Raising little stinkers

Raising Little Stinkers

I didn’t know what to expect during my first summer with Snowdon. Though we didn’t have many animals to care for when I first arrived in February, I managed to stay plenty busy while I got my feet under me. My winter intern, Iris, was incredibly helpful during the transition between managers and taught me all the quirks of running this off-the-grid facility. She and I spent hours organizing different parts of the property. I worked late nights, earning my wildlife rehabilitation certificate and expanding my knowledge of veterinary medicine. The spring flew by while I attempted to win over Merlin, the great-horned owl, revamp our education program, and learn how to navigate social media. All this planning would set me up perfectly for a chaos-free baby season.

The only thing I had left to do was hire my two summer interns! We received over 30 applicants and conducted eight interviews. This process was my first time being the “interviewer,” so I struggled with letting the person sell themselves to me. After all, who was I to tell someone whether or not they were qualified for the position? My board members had to remind me a few times that I was, in fact, the manager and that these people applied for the job because they *already wanted* to work for me; they had a good point. After reviewing my notes from each interview, I chose to offer the job to Alex and Allison. These two were highly motivated, impressively qualified, and seemed like they would be good friends.

Alex arrived in early May. We spent every day of her first week attending education and outreach events. Though a bit hectic, Alex managed to hit the ground running and never missed a beat. By the time Allison arrived the next week, poor Alex had already heard me give my Merlin presentation at least five times. Our first few days as a team were surprisingly mellow. Alex and Allison were bored at times and wanted more tasks assigned. But then the snow melted, and the phone never stopped ringing. Over the next two weeks, we took in 23 injured and orphaned animals. Trust me; I didn’t hear Alex or Allison complain about being bored again. 

One afternoon, while we were syringe feeding our six baby squirrels for the fifth time that day, Allison answered the work phone. Sure enough, a young couple found three baby skunks meandering on the side of the road near Riggins. We assumed that they were orphaned because they were out during the day, were too young to be alone for any amount of time, and the couple found an adult skunk carcass on the road very nearby. These are all things that people need to consider before removing a wild animal from any situation. The last thing we want to do is kidnap babies that still have parents. We appreciate that these people assessed the situation and called us before taking action. Though not every animal that appears to be in distress needs our help, these three were almost certainly orphaned by a vehicle strike. Alex and I covered the rest of the bottle feedings that day so that Allison could drive three hours round trip to pick up our newest intakes. 

While Allison was gone, Alex and I managed to look a few things up about how to raise baby skunks. According to one of my rehab textbooks, skunks, like most other omnivores, are bottle-fed with a puppy formula called “Esbilac” until weaned around ten weeks old. A preliminary google search also taught us that skunks weigh approximately 30 g at birth, apparently love to eat strawberries, and start to spray at three weeks old. So, we felt prepared to meet the little stinkers when Allison rolled up in Kelly (our trusty steed). One thing we did not expect was to be able to fit each baby into our palm! Based on their weight and number of teeth, our newest intakes were only three weeks old. Besides being dehydrated, these neonates initially appeared to be in good body condition. However, once we started to feed them Pedialyte for their first meal, we noticed the little black dots trying to move up our arms. These poor little skunks had fleas! Of all of the ectoparasites I have encountered on wild animals, I was not mentally prepared for fleas. It was time for a warm bath with lots of dawn dish soap. I have never seen anything as cute as a 3-week old skunk in a bubble bath. After half a bottle of dawn, some unflavored Pedialyte, and a lot of laundry, our skunks had a clean bill of health.

And just like that, the three of us were obsessed with the three of them. Allison named them after flowers; the most petite male was Lupine, the female was Daisy, and the larger male was Snapdragon. Every part of raising these rascals was fun. Just like Google told us, they learned how to “spray” soon after coming into our care, but it wasn’t what we expected. When skunks are little, they don’t have control over how much or when they spray. Though this may seem dangerous for those unfortunate souls that raise skunks, I am happy to tell you they don’t have the muscles to propel it at a target (us). Because of this, we lovingly called these farts. Even though they only weighed 150 g, they would still “stomp” their front paws to let us know they were ready to fart in our general direction if we stepped out of line. As they got older, their antics somehow got cuter. Finally, at five weeks old, we introduced bowls of solid foods soaked in their formula. Lupine was the first to take to this diet change and decided to hoover a whole blueberry into his mouth using both paws. The other two quickly figured out that there are better foods than Esbilac, and we slowly worked towards weaning the group. Skunks are naturally nocturnal, so every time we fed them, we watched as they unfurled from their cuddle puddle and waddled across the enclosure with squinty eyes. 

For some reason, Lupine continued to be much smaller than the other two skunks. He wasn’t quite meeting his weight targets, and his siblings were big enough that they were starting to exclude him from the food bowl. We decided that Lupine needed special attention to help him catch up to the others; we bottle-fed him for an extra two weeks. His siblings disapproved of this favoritism and would often climb their little brother to try and get to the bottle. Eventually, we learned that taking him out of the enclosure was easier to avoid this adorable form of bullying. Finally, Lupine caught up, and everyone was on solid foods! The teenage stage is my favorite part of rehab because it means moving out into their outdoor enclosures and starting enrichment. We filled a large kiddie pool with play sand, stuffed a massive cardboard tunnel with pillows, and dispersed cinder blocks for hiding food. Watching them run and wrestle in their two-story enclosure was so heartwarming. Our palm-sized fart squirrels had grown into juvenile skunks! Capable of digging for mealworms, making dens in their tunnel, and scavenging for whole prey that we stashed in various puzzle toys. These three were quickly nearing release day, and we were trying to prepare ourselves for the goodbye.

Once we weaned all of our orphans, things got quieter around the sanctuary. We went from bottle feeding 20+ reluctant mouths fourteen hours a day (plus overnight feedings) to dishing out meals like a well-oiled machine and working on projects around the property between feedings. Things were still busy, but they were far less chaotic, and I was back down to only two caffeinated beverages a day. As we settled into our new routine, the work phone had to ring. A caring citizen in McCall reported a juvenile skunk in their yard that was “behaving abnormally.” Alex and Allison could take on almost anything at this point in the summer, so I sent them a have-a-heart trap and kennel to check out the situation. Sure enough, they came home with our fourth skunk an hour later. During our initial assessment, we recognized that there was something seriously wrong. The poor little girl was having uncontrollable seizures and drooling heavily. I contacted our wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Drew, to explain the skunk’s symptoms, and he agreed poison was most likely the culprit. This patient required intensive care for her first three days; subcutaneous fluids multiple times a day, oral drugs, and intramuscular injections of steroids. All these things helped flush the toxins out of her little body and allowed the standard function to continue during these seizures. Unfortunately, during those three days, we received two more skunks and a fox from the same neighborhood, all of which had the same symptoms. So much for us having free time to work on projects between feedings. 

As our three new skunks started to feel better, they became feistier. Handling them to administer fluids and steroids kept getting harder. Being poked with multiple needles a day wasn’t fun for anyone; it didn’t help that we couldn’t explain it was for their own good. Sure enough, we got sprayed while handling our first arrival to administer her last round of fluids. We had managed to avoid this certainty for so long that it took us all by surprise. The three skunks we raised gave us so much warning with their stomps and vocalizations that we rarely got even close to getting sprayed by them. They were also perfectly healthy by the time they were old enough to direct their spray, so we had no reason to handle them. But these skunks were mad that they were being dealt with every day and took it out on us as soon as they felt better. Each of us got sprayed that first week. Even after we stopped having to give them injections, cleaning their enclosure became hazardous. Because I am the manager of this establishment, I had to get sprayed the most. Going to May Hardware to buy skunk shampoo in the pet aisle was not my finest moment. My skin, clothes, and, even worse, my hair reeked for three weeks. Though getting sprayed wasn’t a pleasant experience, it meant that we had successfully rehabbed three intensive-care patients.

Our hard work paid off in September as we slowly said goodbye to each group of orphans we raised over the summer. We decided to keep each skunk family together when it came time to return them to the wild. After multiple weeks of scavenging on their own and practicing their self-defense tactics, we decided all six of our striped friends were ready for release. We crated them up, managed to get Kelly up a long bumpy road, and hiked them into a meadow I had scouted out a few weeks prior. The environment in this area was perfect for them. It had very little human disturbance, a large rodent and insect population, a creek meandering through it, and soft ground for them to excavate a den for winter. When it came time to open the kennel, I was confident they had everything they needed to thrive. We stayed and watched their round little bodies meander through the grass. Their noses immediately drove them, sniffing inside every hole they found in the earth, clawing around for their first hard-earned meal. We spotted three bottlebrush tails sticking up between the reeds as they started to disappear near the horizon. I took a beat to revel at that moment, blinked away a tear before anyone could notice, and turned to start the hike back to the truck. After all, I still had mouths to feed back at the sanctuary.

Like most of our intakes, all six of these skunks came to us because of a human-wildlife conflict. A vehicle strike most likely orphaned our first three. Though everyone in this area would benefit from driving slower, I understand that vehicle strikes happen. I am grateful that someone noticed the three tiny striped puff balls meandering aimlessly and thought to contact their local wildlife rehabilitator. The second batch of skunks came into our care due to a lack of foresight. Both wild and domestic animals can consume rodenticides with lethal consequences. Even if only mice or voles eat the poison, it takes weeks for those rodents to die. In the meantime, they are slow-moving targets for predatory species. Rodenticide can inadvertently move up the food chain from a mouse to a raptor, coyote, fox, or raven. There are many other, much more environmentally friendly, rodent removal options. Snap and electronic traps are just as effective and have far less collateral damage. 

As a wildlife rehabilitator, I see the consequences of human-wildlife conflicts daily. Though these things are challenging to see, I must remain level-headed and focus on the things I can change. I know I can’t save every animal that comes through our doors, but I don’t accept that all these conflicts are inevitable. The best way to keep animals out of my clinic is through education. Simple conversations save animals’ lives, whether at a presentation at Ponderosa, a fundraiser at Broken Horn, a first-grade classroom, or while I pick up an animal. The number one thing I have to teach people in Valley County is that we share this area with wildlife. Everything you do affects the ecosystem around you; that effect doesn’t always have to be negative! Taking your bird feeders down in the summer can prevent a bear from becoming habituated and save its life. Putting clings from the dollar store on your windows can prevent window strikes by songbirds trying to migrate in the spring and fall. Picking up after your pet in town keeps foxes from contracting mange. Keeping your cat inside protects vulnerable prey species that have not adapted to have domesticated killers in their environment. So let’s focus on what we can do for the wildlife we cohabitate with in Valley County. In the meantime, you know who to call the next time you find an animal in need. 

A Love letter to Merlin

A Love Letter to Merlin

In case you haven’t run into me at a coffee shop or brewery in McCall yet, my name is Sierra and I’m the new facility manager at Snowdon. Previous to this job, I was a condor biologist based near the Grand Canyon. It took five years of moving every six months from internship to wildlife technician job to gain enough experience that I could convince The Peregrine Fund to offer me that permanent position. I loved every minute of chasing condors through the desert, but I knew after a year and a half, it was time for me to continue with my career and find an opportunity that would provide me with a fresh set of challenges. Coming into this experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a daunting managerial position. As the only full-time, year-round employee at the organization, you have to be prepared for long hours, constant phone calls, crazy animal rescues, and a surprising amount of computer work. On top of the responsibilities of running a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation and outreach center, you also have the added complications that come with functioning 100% off the grid. With all of this in mind, I knew I was about to learn how to tackle more than a few new obstacles. Mary, our previous manager who worked here for four years, left some big shoes to fill when she headed off to Alaska. 

 

Though I have worked with raptors (hawks, eagles, vultures, owls…) for over three years now, this is my first time caring for individuals that permanently live in captivity. These animals are called “ambassadors” and help wildlife outreach centers teach the public about nature and, hopefully, improve the way that society interacts with it. Ambassadors are generally animals that have been deemed non-releasable and have a calm enough disposition that they can be trained to be around people. Having a live animal at an event is a great way to get people’s attention and will generally drive home your message about conservation better than a pelt or skull ever could. Take it from a person that has worked for nonprofits for five years, this is a wildly effective way to get the public interested in your cause. 

 

Here at Snowdon, we have two ambassador birds; Indy the peregrine falcon and Merlin the great horned owl. When I first arrived here in February, both birds had only been to a handful of presentations since the beginning of the pandemic, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. Not only did I need to learn how to care for and handle captive raptors, but I also needed to accomplish this task with two birds that had grown used to their reclusive lifestyles. I started this journey by shadowing a friend of mine at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. Kelsey is a raptor specialist at the center and has done incredible things for their training program. I am so grateful that I met her when she came down and visited our condor crew in Arizona because she is an absolute wealth of knowledge. Thanks to her, I learned the basics of how to get a bird on my glove and the more complicated aspects of keeping a wild animal happy and healthy in a captive setting. She sent me home with a stack of journal articles and some helpful advice on how to win a bird over.

 

Before meeting up with Kelsey in Boise, I tried to get Merlin on the glove once on my own. I have seen people give presentations with raptors and figured it should be easy enough. I could not have been more wrong. Merlin is a stoic and incredibly confident gentleman. He makes it clear when he wants you out of his space and is not one to be submissive. This makes him a great ambassador because he is not in the least bit afraid of people. He knows that he’s the boss and that he can leave any situation whenever he pleases. With that being said, these traits don’t make him the most trainable bird for a beginner. Armed with the knowledge that Kelsey was nice enough to pass along to me, and a bit of new confidence after handling one of their birds, I decided that I needed a new approach to our cranky old man. Based on what I had read, a bird is unlikely to work with you if they are 1) overweight or 2) unhealthy. I called our wildlife vet to come out and give our birds their annual check-up. Thankfully, Merlin was in great health except for the fact that he was 0.5 kg overweight! Like many of us during quarantine, he had gained a few inches around the waistline without anyone noticing. I finally found the first step in his new training regime, put that boy on a diet. 

 

Step two proved to be a test of patience. Merlin tends to hiss and strike at you when you try to get close to him. I hoped that if I showed him I was not a threat to his safety he might learn to be calmer around me. I started hanging out in the corner of his enclosure for ten-minute increments throughout the day and would only leave when he was completely calm. You train most animals using positive reinforcement by providing food when they display your target behavior. I couldn’t get within 5 ft of Merlin so I realized I could use my exit as his positive reinforcer when he stopped displaying aggressive behaviors. Slowly but surely I was able to move closer to his perch without him striking or hissing. It took weeks of hanging out with him to attempt touching his jesses (leather straps that hang from his ankles) without active aggression on his part. I would reach out and hold his jesses and let him strike at my glove for as long as he liked, but would only move away once he calmed down. He began to learn that biting was not going to get him where he wanted to go and displayed calm behaviors quicker and quicker. 

 

Though progress was slow, he and I continued to move in the right direction. I was grateful that I seemed to be earning Merlin’s trust through my own brut stubbornness and determination. After about a month of this style of training, I decided to ask him to step onto the glove again. As always, he initially protested with a few hisses and snaps, but after a few seconds, he calmed down enough that I could grab his jesses and put my gloved hand behind his deadly sharp talons. Sure enough, he stepped right up. I was floored. There was no way that my training worked! I looked at him a foot from my face and he locked eyes with me, letting out a small hiss. In my excitement, I had forgotten that ambush predators don’t appreciate eye contact. I quickly looked down and tried to decide what I should do next. To be honest, I hadn’t come up with the next step in case this worked. I decided to take him on a short walk around the property and see how he reacted. He stayed incredibly calm and took in his surroundings. This was his first time out of his enclosure in months. Merlin watched the songbirds flitting between the trees, the turkey vulture soaring in the thermals above us, and the ground squirrels skittering between the bushes alongside the driveway. He seemed… happy? I decided I shouldn’t push my luck and made a loop back to his enclosure. Not only was I worried that I’d ruin a great training session, but also 4 lbs at the end of your arm are heavier than you might think and my bicep was starting to tremble. I walked back through the double door entry to his enclosure and stooped down to let him onto his training perch. He hopped right off and turned around to face me as I took my glove off. I thanked him for his time, leaving him to nap until dusk descended. 

 

Ever since that day, Merlin and I have strolled the property at least once a week, often taking a pit stop on the scale to check on his weight loss progress. I am happy to report that he is already halfway to his target weight and our working relationship continues to get better and better. He and I have already given 14 presentations in my four short months working for Snowdon. Our first appearance together was at Roots Forest School in Ponderosa State Park. The preschool students were so infatuated with him that I stood and answered questions for almost an hour. If you know anything about 4-year-olds, you realize how incredible it is that they were willing to sit still for that long. Education and outreach quickly became my favorite part of being the facility manager. Watching kids interact with Merlin and teaching people about the animals that I have dedicated my career to protecting, is more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined. The questions that three to five-year-olds come up with are beyond anything that I could have thought to research ahead of time. I love igniting a passion and respect for wildlife in the next generation at such a formative age. Wildlife rehab is important because we are working to mitigate the negative effect that humans have on animals, but education can help change the way we interact with wildlife and decrease the number of animals that need rehab.

 

So this is my love letter to Merlin, the great-horned owl. I had no idea what I was getting into when I accepted this position and certainly didn’t think I’d spend hours a day waiting for an owl to stop biting me. At a recent presentation that Merlin and I gave, a woman asked me if Merlin “likes to receive affection?” Though I am certain Merlin could live the rest of his life happily without ever being pet, cuddled, or spoken to in a baby voice, I like to think that Merlin appreciates the kindness and respect that I treat him with. He and I will never be best friends per se, but we make one heck of a team. Thank you for all you do buddy.