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. 

Little Yoga bear

Little Yoga Bear

By Erin Rohlman


Ever since my husband Jeff and I moved to the McCall area in 1986, it seems we have been involved with helping Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary and its founder Linda DeEulis. Jeff is a retired Wildlife Biologist (Regional Manager) with Idaho Department of Fish & Game and is now on the Snowdon Board of Directors.  I am also retired, and having always been a huge wildlife advocate, I’ve been volunteering more for the sanctuary since Linda’s passing. Jeff and I also operate a satellite wildlife care facility at our home for Snowdon’s special needs cases.


So, when there was a 3-month gap between managers one year at Snowdon, we happily stepped in to manage the facility, along with help from other Board members and a trove of dedicated volunteers. It was in the fall of 2017 when we received a particularly distressing call from Jake – Jake had a bear cub in his house. It was snowing and a bitter cold November day, and we wondered how this man ended up with a bear cub in his house. The cub would be 9 months old at this point and surely far too big and feisty for someone to have in a house, so…. Hmmmm…. Jake said that he found the cub lying in the road near his house. He instinctively just scooped it up in a blanket and rushed it home. The cub didn’t put up any sort of fight. Over the phone, Jake said that the cub was small and appeared injured and, in fact, that its head was “oozing.” Jeff immediately contacted the Idaho Fish & Game Regional Manager to coordinate with her regarding this rescue need.


We soon arrived at Jake’s house in a particularly blinding snow swirl. Several friendly border collies appeared out of nowhere to greet us. They seemed to multiply out of the snow dust! But it was all tail wags and some puppy love, so all was good. Then Jake appeared and escorted us into the house. What I saw next was heartbreaking. A tiny bear cub, one of the smallest I’ve ever seen, was staggering around the kitchen area. Its back was hunched, and its face was so thin that it didn’t even look like a bear. In fact, Jake pulled up a cell phone image of a sloth bear from Asia and asked me if this is what the cub was! I said “No, this is a starving black bear cub. It is near death.” Then I had to choke back a few tears. Jake and his wife showed us how they had set up a crate with lots of warm blankets, food, water, and a tiny tether to keep the cub from crawling off. They had kept it overnight and fed it lots of bananas and apples, which it devoured each time something was offered. Just as I remarked that bears don’t usually like bananas, Jake peeled one and the cub grabbed it slowly and ate it. The couple and their two young children had taken care of this dying cub the previous evening, and by the time we saw it the following morning, the cub had regained enough energy to do a little hissing and chomping at the humans. This was a very good sign! The bad sign, however, was the infected head wound. It was oozing and nasty, looking like the cub had been attacked by a predator or perhaps hit by a car some time ago. I wasn’t hopeful that a bear cub at this level of starvation could survive an infection like that. Jeff managed to get the cub into our crate, and we thanked Jake and his family for saving this little female bear. The kids had named her Yogi but then changed it to Yoga when they saw it was female. Soon, we were off in our snowstorm for the drive to Snowdon to begin her rehabilitation.


As we approached the gate at the sanctuary, we intercepted the new winter caretaker on her way out. Her name was Erin, too, and I asked if she wanted to help us give medical attention to a starving bear cub. She turned her car around faster than I thought possible in deep snow! This was Erin’s second day at Snowdon, and it turned out to be the bear cub’s lucky day that we brought Erin back with us. It seems Erin had lots of wildlife rehabilitation experience, and, even better, she loved to dress infected wounds! Infections are not my favorite thing at all, and to tell the truth, I have been known to gag at the sight and smell of such things. Jeff is much more tolerant of dry heaving, so he usually deals with this part of life as we help our animal friends through such traumas. So, with this bear cub, Jeff sedated her and did a physical exam, Erin masterfully drained and dressed the head wound and injected subcutaneous fluids to counter the severe dehydration, while I played nurse, handing them supplies and taking notes. We put this tiny thing on the scale and had to recoil when it read just ten pounds. A nine-month-old cub that weighed ten pounds was simply heart-wrenching. The tiny body had not an ounce of fat on it. Yoga had been starving for quite some time, probably losing her mother back in June and fending for herself for the past five months. No one could believe she had survived this long. It is against all odds.


Yoga spent the next several days in a large crate inside the warm sanctuary clinic building. The outside temperatures were dipping below freezing, and we knew little Yoga didn’t have any body fat for insulation. We also knew it was time to transfer her to an outside pen when, after about five days inside, she showed a lot more normal bear cub aggression during feedings and cage cleanings. Before we let her go, though, we had to “decorate” her outdoor pen. I wanted it to have plenty of places for her to hide, so Erin and June, our Snowdon Board of Directors president, helped me cut and haul in some tree branches to place all around Yoga’s pen, weaving a few through the chain link fencing, and making lots of soft places to nest in. Jeff spent about an hour cub-proofing this pen, which had previously been used for a bobcat as well as many rounds of orphaned ducks and geese. Turns out it had a few holes in the fencing that this tiny cub could squeeze through, or worse, get injured from during any escape attempts. Jeff patched them all quickly and thoroughly. After that, the pen was Yoga’s little paradise for 6 weeks. She had a huge array of gourmet foods at her disposal…. savory designer dog food recently donated by our local pet store, lots of apples, greens, berries, honey, peanut butter, meat chunks of donated fish, beef, pork, venison, and whatever else anyone could give her to that might add fat to her tiny body. The plan was to move her into the one-acre forested pen with another orphaned cub as soon as she gained enough weight. Yoga needed strength to fend him off should the other male cub be aggressive around the food bowl.


Soon enough, it became hugely apparent that all our TLC paid off for Yoga. After six weeks, we decided it was time for her move in with the other cub. She needed to climb real trees and become a real bear, hopefully making fast friends with the other cub. Jeff sedated Yoga for one last health assessment and weight. The health check was amazing! First, she weighed a whopping 44 pounds. No way! – the scale must be off. We weighed her again to make sure it wasn’t off by 20 pounds or so. We had all guesstimated she weighed 24 pounds. But no, it was 44 pounds. When we spread her out to check her former head wound, the fat covering her body rippled like Jell-O at every touch. Even her head wound had completely healed. A nice patch of dark brown fur had covered every square millimeter of what had been an open wound. She was not even going to have a scar! I noticed that her undercoat of fur was coming in gray/brown rather than her normal light brown coat. It was really pretty, reminding me of a roan-colored horse, one of my favorite horse colors. I think perhaps the stress of starvation changed her coat color for this year, and maybe her future coats will return to brown. But I kind of hope not, since that roan color was just so darn cool. We finished Yoga’s exam and took her out to her new home for the next seven months. She eventually woke up from her sedation, staggered around a bit, ate an apple, and then finally made her way out the door and into the snow and trees of her new pen. I got a few cool photos of her climbing her first tree. Once we saw that she was back in control of her limbs and could climb like a pro, we left her to explore her new acre of forest and meet her new bear cub roommate.


Just a few days after her release into the large enclosure, Jeff noted that both sets of snowy bear cub tracks led into a winter den structure that we had stuffed with fresh hay. The two cubs had found each other and were now denning together in the shelter to pass the winter months! I teared up as I reflected that this was the best thing I could have hoped for. These cubs, who started off life in the worst possible way, were now happy, warm, well-fed, and on their way to resuming wild lives, now with a best buddy.


In early June, Jeff was able to catch the two cubs and release them into the wild, both in the same area. They were released about 5 hours apart because they were caught at different times in their sanctuary pen. However, Jeff was confident they would reunite soon using their incredible senses of smell. Hopefully they could explore their new wild habitat together for several months before natural instincts kicked in, sending them on separate journeys. This is, after all, the best we could possibly hope for with wild bears.

 Tiny bear cub found along road in November

Yoga’s belly fat after 6 weeks at Snowdon

Indy & I

Indi & I

 by Allison Burr, September 2, 2022

My name is Allison and I am the second intern here at Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary. I’ve always loved working with animals but quickly found that I wanted my focus to be on wildlife. The ecological, genetic, and physiological differences in species fascinate me and I’m always spouting out biological facts to anyone that will listen. Because of this, I originally pursued a career in wildlife veterinary science and started my undergraduate at Montana State University majoring in animal science and organismal biology. As I got closer to graduation, the amount of schooling and money required in this field made wildlife veterinary medicine an increasingly less appealing career choice. I began frantically searching for other wildlife fields that might interest me. Veterinary clinics, agricultural studies, and conservation work, all had their pros and cons, but none of them felt right. This summer, I decided to look into wildlife rehabilitation. Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary was at the top of the list with relative proximity to home and an expansive range of species treated, cared for, and released. 


I was fairly confident in my prior experience coming into this internship. Two years ago I spent a summer in Southern California, interning at the California Wolf Conservation Center. They were raising Mexican Grey Wolves for release into the southern US to boost wild population numbers, which were slowly recovering from near extinction. On the property, they had 5 packs of Mexican Grey Wolves and 2 packs of North American Grey Wolves. I loved working there and it developed a solid foundation for entering my internship here at Snowdon. One of the things it didn’t prepare me for was working with birds. Before I arrived at Snowdon 2 1/2 months ago,  I had never even held a bird, let alone cared for an injured one. I was very excited to have the opportunity to learn about and gain experience with birds. Now, just a few short months later, I have a new appreciation for birds, from the smallest passerine to a great Bald Eagle. 


If you’ve ever peeked into the fascinating world of raptors, you have most likely heard about the peregrine falcon. They’re relatively average in size, nowhere near the size of a condor or a vulture, but much larger than little Kestrels or smaller Owls. You wouldn’t expect this little creature, about the size of a Chihuahua, to be the fastest animal on earth. When peregrine falcons locate their prey, they angle their body towards the ground and go into a dive, known in bird nerd circles as a “stoop.” They can reach 200 mph during a stoop, and the fastest on record is 242 mph. To come out of this, their little bodies need to withstand up to 25 Gs of force, much higher than what you or I could handle before passing out. This free-fall dive begins around a kilometer up in the air and to keep the fast-moving air from flooding their nostrils mid-dive, they have a specialized bone structure in their nostril called a baffle. It acts as a levee to keep shockwaves of high-speed air from causing damage to their lungs. Engineers were inspired by this baffle, adding them to jet turbines to prevent the engine from “choking” on waves of air resistance. Peregrine falcons also have a particularly long keel; a bone ridge that protrudes off the sternum of all flighted birds. This length allows for additional muscle attachment and more powerful wingbeats, helping them pull out of that nose dive. Because of this, they can beat their wings up to 4 times per second. These amazing raptors are perfectly adapted for catching birds mid-flight.

Indy the peregrine falcon came to Snowdon after a nasty tangle with barbed wire in her first year of flight. She had broken her wing in a way that meant she’d never fly again. After surgery to amputate the end of her wing, she made a home for herself at Snowdon. She was trained as an ambassador and helped educate Valley county about all of the amazing wildlife we have here in Idaho. She picked up on training quickly, as many juvenile birds do when introduced to ambassador work. The older an animal is, the less likely they are to adapt to life in captivity. Indy served as one of Snowdon’s favorite ambassadors for many incredible years; going out to amphitheaters and classrooms to show off her killer adaptations. Once the pandemic started, Indy couldn’t go out to events, and like many of her human companions, she got very comfortable in her home. Indy didn’t see more than a handful of people while we were all quarantining. During this time she became thoroughly bonded to her few handlers and crowds became a source of anxiety. This year, with the echoes of Covid starting to die out, we began rebuilding our education and outreach program. With Indy’s newfound anxiety, we quickly realized that even though the world was ready to get back to normal, she would need some time before she was ready as well. 


When I arrived at Snowdon, our only animals were the two resident birds, four bears, and a baby squirrel. Very quickly, we were flooded with all kinds of babies. From squirrels to raccoons to deer to skunks, we were running around all day trying to keep everyone fed and warm. As the baby season started to slow down and we had a minute to take a breath, I began spending more time with Indy in her enclosure. We were attempting to get her more comfortable with us in her space by feeding her by hand. Initially, we would have to wait patiently while she worked up the courage to grab a piece of quail and fully consume it while we were present. As she began to acclimate to eating with us in the enclosure, we decided to use food to encourage her to get on and off a scale. This limited the stress of handling during a check-up and allowed us to keep a close eye on her weight while we tried this new training regime. She began growing accustomed to hopping on the scale to get her reward and seemed to learn that working with us meant food. Another source of anxiety for Indy was her hood. She had associated the hood with leaving her safe space, which caused her to have an aversion to the hood altogether. Our solution was to place the hood on a hook in her enclosure where she could always see it. This way, it was no longer associated with any additional activities. One day, while I was feeding Indy on her scale, I decided to pick her hood up off the hook and set it on the platform next to her. Over time, I moved it closer and closer, until it was so close she accidentally picked up the hood instead of her food! With each day, Indy became more accustomed to the hood being near her, held close to her, and moved around her enclosure. As she and I spent more time together during training sessions, Indy became accustomed to me as well. As of two weeks ago, she is much more willing to take food from my hand rather than wait until I place it on the ground. As someone who has never worked with a bird before, I was fascinated by watching the gears turn in her head. I never thought I would learn to read a raptor’s body language, but here I was, predicting her behaviors before she acted on them. After desensitizing her to the hood, I moved back to focusing on her scale. I needed an end goal, and getting her ready for the public again was a long way off. I decided getting her comfortable leaving her enclosure was a solid milestone. To do that, she would need to stand still in a specific spot so we could put her hood on. The scale would work perfectly for this. Indy was confused at first about why I refused to give her food, no matter how close to me or to the hood she got. She tried everything, and no matter how much I tapped the scale, she failed to understand what I was asking. Finally, she landed on the scale in a wild attempt to get to the quail I had in a Tupperware container. She knew the scale was where she usually got food, but this was our first time combining the scale cue and the hood. As soon as her feet touched the carpet, I held her treat through the hood and she grabbed it without hesitation. It didn’t take many more attempts until she had it down. She quickly learned what she needed to accomplish to get positive reinforcement. I had no idea that training a wild-born raptor would closely mirror training a domestic pet.


During my last two weeks at Snowdon, I hope to get Indy comfortable standing on the scale while I place the hood on her. I know this is a high goal, but with the progress she’s made recently, I have high hopes. As my internship comes to an end and the next season arrives, I hope that Indy continues to advance in her training. Maybe one day she’ll be confident enough to give the newest residents of Valley county a chance to meet her and learn why she is my favorite ambassador.

A Mother Knows Best

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!



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.