to renest or reunite baby animals whenever possible.

At the Cape Wildlife Center in Massachusetts and The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in California, both operated by the Fund for Animals in partnership with The HSUS, the goal is the same---to keep animal babies with their parents whenever possible and rehabilitate them in a way to avoid habitation so their chances for survival remain high once released back into the wild.

While The Fund cares mostly for predators such as coyotes, foxes, bobcats, skunks, and raptors, and mountain lions, The Cape rehabilitates everything from raccoons and squirrels to turtles, rabbits, raptors, songbirds, shore birds, and sea birds.

The number of baby residents in each facility skyrockets each spring. In 2009, The Fund made good use of their new 6,000-square-foot coyote enclosure to rehabilitate 22 orphaned coyote pups. 

At both centers, wildlife baby season has barely begun, but they are readying for the onslaught of calls and incoming babies they know are headed their way.

 

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