Back to the Wild

Much of the work involved in wildlife rehabilitation isn’t interesting or glamorous. Actually, a lot of it is downright gross. I learned that fact my first week as a volunteer at AWARE wildlife center when my trainer Tammi asked me to cut up a dead rat for an injured vulture, testing my mettle for dirty work from day one. Cleaning soiled enclosures, washing dirty dishes, processing filthy laundry, and other unseemly tasks make up most of the work — essential, but hardly pleasant. Feeding baby animals is gratifying, but it, too, can feel like work when trying to keep up with the demands of numerous animals requiring multiple feedings a day. But rehabilitation has numerous rewards, too. One of the greatest rewards is watching an animal return to the wild, especially when you have been closely involved in its care. I’ve had the privilege of releasing several animals back to the wild, including opossums, raccoons, turtles, geese, songbirds, and hawks, as well as squirrels I have raised (see my post Nutty for Squirrels). Each of these releases was memorable, but perhaps none more so than the long-awaited release of three young coyotes last week at dusk.

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Coyote brothers on the day of their release.
photo credit: Linda Potter

The three orphaned male coyote pups from two different litters were brought to AWARE last spring after their parents had been trapped and killed, a far too frequent occurrence. Understandably, some trappers have a harder time killing defenseless pups, so they occasionally end up in our care (such scruples from people who have been paid to kill the adults, but leave the orphans to be raised at AWARE’s expense!). Because I have been vaccinated against rabies as a precautionary measure, I was one of a few volunteers who regularly fed and cleaned up after the three pups. Every Tuesday for seven months, I delivered their food and cleaned their enclosure (which became increasingly foul as they grew older!), so I witnessed their growth up-close.

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So tiny when they were brought to AWARE as orphans!
photo credit: ajiiiphotography.com

Watching the pups grow from tiny, clumsy, defenseless balls of fur into sleek, wary, and powerful predators was an incredible experience. When the pups were small, I had to fight the impulse to shower them with affection, so I hated having to clap and stomp to scare them back when they occasionally became bold or inquisitive as I delivered their food. (Coyotes that approach humans too closely usually don’t come to a good end, so good rehabilitators are committed to reinforcing their natural fear of humans.) Within a few weeks, the pups’ instinctive wariness of people overrode their curiosity. Even though I’d never done anything more than clap, they were terrified each time I approached to feed and clean, hiding or pacing frantically at the far end of their enclosure. My heart broke to see them, but I knew this fear was necessary. As the coyotes grew, seeing them living a caged life became increasingly difficult. Although AWARE’s enclosures give the animals plenty of room to climb and move around, coyotes need to run free. Until they were full-grown and able to find food, catch prey, and defend themselves, however, releasing them would have been a death sentence. Still, even though they are now full-grown, these youngsters have been forced to strike out on their own at a much younger age than their parents would have required in the wild.

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Instinctively wary of humans, the pups tried to hide whenever I approached their enclosure, even after they’d outgrown their favorite hiding place.

??????????????????????????????? DSCN7753 ???????????????????????????????       When release day arrived, Tammi and I corralled the coyotes into a kennel, wrestling one frightened kid out from a corner, and then loaded them into the back of my minivan. (Never thought I’d count coyote wrangling among my skills!) My good friend and fellow volunteer Kelly joined me on a two hour ride to north Georgia where we had permission to release the small family on private land safe from hunters, cities, and busy roads. When we arrived, we parked near a wooded area and waited a short time for dusk to fall in order to give the coyotes the best chance to explore their surroundings without danger from humans. When the moment seemed right, we lowered the kennel to the ground and opened the door. The coyotes crowded to the back of the cage. Everything must have seemed so strange to them! After a few minutes, I stepped up to the cage and gave it a gentle shake. One coyote dashed out like a shot and was out of sight in the blink of an eye. Twice more I had to shake the cage before the remaining two coyotes were compelled to leave, but once they stepped out, their legs carried them full speed ahead until the fading light obscured them from our view. How fascinating to imagine all the new experiences and adventures they had on that first night of freedom! Did they seek each other out with yips and howls as night fell, or did they venture off in their own directions? What animal did they catch for their first meal? We’ll never know their fate, but we equipped them for the wild the best we could by helping them learn to recognize food sources, catch prey, and avoid humans. We wish them long, healthy lives.

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Ready for release — good luck, boys!

Note: Like a lot of wildlife, coyotes (and foxes) generally aren’t welcome near human development, where they are frequently trapped and destroyed. Relocating these animals (without rehabilitation permits) is against the law in Georgia, and in most states, I suspect. In addition, in many states they can be hunted without restriction at any time of year, and the federal government contributes to the slaughter of tens of thousands of coyotes each year. Efforts to control their numbers have actually only served to increase their population and expand their range, which was once limited to the western United States. Sadly, these animals are grossly misunderstood. Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes provide important environmental benefits. Though urban sightings are becoming more common as wild habitats are destroyed, coyotes are naturally afraid of humans and rarely approach within thirty feet. With a few precautions, they pose little danger to people and their pets. For more information on these amazing creatures, please check out http://www.coyoteyipps.com

http://www.coyotecoexistence.com

To learn more about AWARE or to make a tax-deductible donation to help wildlife, visit http://www.awarewildlife.org.

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11 thoughts on “Back to the Wild

  1. Don’t know how you do it!! We always kept every animal when found when I was growing up in Point “O” Woods. Snakes, turtles, etc. That was in addition to a ferret, rabbit, 2 or 3 dogs a cat, and of course a fish here and there. Having just one bird was some much easier, but it was always hard letting them go!! Keep up the great cause!!

  2. Thank you for sharing a link to your post on Tucker Town Talk. I hear a family/pack of what neighbors say are coyotes, howling in my heavily wooded backyard almost every night. Can you explain how killing them increases the population? I don’t doubt the claim, I just don’t understand it. Thank you!

    • Thank you for taking the time to check out the post, Matthew! Happy to answer your question and glad you were curious to ask! There are a number of reasons destroying coyotes doesn’t work. One reason is that killing them leaves a hole in an ecosystem – coyotes from surrounding aeas now have more territory and prey available, so they can have larger, healthier litters with higher survival rates. Additionally, if an alpha pair is killed, other females in the area will seize the opportunity to breed since only the alpha pair in a territory is “allowed” to reproduce. So, having a healthy family group in your area will keep other coyotes out and the population in check. If you’re interested to learn more about their fascinating natural history (our persecution of them has made them smarter) and our country’s persecution of them, check out this link to an article I wrote for AWARE, “America vs. the Coyote:”
      http://www.awareone.org/images/Newsletters/2013%20spring%20newsletter.pdf. Thanks again.

    • Thanks, Christy. I’ve only seen one once in the wild (though people apparently spot them frequently in my metro-atlanta suburban town), and I’m always delighted to know other people who experience a thrill in seeing them. Watching the “pups” from AWARE run off was a huge thrill.
      They don’t eat pets as often as you’d think. Free-roaming cats, particularly, go missing for all sorts of reasons unrelated to coyotes, and most encounters can be avoided with a few precautions. 🙂

  3. Pingback: You Might Be a Wildlife Rehabilitator If… | My Eco-centric Life

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