I was privileged to work at Veterinary Services of Wickford in Saunderstown, Rhode Island for five years. They not only take care of small animals and exotics but also have a wildlife clinic attached to the building. The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island takes in injured and orphaned wildlife from all over the state. Each year hundreds of animals are placed with appropriate wildlife rehabilitators while those with minor injuries stay at the clinic until they are ready for release.
I became involved in rehabilitating wildlife while working as a receptionist for the clinic. My first experience rehabilitating was raising a juvenile Virginia Opossum. I instantly fell in love with the work. Soon I was raising litters of Virginia Opossums and Eastern Grey Squirrels. Throughout my time at Veterinary Services of Wickford I learned a great deal, eventually becoming a CVT and earning the title of Lead Technician.
One of the opossums I raised came to the clinic in the pouch of her deceased mother. She was the only one of her siblings to survive. I took her in at about 60 days of age and watched her grow into a beautiful juvenile opossum. But she didn’t mature like other opossums that I had worked with. She never became grouchy and had difficulty with some basic tasks such as climbing. She refused to eat the bugs and other natural opossum foods that I brought for her. So I made a decision to not release her because I believed she would not have survived long in the wild. I admit that I made some big mistakes in her rehabilitation. But I learned from them and I never made them again. When I look back, I see that I doted on her too much and let her bond to me. When raising a single baby from a litter there is an increased risk that the baby will bond to the human. It is always best to try to introduce a single baby into a litter whenever it is safe to do so.
I named her Piper after the actress Piper Laurie. She was litter trained and slept in bed with me. She would crawl under the covers and hold onto my leg while she slept. She was perfect and I nicknamed her Miss America. Her fur smelled like popcorn and was so soft. She lived three very healthy years until she started having problems with her rear legs. Her hips became painful and she became grouchy. When her quality of life began to decline I made the very difficult choice to euthanize her.
Opossums have a very sensitive calcium:phosphorus ratio and they are prone to metabolic bone disease and obesity when in captivity. I did my best to prevent this from occurring but it wound up causing problems for Piper toward the end of her life. Do I regret my decision to keep Piper? Yes and no. I had the rare amazing opportunity to share my life with one of society’s most misunderstood creatures. But I also denied her a life in the wild and the chance to have offspring. I did my best for her but in the end she suffered due to my decision. I learned not make selfish decisions when it comes to animals in my care even when those decisions sometimes break my heart. Would she have lived three years in the wild? Doubtful since the average lifespan of a wild opossum is about 2 years. The average lifespan of a captive opossum is 3-4 years while there have been some rare instances of them living to 8-10 years. The moral of the story is that wild animals are not pets. Yes, they may be sweet and cute but we shouldn’t deny them the life that they deserve in the wild. Remember to give the gift of release when rehabilitating wild animals.
That brings me to today… social media has brought into light that many people have wild animals as pets. On Instagram and Facebook there are hundreds of accounts for pet raccoons, opossums, and squirrels. These accounts glorify owning a wild animal as a pet. Some of these animals are under the care of licensed medical staff or rehabilitators but for the most part these animals are in the care of individuals without the proper knowledge to really care for them in a medically sound way. I have encountered people bringing in wild animals to the hospital that they found and tried to raise on their own. Often the animals are in bad shape due to poor nutrition. There are many qualified rehabilitators out there but sadly people do not always seek them out or know how to find them.
I am very grateful for my time as a wildlife rehabilitator. Those five years were magical. Waking up every few hours to feed baby squirrels or to tube feed baby opossums was worth every second of lost sleep. I learned to be patient in a way that you do not learn when caring for domestic animals. Watching the squirrels leave their cage for the first time during a soft release was an amazing feeling. Some squirrels would never return but a few would come back for a few days to grab some food. You look at wildlife differently after becoming a rehabilitator. You feel a stronger connection with nature and its inhabitants.
I wanted to share my experiences with wildlife rehabilitation to not only show the positive side of it but also to explain the mistakes that can be made and how to learn from them. People who work with animals have big hearts and we often listen to our heart over our brain. When working with wildlife it is important to let our brain have the louder voice.