Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In Part, That’s a Good Thing.
By Hope Dickens
Molly Craig's day begins with feeding hungry baby birds at 6 a.m. The birds need to be fed every 15 minutes until 7 at night. If she's not feeding them, other staff at the Fox Valley Wildlife Center in Elburn, Illinois take turns helping the hungry orphans.
When the center's resident birds, opossums, squirrels and other wildlife aren't being fed, cleaned or cared for, Craig, Fox Valley's director of animal care, finds herself trying to answer the seemingly ceaseless stream of calls from concerned citizens who've come across a hapless animal and don't know what to do about it.
"Phones have been ringing off the hook," she says.
Fox Valley and other wildlife rehabilitation centers across the country have seen a large increase in calls from the public since coronavirus-lockdown orders took effect in March. Wildlife Rescue League in Virginia, a help line that gives advice or directs callers to local rehabbers, reports their calls have increased by 62% compared to last year, with staff now fielding more than 50 a day.
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Can you say “cute”?! Thank you Sandy Royal for these adorable tulip nests! Our baby birds are very happy to have them, including this here baby Robin. You can also hear him asking for food... again! #donations #creative #sewing #knitting #nests #artsandcrafts #artstohelp #babies #babyseason #babybirds #robin #wildlife #wildliferescueleague #wrl #wildliferescueleagueva #tulip #tulipnests #babybird #wildliferehabilitation #wildliferehabber #constantfeedings #volunteers #allvolunteerorganization #northernvirginia #virginia #virginiawildlife #creativity #gratitude #thankful #grateful
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In any other year, this increase in volume wouldn't surprise rescue centers. Spring is the normally their busiest season. It's when birds make their spring migrations, snakes and bears come out of hibernation, and many animals time their mating behaviors to produce young as the days get warmer. This means people can encounter fledgling birds hopping on the ground, fawns lying still alongside a trail, or baby cottontail rabbits curled up in the grass. To humans they appear to be orphaned, when in fact the parents are usually keeping a watchful eye nearby or gathering food. Injuries also increase this time of year as lawnmowers nick rabbit nests, young squirrels fall out of trees, and birds encounter domestic cats or fly into windows.
"People have a tendency to panic," says Beth Axelrod, president of the board of directors at the Wildlife Rescue League. "They feel empathy for an animal that they think is in need, which is good, but that puts them into panic mode, and they feel like they want to get this animal help right away."
But this year things have shifted into overdrive. The pandemic has changed our normal routines — more people are spending time outside and becoming aware of the wildlife in their backyards or local parks.
It's not that there are more orphaned or injured animals, it's that people are paying more attention.
"People are home, they're bored, they're looking out the window, they're going on walks, they're actually paying more attention, or they have the time to look an animal up and find out where it's supposed to go, " says Melissa Anahory, programs and operation assistant at Woodlands Wildlife Refuge in Pittstown, New Jersey.
Woodlands Wildlife Refuge has taken in 250 more animals than this time last year. At Fox Valley, they're up 1,000 animals. Several rehabbers I reached out to for this article were unavailable for interviews because they were so overwhelmed with constant animal intake and care.
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Wildlife rehabilitators in big cities aren't experiencing the same surge in calls as their more suburban or rural counterparts. Downtown Washington, D.C. is seeing fewer calls than its surrounding counties. In Manhattan, Jerry Basford, a volunteer and board member at the Wild Bird Fund, says he isn't surprised. "Fewer cars on the road means fewer pigeons getting hit."
What did surprise Basford, though, was the increase in donations. Both online and onsite donations have doubled.
"We thought our donations were really going to dry up," he says. "You know, people out of work, et cetera. And it's been just the opposite. It almost seems like people really want to do something."
People who bring animals to wildlife rehabilitators tend to become donors, explains Anahory. This year that means the more animals that come in, the more donations they receive to help rehabilitation centers stay open during the pandemic.
Beyond donating money, volunteerism is on the rise — or at least, the desire to volunteer. The Woodlands Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Rescue League and the Owl Moon Raptor Center in Boyds, Maryland, have all seen an uptick in requests to volunteer. Jaci Rutiser, a longtime volunteer at Owl Moon, says there have been so many requests to help since the start of the pandemic that they've had to start a waitlist.
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Our baby dormice have done a lot of growing up in 1 week. They came in after a cat killed their mother, luckily these two were unharmed but require a lot of care to get them ready for release. Our lovely volunteer Angela has taken these two home to care for them until they are old enough to go back to the wild. #dormouse #hazeldormouse #wild #wildlife #wildliferehabber #wildlifevet #wildlifecare #baby #cute #handrear
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Unfortunately, for wildlife rehabilitation centers, the threat of COVID-19 has meant cutting volunteers and limiting the amount of staff that can be present at the same time. Many wildlife rehabilitators who are licensed to practice in their homes have shut down their operations because the risk of exposure to illness is too great. The animals that would normally go to them are now going to the centers that have remained open.
This places additional stress on workers and volunteers. Axelrod says a typical summer was already demanding, with up to 30 calls a day. "So having over 50 calls a day is even more challenging."
Craig points out that a lot of the calls Fox Valley receives are from people who don't understand normal wildlife behavior — and that means more opportunity for education.
"Most of our calls are from people finding animals in their yard or out on nature walks," she says. "And since so many more people are doing those things right now, we're getting a lot more of those kinds of calls. A lot of them we're able to give advice over the phone, and the advice is typically, that's a natural behavior. Leave it be."
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Sunday morning cuteness! Check out the video! Fledgling Ruby Throated Hummingbird 💕 #ibr #iowabirdrehab #iowa #birds #iowabirds #wildliferehab #wildliferehabilitation #wildliferehabber #nature #birdrehab #birdrehabilitation #hummingbird #rubythroatedhummingbird
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The pandemic may be unprecedented in our experience, but experts says this desire to do more follows patterns we've seen during other tumultuous times. Alison Cawood, marine ecologist and citizen science coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, notes that big changes such as elections or natural disasters often inspire spikes in people wanting to do something bigger than themselves, whether it's reporting a species on a citizen science app or calling a wildlife rehabilitator about an injured animal.
"When things are more stressful, I think a lot of people want to do something to help," she says. "You can't fix whatever the big thing is, but here are these things that you can do. You can help the environment."
What happens next? As many states ease lockdown restrictions, and as summer turns to fall, wildlife rehabilitators expect they'll soon experience a well-earned reprieve from tending to baby animals and answering continuous phone calls. But this period — and rehabbers' efforts — could leave a lasting impact. Thanks to them, many people will be returning to work or classrooms better informed about the wildlife that exists around them.
And those concerned citizens and rehabilitators may emerge from this first perilous chapter of the pandemic knowing that, because of their attention, thousands of animals have been given a second chance at life.
Hope Dickens is a Maryland-based photographer and writer.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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