It is possible to kill with kindness; in the case of wildlife, this is especially true.
Leah Birmingham is the Assistant Director and Licensed Wildlife Custodian of Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre (SPWC), an animal rehabilitation centre just west of Napanee. She is also a part-time professor at St. Lawrence College, teaching wildlife care and exotic pet medicine to the Veterinary Assistant and Veterinary Tech students. It is her life goal to improve the care wildlife receive when they are in need of help, as well as while they are in the care of veterinary practices.
So when Birmingham sees people helping wildlife, she is grateful. Still, she knows that anyone who loves animals enough to help them when they are sick or injured would appreciate knowing the best methods by which to help.
Recently, SPWC received a barred owl that had been found severely injured at St. Lawrence College. The little lady, whose plight was shared on Reddit, was dubbed Hoot-Hoot by the people of the internet.
“Sadly,” said Birmingham, “Hoot-Hoot… did not survive. She improved a little, then plateaued, and then declined. She was euthanized on January 9, as she had started into respiratory distress. She was being hydrated and fed daily and on several pain medications and antibiotics, but sadly couldn’t overcome [her injuries].”
It must be noted that what follows is not intended to be critical of Hoot-Hoot’s rescuers; Birmingham reiterated that she really appreciates when people care enough to help animals, but it is crucial for those who care to know how to help them properly.
According to Birmingham, the number one thing to remember is “less is more.” Wild animals consider humans their number one predator; therefore they are justifiably scared of us, no matter how calm they seem.
What we mistake for calmness is actually the animal “freezing with fear,” explained Birmingham.
“People just don’t realize that a wild animal freezes with stress. They don’t fight, necessarily, especially if you’re dealing with something like head trauma or severe emaciation where they don’t have the wherewithal to fight,” she said. “So they freeze, and that can lead to a disease process called capture myopathy (CM), which is basically their body shutting down.”
As Birmingham explained, CM is a common cause of death in wild animals that are caught and handled by humans. This is because animals are adapted to escape from predators, but are not adapted to struggle for long periods of time in man-made restraints. Capture myopathy occurs when animals overexert themselves so much that physiological imbalances develop and result in severe muscle damage.
She gave the example of another owl, a northern saw-whet, that was once brought to SPWC “and died the next day, and we couldn’t really find much wrong with it.”
“I suspect [what originally dazed the owl] was a window strike,” Birmingham explained, “but then the people, in their attempt to rescue it, had to stop in at the dentist on the way before they could come here. They took it inside the dentist’s office. Everybody there was interested in looking at it and taking pictures, and I honestly think what killed it eventually was the stress.”
Birmingham advised that anyone who comes upon a bird or other injured animal observe it for a good 10 minutes. It may just be dazed and will soon get up and fly or run away. However, after that amount of time, “What we recommend people do is just to keep them from harm…. just put them in a box in a quiet place with nobody interfering. Then after 45 minutes or so, take the box back outside and open it up. If the bird flies off, it doesn’t need your help. It just needed a safe place to recover from the initial shock or trauma.”
However, if the animal is still injured or distressed, it is time to call SPWC or another rescue that specializes in wildlife. They will explain the next steps on how to transport the animal safely to them.
If someone is forced to keep an animal overnight, said Birmingham, “my recommendation is always to keep it in a calm, quiet place in a box and not interfere with it overnight. If there’s enough room in the box, offer a dish of water.”
Birmingham highly discourages giving water with a dropper. “Water will quite easily divert into the wrong areas of the beak, and if the bird doesn’t have the ability to swallow properly, water could go right into the trachea. For a bird, the trachea is right at the base of their tongue. It’s really easy to get water in a place you don’t want it for birds, so don’t try.”
She reemphasized, “Just leave it calm and quiet — because the truth of the matter is, if we’re going to be able to save an animal, it’s going to have to be strong enough to be able to go 24 hours without water.”
“In fact… even some of what we [at SPWC] do ends up [pushing] them over the edge. We’ve got to do a physical exam to determine what’s wrong, and sometimes the animal has used up all its resources just to avoid capture… Every minute they’re in our hands, they’re kind of on a slippery slope toward death.”
“As much as we would like to think there is some kind of bonding that goes on,” said Birmingham, “it is just not the case.”
Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre has been in operation for over 25 years and cares for over 5,000 animals a year. Visit their website or call to find out how to best help the animals who share your space.