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Veterinarian offers tips for helping wildlife

As spring approaches and baby wildlife begin to appear, resist the urge to rescue them because you think they’ve been abandoned. In many cases, their mother is probably nearby, says wildlife veterinarian Sherri Cox. She also serves as executive director, research innovation and knowledge mobilisation, in U of G’s Office of Research.

“A lot of times the animals are actually not orphaned, so we try to educate the public to please don’t kidnap the animals,” she says.

Cox founded the National Wildlife Centre in Caledon East, which saw more than 3,000 animals in just over a year. She has treated everything from mice to bears and has performed orthopedic surgery on many types of animals.

“I’ve always had a special interest in wildlife,” she says. “They don’t have owners, there’s no one to pay the bills and there’s no one to care for them, so we have an opportunity to make a positive difference.”

The aim of rescuing wildlife is to return them to their natural habitat, where they can forage for food, reproduce and live normal, wild lives. In some cases, the animal may be permanently disabled. That’s when Cox must decide whether it’s humane to return the animal to the wild.

A hawk, for example, relies on its vision to hunt and may not be able to survive if it lost vision in one eye, she explains. But an owl uses its hearing to find prey and could possibly hunt with only one eye.

If you see a wild animal that is sick or injured, Cox recommends contacting the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) website for guidance on finding an authorized wildlife custodian in your area.

According to the ministry’s regulations, members of the public must not keep a wild animal for more than 24 hours. The animal must be transferred to an authorized wildlife custodian or to a veterinarian for medical treatment and then transferred to an authorized wildlife custodian as soon as possible.

Until then, keep the animal in a box with air holes and a towel or blanket, and place the box in a quiet location away from pets. Don’t try to feed the animal but provide some water in a shallow bowl where it can’t drown.

“We don’t want the public trying to raise orphaned wildlife on their own without training,” says Cox. “No one can do as good of a job as mom can at raising their young. If possible, we always try to get the babies reunited with their mom.”

Baby animals that are truly abandoned need immediate attention. Some baby birds need to be fed every 15 minutes, and very young raccoons need to eat as much as six to eight times a day.

If you find an uninjured baby bird that has feathers and can grip your finger, it could be a fledgling that recently left its nest and can’t fly yet. Its mother is probably still around, so place the bird in a safe area. “In just a matter of days, that bird will fly away,” says Cox. If you aren’t sure if a baby animal has been orphaned, contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area for advice.

Baby animals are especially vulnerable to predators, especially cats, so keep cats indoors, says Cox. “It’s good for the cats and it’s good for our wildlife.”

If you see a turtle crossing the road, move it toward the direction in which it’s heading. Seven out of eight Ontario turtle species are considered species at risk. A snapping turtle reaches sexual maturity in about 20 years, so losing one can have an impact on future generations.

Be careful about attempting to rescue wildlife, and protect yourself against bites and scratches. “Safety is most important for the humans and the animals,” says Cox.

She left a career in corporate finance to go back to school and become a wildlife veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College.

Her seminar for the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare on “Introduction to Wildlife Rehabilitation: Welfare and Ethical Considerations” can be viewed here.

Story by Susan Bubak, UofG Communications