Fox in the Hole

Recently I went on one of the most unusual animal rescues that I have ever undertaken. I received a call from AWARE (the wildlife center where I have volunteered for almost five years) asking if I could help a fox that was trapped in an abandoned General Motors factory slated for demolition. I was given the phone number of the police officer who reported the fox so that I could contact him to get the location details. When I called the officer, he told me I’d better wear some sturdy, waterproof boots.

When I arrived on the scene (by way of a Walmart to buy appropriate footwear), I was met by the two demolition workers who had discovered the fox and the policeman who had contacted AWARE. The officer led the way in his patrol car as I followed in my car into the massive, dark old factory. Surrounded by concrete, with virtually no light other than the beams from our headlights, the scene was definitely bleak. Although the scene had been described to me on the phone, I was stunned to see the predicament of this poor fox. The hapless creature had fallen into a large, deep pit that was filled with watery hydraulic fluid 5-6 inches deep. Finding no way to get out, he had sought refuge on the only high ground he could find, a dumpster full of scrap metal. I could just barely make out his silhouette in the dim light. Although the pit was accessible by a narrow metal staircase, the fox apparently had not been able to find it; probably he was too frightened and disoriented by the dark, watery gloom. Sadly, he had been trapped there for at least a couple of days–the efforts of the three men to entice him with cat food to a live trap on the staircase being unsuccessful. Moments later, the two demolition workers arrived with spotlights to illuminate the area where the fox was trapped, and the fox burrowed into the heap of scrap, leaving just the tip of his tail showing.

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The fox was stranded in the dumpster below, surrounded by watery hydraulic fluid 5-6 inches deep.

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My photos (taken with my phone) are admittedly poor, but I didn’t want to waste time on taking good photos. I was more concerned with rescuing this poor fox. His tail can just barely be seen at the back of the dumpster.

I must confess, even being escorted by a police officer, as I descended the dark stairs into the pit, I had a fleeting thought of being trapped, abandoned, or hurt in that gloomy place. When I stepped out onto the floor of the pit, I turned back to the officer saying, “Don’t leave me here.” But my fears soon disappeared, replaced with a sense of urgency and determination to help the stranded animal.  As I began wading toward the dumpster, I was unsure of how I was going to pull a fox buried under heavy scrap metal out of it. (Thank goodness the fox couldn’t bury himself completely under the heap, or I don’t know how I would have ever been able to help him.) Although I could look just barely look over the top of the dumpster, there was no way I was going to have the leverage to get the fox out. At this point, the officer noticed a folding chair against the opposite wall and waded in (in his non-waterproof boots) to bring it to me. I propped the chair against the side of the dumpster and peered over. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to get a good grip on the fox with the glove I had brought, I set it aside and reached in and grabbed the base of the tail and pulled. (I do have my rabies shots, as well as a lot of experience handling wildlife.) As soon as I could see the nape, I scruffed the animal and pulled him free of the dumpster—a poor grey fox. I think the three men were pretty shocked that I was handling this fox with my bare hands, but truth be told, he was so weak and scared–maybe on some level relieved–that he didn’t put up any fight. I carried him up the stairs and loaded him into the kennel I had brought with me, placing food and water inside.  Soon we were on our way to AWARE so the fox could be examined and receive care.

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Safe at last!

Once at AWARE, Tammi, one of AWARE’s Wildlife Care Supervisors, examined the fox for injuries, and another volunteer gave him fluids while I held him on the exam table. He perked up and squirmed a bit once the fluids were in him, but never once did he growl or attempt to bite. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking of his ordeal. We set him up on soft towels with food and water in his kennel and, being almost 9:00 PM by this time, left him to rest for the night. He reeked of hydraulic fluid, but a bath would have to wait.

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AWARE’s Wildlife Care Supervisor Marjan and volunteer Pru give the fox a bath to remove the hydraulic fluid. According to Marjan, he was the best fox patient ever!

The next day, I called to check on “my” fox and was told that he would be ready for release that very evening.  He had been bathed—and had been a model patient—and seemed to have his strength back. Because he was not eating, however, the staff thought that returning him to his territory as soon as possible would be best. I wanted to be the one to release him, so I made arrangements to pick him up. As much as I wanted to take him to a large wooded property away from the factory, I agreed with the staff that he should return to the same area where he was found. Relocated animals have a very slim chance of survival–less than 5% by some estimates. In a new and unfamiliar area, they don’t know the local food and water sources or places to find shelter, and they have to compete with other animals who have already claimed the territory. So, at dark, I drove back to the factory. Finding a wooded area at the back along some train tracks, which I figured the fox would recognize as a landmark, I set the kennel down and opened the door. Often, animals that we release take several minutes to leave, but not this fox. Within a minute, he shot out of the kennel and ran full speed toward the tracks. When he got about 100 feet away, he stopped and looked back straight at me for a few seconds before trotting off into the night. I’m probably anthropomorphizing, but I would swear this fox was taking a moment to acknowledge me and say thanks for the help. I left his dinner nearby; then feeling both elated and sad at the same time, I drove home. I hated to say goodbye to this beautiful, gentle creature. I hope he stays out of harm’s way and lives to raise many young.

Nutty for Squirrels

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Do you have a nut for me?

Squirrels tend to drive some people nuts, but I’m nutty about them. Excuse the bad pun, but as a wildlife rehabilitator, I often get teased by friends who complain about these “furry rodents” that raid bird feeders and gardens and occasionally cause even more trouble for homeowners. I paid very little attention to squirrels myself until I started volunteering (at AWARE Wildlife Center) to help care for animals who have been injured or orphaned. Highly adapted to human environments, squirrels often get in harm’s way. Perhaps the saddest cases are animals who have been kidnapped and kept for a while (because they would make “cute pets”) and are later surrendered to us when the animal develops health problems or becomes too much to handle. Sometimes, a whole nest of squirrels arrives after their home is destroyed by tree pruning, while other times people bring us youngsters that have fallen from the nest and gotten left behind or have been caught by a pet. (Cat bites, especially, can be fatal to wildlife). Once in a while, we get a squirrel that has been dropped by a hawk, and one time a squirrel actually was brought in with its attacker after the squirrel’s “posse” attacked the hawk on the ground). Whenever possible, we advise people to attempt to re-nest babies — if not in the original nest, then in a homemade nest placed as close to the original nest as possible. You might be surprised to learn that baby squirrels can squall quite loudly when they are hurt or need attention, so their mother will find them. When the re-nesting fails, the squirrels usually end up in our care.

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AWARE takes in hundreds of baby squirrels every year.

Raising a baby squirrel is pretty involved. Like all baby mammals, squirrels have special nutrition requirements, and they need to be bottle-fed in a way that prevents them from aspirating (taking fluid into their lungs). When they are very young, they require feedings every 2-4 hours throughout the day, much like a human baby! After feedings, they must be stimulated to go to the bathroom, which their mother would do in the wild by licking them (and we do with a warm, wet Q-tip!). Because infant mammals can’t thermo-regulate, they also need to be kept warm until they are fully furred. I’ll spare you too many details, but needless to say, the task of rehabilitating any mammal requires commitment, patience, and a willingness to do unpleasant, dirty jobs. The hardest part of raising any animal, though, is not letting oneself get too attached. In order to live the best life, wild animals need to stay wild.

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It’s hard not to feel compassion for such a helpless creature.

Having raised tiny, furless squirrels until the time of their release, I have a different perspective on these animals than most people. It’s hard not to feel genuine compassion for a small, helpless creature fighting for life, and as you begin to care for individual animals, you begin to care for the species as a whole. Curious and intelligent, squirrels constantly amuse and delight me with their antics and cute expressions. They’re remarkable acrobats, too! Sleepy, snuggly, and tame during their first months of life, they soon become the busy, chattering, frenetic animals we see out our window, playing their vital part in the ecosystem by spreading seeds and providing food for other animals. If we pay attention, though, we may catch one stretched out in repose on a warm summer’s day or one tightly balled up in its tail against the winter’s chill.

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Taking a break…

Watching squirrels I have raised from infancy step out into the big, wild world a few months later to live out their lives is always thrilling and joyful. Some of “my” babies remember me and continue to visit my porch from time to time. If I have treats to offer, they’ll come right up to say hello, but if no nuts are forthcoming, they continue on their way caring nothing for me, as it should be. I’m glad just to see them scrambling through the trees, eating my acorns, and being squirrels. If they steal a tomato and raid my bird feeder from time to time, so be it. These things are small compared to the delight they bring.

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First taste of freedom…