by Stan Polinsky
This is the story of one persons travels from rat race to slow pace and how wildlife influenced and aided in that positive transition. Part I tells the story of how we got interested in wildlife and our introduction to wildlife rehabilitation/rescue. Part II tells how I got out of the rat race and ended up purchasing a 217-acre former horse ranch that we are developing as a private wildlife/nature preserve.
Many animal friends helped me along the way, particularly raccoon buddies: Mo, Larry, Curly, Fred, Ethel, and Arnold; and human buddies: Erika and Adrian. They all provided encouragement, helped me learn to stop and smell the roses, and certainly entertained. I am very fortunate to have met them all and to have been able to do the things many people only dream about.
Part I: The Wildlife Seed is Planted
Like many people living in a large metropolitan area rat race, I was getting disenchanted with my professional and personal life. After twenty-five years in Washington, DC I was getting burned out. I decided I needed some tranquility and purchased a house with a stream on 3+ wooded acres in Fairfax County, Virginia. Although not exactly country living, it was the closest my wife and I could come considering I worked in downtown Washington most of the time and did not want a long commute adding to my already frazzled lifestyle.
As our environment greatly influences our behavior/interests, we soon found ourselves buying nature books on native plants and animals. We started walking the property with our guides trying to identify what we had. One unexpected, but very pleasant by-product of our property was the amount of wildlife we had traveling through. We lived close to a park and unlike most of the neighbors who had expansive lawns, our property was all wooded with the woods coming right up to the house. This provided a natural setting to observe wildlife compared to the barren, open areas all around me. To my surprise we had numerous deer, raccoons, foxes, possums, and lots of frogs/toads. We even had American Eels and Northern Water Snakes in the stream, things I had never seen up close, in real life before and certainly never on any property I had owned before. I was getting hooked on the natural world.
Over time, we placed bird feeders, feeding stations, and a small pond all around the house. We were amazed at the number and variety of wildlife attracted to our property. We had numerous deer come within 20 feet of the house to feed on deer chow and had raccoons, possums, flying squirrels, and red fox visiting our feeders on a regular basis. Friends came over for dinner and instead of watching a movie afterwards, we turned out the lights and did animal watch. Our feeding stations were within 20 feet of the house and within range of our outdoor floodlights. We set up chairs in the kitchen next to the patio doors and marveled at the parade of animals that came to feed. We often had raccoons, possums, and foxes come around at the same time. It was interesting to watch their interaction and that of our guests. I expect the animals would have had as much fun observing us as we did them.
All this wild activity soon led us to acquire more than just a passing interest, as we realized how much we enjoyed it and how much it enriched our lives. We started taking nature/wildlife courses offered by the County and soon joined the local Wildlife Rescue League to learn and do more. We were amazed at all these crazy people who transported, repaired, and repatriated injured and orphaned native wildlife. Many people did this while holding full time jobs. These wildlife rehabilitators infected us with their enthusiasm and heartwarming stories.
We decided to join the League to help where we could and as a relief from the stresses of every day life in the big city. We attended meetings and soon volunteered to help transport wildlife. One of our more interesting transports was a call from the Leagues hotline to pick up a turtle at the animal shelter and take it to a reptile rehabilitator. Like good volunteers, we dutifully gathered up our plastic container, towels, gloves, et cetera and headed over to the shelter. When we arrived and said we are here to pick up the turtle and handed them the container to put it in for transport, they laughed. They said follow us to the back. To our surprise there were 32 turtles of varying size in a large tub filled with water. No way would they all fit in our container and no way could we load the tub filled with water and turtles into our car. A little creativity resulted in us loading the turtles into a large cardboard box filled with wet newspapers. Good thing we didnt have far to drive and good thing turtles dont mind sitting on top of each other. We learned that the turtles had been confiscated from a pet store for mistreatment and could not be released as they were not native to the area. I hope there are 32 turtles in good homes right now.
HowWould You Like to Become a Wildlife Rehabilitator?
After about a year of Rescue League membership/animal transporting, I met a wonderful lady who suggested that my wife and I should become licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Although very interested, we questioned whether that would be possible with full time jobs. She suggested a visit to her home, discussion of what would be required/expected, and of course a more personal and close-up introduction to the animals she would like us to work with. See picture holding our very first baby raccoon. How could we say no!
This was the beginning of our adventure with Erika Yery and her wild bunch of raccoons. With Erikas encouragement and willingness to work with us neophytes we stepped off the ledge. Over time we met another raccoon aficionado named Adrian Roberts who also provided tremendous support. As a retired attorney, Adrian provided free legal services any time a raccoon needed it, particularly after raiding local garbage cans.
The process of becoming a wildlife rehabilitator in the state of Virginia is an arduous one. Virginia has rather stringent laws and regulations regarding the acquisition, care, and releasing of native wildlife. In order to become licensed, we had to be sponsored, complete the proverbial government forms, pass a home/personal inspection, work under a two-year apprentice program, and take continuing education credits each year. As if filling out government forms was not torture enough, we had to take a series of pre-exposure rabies shots as we would be handling rabies-vector species.
Along the way, we began working with Erika on a regular basis. We attended classes and helped Erika with small items while learning the basics. One skill I had already that proved very useful, was my carpentry skills. This was about the only thing I had over Erika, for how can you compete with someone who can care for 30 raccoons at one time and still finds time to take in the unexpected critter that comes out of nowhere. She was amazing and I knew I was learning from the best.
In preparation for the day when we would get animals of our own to care for, we started buying supplies/equipment and building cages. I built several nest boxes, a small indoor cage (2x2x4), that could also serve as a transport cage, and an outdoor cage (8x8x16) custom made for raccoons that could be disassembled and reassembled easily if needed. This cage now resides at Erikas refuge. We placed the outdoor cage next to the living room window where we could keep an eye on things both for pleasure viewing and to make it easier to monitor health/behavior on a continuing basis.
Finally we got a call from Erika to pick up three baby raccoons to care for on our own. They were healthy, siblings, and just needed basic care until they could be released in about six months or so. We were ready! They were cute as the dickens and very friendly. Although you are not supposed to do it to help avoid getting too attached, we named them Mo, Larry, and Curly after the Three Stooges. The name fit as they were very funny to watch.
Over the next few months we ended up with three more young raccoons. Two were siblings (named Fred and Ethel) taken from a construction worker who took them from their mother for pets and the last one was a timid, small orphaned raccoon found by a gentleman who tried to care for it himself. He eventually heard about our organization and did the right thing by bringing it to us. He had named the raccoon Arnold not realizing it was a girl. We kept the name because it fit so well.
So far so good. All were healthy and, except for Arnold being very timid, everyone got along pretty well. We made sure Arnold got enough food by giving her a separate bowl away from the other, more aggressive neighbors.
Although time consuming (see 4:00am bottle time picture before getting ready for work), we thoroughly enjoyed what we were doing. We looked forward to coming home after work to feed, clean, and romp with them. We would sit in the outdoor cage with them and watch them jump in and out of their mini pool. One of their favorite tricks was to jump from their perch (see outdoor cage picture; by the way, the rope ladder was a cage warming gift from Adrian) on to our backs while we were cleaning the cage floor. They would wait until we were bent over to pick something up and then they would attack. We had our ears nibbled and shirt collars pulled many, many times. Of course it didnt help that I hid peanuts in my shirt pockets for them to discover.
The Fun Ends!
Things were going well and we thought this rehabbing stuff was pretty tame. Feed, clean, play, grow, and repeat until ready for release. Boy were we naïve!
One evening when we returned from work and started our raccy ritual, we found Mo dead with no apparent cause. We immediately called Erika, who rushed over right away. Nothing obvious was found and the other guys seemed to be ok. We kept a closer watch for anything unusual, but a few days later we found Curly lying on the cage floor barely alive. We quickly took him inside out of the heat and started administering fluids as he was very dehydrated. Unfortunately, Curly passed away in our arms while we were trying to contact Erika. We were devastated. We lost two of our guys in a matter of days and had no idea what was causing their sudden illness. If the illness was transmittable, it was likely the remaining animals had it too.
Fortunately, Erika came to the rescue. She found out other rehabbers were having similar problems and the illness was likely Parvo. With the constant moving and mixing of animals from place to place, it is easy to see how infections/diseases can be transmitted, but difficult to pinpoint the cause/source. Based on a pretty good hunch from Erika and her veterinarian, we immediately began an aggressive treatment of medicine, vitamins, and fluids on the other raccoons to help kill/prevent the intestinal infection we believed was the culprit. We brought them back in the house and into their original small cage to minimize potential heat-related problems in the unusually dry and hot summer; and, to facilitate the intensive care they would be receiving. Each raccy received 4-6 shots three times a day for several weeks. This was in addition to forced feedings. Treatment consisted of Lactated Ringers, PEP, Nutrical, and Biosol.
Although in a weakened state, they were still hard for one person to handle and treat. I cant blame them! How would you like to get twelve needles per day in the hind quarters and be stuck in a tiny cage for weeks? My wife and I worked together in the mornings and evenings. I came home during lunch every day where Erika met me to help do mid-day injections. Needless to say, things were crazy for several weeks but we were determined not to lose anyone else. As if things werent nerve wracking enough, I inadvertently injected fluids into Arnolds hind quarters too deeply and ended up temporarily (although we did not know if it was permanent or not at the time) paralyzing her rear legs. Poor Arnold could not walk for weeks and had to drag herself around by the front legs. We felt terrible and realized how important doing things quickly, but correctly really is. Arnold did pay us back though as she was unable to use the litter box. This required us to do some extra cleaning on both the dining room floor and Arnold herself.
Eventually Larry, Fred, Ethel, and Arnold started getting better. However, we didnt feel comfortable putting them back out in the hot weather even though they needed room to exercise as they felt more chipper. The solution was to remove most of the furniture from our formal dining room and block the archways with plywood. We placed a litter box, food, and water on the floor for the necessities of life and a step ladder served as their jungle-gym. (see picture) You could tell they enjoyed the freedom even though still sick. You also had to watch them like a hawk. One of them pulled a loose piece of wallpaper from the wall and another one found a way to climb up the window when our back was turned. (see picture) We had to make Arnold sit in the corner for a time out after being bad. (see picture) They were definitely getting better! The living room was close to our supplies/medicines and was one of the cooler rooms in the house so it became the perfect temporary playroom. We could come home from work, do their treatments, and let them run loose in the dining room for an hour or so each day.
Eventually everyone fully recovered and were able to go back to the outside cage until release time later that fall. Unfortunately, we were in an area that was too populated with too much traffic and could not release them on our own property. Fortunately, I had a friend with 80 acres in Sperryville, Virginia who consented to help with the release (called hacking out). A release cage was built, the raccys were transported to their release site, and we were able to witness their coming out party a few weeks later. (see picture) We watched them hang around the cage for a while exploring their new surroundings and then went inside for dinner with our hosts. Later that evening, we returned to the release site to see if anyone was still around. Not a soul in sight. We never saw them again. We wished them well and left for home, a very sad two-hour drive.
Mo and Curly were buried in our backyard next to Peter and Paul (two of Erikas infant raccoons), our black cat (named Bituminous after the soft coal region where I was born), a Red fox (found on the neighbors property), and a cat and bird buried by the previous homeowner. Each had their own little story to tell and a lesson to teach humans. I hope I am surrounded by such good company when my turn comes.
Dont forget to return for Part II...