A Mother Knows Best
by Alex Vatral, August 1, 2022
My name is Alex and I’m one of two interns working at Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary this summer. I’m an incoming college senior from Michigan and this is the first time I have ever handled wildlife, lived off the grid, or even ventured west of the Rockies. My dad and I made the nearly 30-hour drive to Idaho so I could participate in this eye-opening experience. Growing up, I have always had a deep passion for animals. Initially, I planned to go to vet school, but after learning more about the realities of student debt, I was left searching for another path in the animal care field. I have always been fascinated with wildlife, so when I saw the job posting for this internship it became my goal for my last summer as a college student. Previously, I’ve had the opportunity to work at the local animal shelter and with my school’s equestrian team. Those two jobs did not prepare me for what I was about to get myself into at Snowdon.
As great as college is, it is hard to get an idea of what a career in natural resources will actually look like. Since I am coming up on graduation, everyone is asking the big question: “What are you going to do with your life?” I didn’t have an answer until I made it through my first month here. As busy as we have been at the sanctuary, I have a passion for wildlife rehab and I never would have figured that out if I hadn’t ventured out of my comfort zone. I could go on and on about all of the things I have learned during this internship, but I will share the one story that sticks out to me the most.
We had three goslings come to the sanctuary my first month here. Our first yellow puff ball arrived in the middle of May. The gosling, which we named Ryan Gosling, was only a few days old. The temperature in our clinic was too variable, so we set up his brooder box at my place to keep him nice and warm. I was so excited to have a baby gosling living in my house for the weekend! It was strange and lonely moving across the country to an empty house. What started out as fun company ended up being a total headache because Ryan had imprinted on humans during his short stay with his rescuer. Because of this, all he would do was peep loudly when I was out of sight. As cute as that sounds, listening to him cry all day was exhausting. I would make dinner with him at my feet and he still wouldn’t stop calling. Needless to say, we were eager to find Ryan an adopted goose family. His release went fairly smoothly, but it took some finagling to get him back into a flock. Every time we set him down to join the other geese, he would try to follow us back to the truck. After a few tries, we gave him a little nudge into the water and ran out of his line of sight before he had a chance to come back. Thanks to our not so subtle encouragement, he swam right for the rest of the goslings in the pond and happily peeped along with his new siblings. We were so relieved that he was able to assimilate into a new flock and knew this was his best chance at living a long and happy life. Sierra and I watched him paddle around the pond for a few more minutes before waving good bye to our very loud little buddy that we weren’t going to miss. Since we were nearing the end of baby gosling season, we did not anticipate getting another one as small as Ryan.
A few weeks later, a second gosling named Eddie came to us in a White Claw box. We had done a presentation a week prior with Merlin the great-horned owl at Alzaar School and taught the students and teachers all about wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. So, when one of the teachers found an abandoned gosling in the river behind their campus, she knew exactly who to call. It was a rewarding feeling to see how quickly our impact was made on the community. Sadly, by the time Eddie arrived at our sanctuary his disposition was starting to decline. Though we administered fluids and warmed him up by the heat from the fire, Eddie was not improving. I had to leave the sanctuary to pick up another batch of baby squirrels, knowing in the back of my mind that Eddie wouldn’t make it. An hour and five squirrels later, I got the text that Eddie had passed away. Before I could process losing him, a call came in on the work phone about another gosling that needed to be rescued. We couldn’t help but think that Eddie had been reincarnated, so the new gosling became Eddie the Second. Eddie II was a much larger, meaner gosling. He didn’t enjoy being handled during his physical exam. He constantly hissed at us and would try to lunge out of the brooder box. Unlike Ryan, Eddie II was not imprinted on humans in the slightest and was much happier when we were not around. We did our best to make his stay enjoyable by giving him a warm bath to get the caked mud off of him and brought him outside to let him swim in a pool. After keeping him for a few days we knew that he was perfectly healthy and just needed to find a new family to grow up with.
Once the rain stopped and the sun came out, my fellow intern Allison and I were sent out to get some fresh air and find some siblings for Eddie II. We took our old work truck and drove down to Cascade. Our truck is an old reliable type of vehicle. It has no AUX cord for music and the McCall radio selection is slim, so we often find ourselves playing music from our phones and using the cup holder as a sound amplifier. During my first week here, I picked up a Kelly Clarkson CD from the local thrift store to keep in our truck. We have acquired a few other CDs over the months, but for some reason we cannot get them to play. At this point, we have given up on solving the music problem and regularly find ourselves playing the Kelly CD on loop as we travel to events and rescues. As a result, we lovingly nicknamed our ol’ reliable truck Kelly.
As we journeyed south, bumping Kelly Clarkson and praying that Kelly the truck wouldn’t rattle apart on the dirt road we were cruising down, we got a sign from the universe. We knew we found the perfect place to release Eddie II when we saw a sign at the park entrance that read “Kelly” in big wood letters! This was the third place in Cascade that we stopped to look for an adoptive family for our little orphan. Sure enough, we got out of the truck and saw a huge group of adult geese with over twenty babies approximately the same age as Eddie II. While assessing the beach to make a plan for his release, we could hear Eddie in his kennel in the back of the truck peeping like crazy. Once brought him down to the river bank, the goose family across the river started moving toward us! The flock was all the way across a swift river and we could not find a way to get across. In order for Eddie II to make it to the flock, he would have to cross the river with a short section of bumpy rapids. He was calling so loud at this point that we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best as we opened the kennel door.
Just like that, Eddie II sprinted as fast as his little legs would go out into the water, calling for the geese in his view. As he swam out to them, some adults further downstream started calling and flew up to surround our little gosling. They herded him safely through the rapids to the rest of the flock and Eddie II was honking with joy as he settled into his new family. The “parents” took him in as if they had lost one of their own babies and quickly nudged him ashore where he started eating and playing with the other goslings. The most surprising part of this experience was as soon as Eddie II was with his new family, the adult geese immediately started treating us as a threat and guarded their new baby from us. We stayed for half an hour, watching them in their element and filling our hearts with all of the warm and fuzzy feelings.
While very few animals parents will take in an unrelated orphan, geese raise their young in multi-family groups. Parents take shifts watching the babies at “daycare” while others take breaks to find food and rest. Because of this, none of the parents really know who belongs to whom; lending the adults to care for any goslings in their immediate vicinity. Even though Eddie II was a relatively easy individual to rehab, it was so rewarding for us as interns to be reminded of why we chose this career path. We couldn’t believe that as soon as he saw other geese, he recognized that he needed to be with them and they eagerly accepted him as their own. He was our first full capture, rehab, and release as a team. The success of Eddie II’s release was extra special because it felt like we were doing well by Eddie the First. Though we weren’t able to save him, at least we helped another member of his species.
While we as humans have the best of intentions when rescuing wildlife, this story goes to show that a mother knows best. We would not be able to teach orphaned goslings how to migrate and it is especially challenging to instill a healthy fear of humans. Without key traits such as these, it would be very difficult for a goose to make it in the wild after release. Whether it is a gosling, raccoon, bear, or any other wild baby you can think of, it is so important to keep animal families together whenever possible. We simply cannot raise a critter better than its mother. If you happen to come across what appears to be an orphaned animal, please call your local rehabilitation center first and have them assess the situation. It is crucial to get a professional’s opinion because nine times out of ten the mother is nearby or coming back for them. Even though Ryan Gosling and Eddie II had happy endings, that is not the case for every individual we receive. Rehabilitators do everything they can to be great surrogate mothers, but there is no substitute for the real thing. The importance of wildlife rehabilitation is recognizing common human-wildlife conflicts and using this information to educate the public about how to lessen the number of animals that need our help. We appreciate all of you that call us before picking up the adorable baby animal you found. One phone call can help you better coexist with wildlife and most likely prevent a youngster from becoming and orphan!