The True Story of Three Severely Injured Wild Orphans and Their Miraculous Recoveries

Note: Some time ago, Ross Atwater, who does such a wonderful job with the Wild Bunch Web site, suggested that we do a True Story concerning the efforts made on behalf of very sick or injured orphans we have cared for. It was a great idea but the suggestion was made during "baby season" and we just didn’t find the time or energy right then to compile the stories and locate the appropriate photos. Recently, however, when we were pulling together similar information and photos for our veterinarian, Dr. Anne Hiss, we remembered the suggestion Ross had made. What follows are the stories and pictures of some of these special orphans.

By Bonnie Brown and Erika Yery

The wild orphans come into our care under various circumstances and in a variety of conditions. While many arrive generally healthy, even these are often quite hungry, dehydrated, and traumatized. After a few days, most are able to settle in quite well. Some, however, have suffered devastating injuries, are seriously ill, or are near death due to extreme malnutrition and exposure. In many of these cases, experience, caring, significant effort, late nights, early mornings, and some good luck allow us to save them. For especially difficult or unusual medical problems, we have sought and found exceptional professional and caring veterinary assistance that has made the difference in an animal’s very survival and, ultimately, in its being able to successfully return to the wild.

In the time we have been doing wildlife rehabilitation, hundreds of wild orphans have been a part of our lives. While each is special, there are some that we will always remember because of their circumstances, their personalities, and the significant efforts that were taken on their behalf. For some, we didn’t hold out much hope, even as we worked very hard to save them. Following are the stories of three of our miracles.

Lawnmower Boy

Lawnmower Boy arrived at Erika’s on Memorial Day 2001. The Arlington animal shelter had received an infant raccoon that was in such a terrible condition that they wanted to know if he should be immediately euthanized.

The little raccoon had been run over by a lawnmower. As one might expect, he had horrifying injuries. His entire lower back was ripped open and although it was not initially evident, he also had broken bones. After numerous calls to veterinarians, we were very relieved when Dr. Anne Hiss, who is both a veterinarian and a wildlife rehabilitator, said that she would examine and treat him. During the examination, we learned that in addition to his other readily apparent injuries, Lawnmower Boy’s arm was badly broken in two different places. Dr. Hiss set his tiny arm and put it in a cast. At that time, Lawnmower Boy, or Lawny as we came to call him, was barely three weeks old and his eyes were just beginning to open. He was very small, weighing less than a pound, and he was obviously in a lot of pain. A drainage tube was placed under the stitches across his lower back. The cast on his left arm looked to be as big as he was.

Lawny required a lot of care, but he soon grew stronger. After 3 weeks, the drainage tube was taken out and the wounds were healing, although the stitches were unable to keep the worst of the wounds closed. To our eyes, the gaping wound looked terrible; however, Dr. Hiss assured us that we were looking at healthy, normal tissue which should heal just fine. The wounds had to be cleaned every day and all the appropriate medications had to be applied. Eventually, Lawny got a new cast that was much smaller and lighter.

After several weeks, the wound was healing well and the cast was taken off his arm. Lawny was then able to join a group of raccoons his age and size. He fit right in and seemed to have no lasting ill effects from his injuries. Then, several weeks later, he and a few other raccoons became ill. Lawny was very dehydrated and losing weight. He went back to see Dr. Hiss. He was given IV fluids and put on new medications. During this difficult time, we hoped and prayed that Lawny would recover. Happily, after a week, he was back to normal and was able to rejoin his nine playmates. They spent the next few months in the large outdoor enclosure that contained a pool, rope swing, and toys designed to keep the now 20-pound Lawny and his friends occupied and improving skills that they would need in the wild.

Early the following spring, Lawny and his companions were taken to the Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge where they spent a few days in a cage in the woods before being released in the wild. We were both very sad and very happy to see him go. It was indeed a miracle that he had survived such grave misfortunes. We knew that had it not been for Dr. Hiss and her excellent care, Lawnmower Boy would not have lived, much less have seen release day.

The Little Girl

The Little Girl arrived at Erika’s, history unknown, one July night in 2003. About 3 weeks old, she weighed 13 ounces. Two other young raccoon orphans, which had arrived separately at about the same time as The Little Girl, became her family.

We soon noticed that while the other two were quite active, The Little Girl was not. When she did start moving around, we saw that she was not using her right hind leg. Dr. Anne Hiss, the veterinarian who had saved Lawny, discovered that the fragile young raccoon had a broken hip. When the hip did not heal properly, Dr. Hiss consulted with veterinary surgeon Anke Langenbach. The two veterinarians recommended an ominous sounding surgical procedure called a femoral head ostectomy (FHO). Dr. Langenbach volunteered to perform the surgery.

We learned that in this procedure, the femoral head (the ball part of the hip joint) is removed and the bone (the femur) is smoothed and placed in the empty hip socket. Scar tissue and muscle mass ultimately form a false joint. We were quite anxious about how the surgery would turn out for The Little Girl, especially since we were unable to find reports of any other raccoons that had had such an operation.

When we arrived at the veterinary hospital to take The Little Girl home just a few hours after the surgery, we were pleased to find her alert and active. We were amazed to see her walk easily across the exam table using all four legs. Not all of the post surgery report was good, however. Dr. Langenbach said she had been surprised to discover during the operation that a large part of the femoral head had been eaten away. She did a culture and a biopsy. After an additional anxious 2 weeks, we were relieved to learn that the results of both were negative -- no bone cancer. Dr. Langenbach concluded that The Little Girl’s broken hip had been caused by trauma that lead to a serious infection that was ultimately overcome by The Little Girl’s immune system.

Following the surgery, The Little Girl was given pain medication and antibiotics. Our challenge was to keep her quiet for a few days and grounded (i.e., not climbing) for 2 weeks. To prevent adhesions and encourage fuller range of motion, we did "light, passive physical therapy," flexing and extending her hip twice a day for several weeks. She accepted the therapy sessions with her usual good nature.

The Little Girl and her companions were over wintered in the large outdoor cage where they were provided with cozy nest boxes, donated fur coats, tasty meals of mussels and other raccoon delicacies, many climbing opportunities, and a changing variety of playthings.

The following spring, The Little Girl was judged good to go. One sunny April day, she and her companions went to a release cage on private wooded property with a large pond and wildlife-friendly humans. When the door to freedom was opened a few days later, the always adventurous Little Girl was the first one out. As we watched her explore her new world, we thought of how far this delicate but resilient little creature had come. Clearly, we had witnessed another miracle.

Mr. Fox

One afternoon in late March of 2004, Erika received a call from a fire station in Merrifield, Virginia. Several small foxes were moving around on an embankment near the firehouse adjacent to an elementary school and a major highway. The firemen were very concerned that the parents were not around and that the fox cubs would get in trouble: they would either be run over by cars, picked up by schoolchildren, or die of starvation.

Erika arrived at the firehouse just before dark and started to explore the area. Apparently, no adult foxes had been seen and the red fox cubs were very small. Some already looked quite dehydrated. Initially, Erika was told that only 2 or 3 fox cubs had been sighted. Using several large fire department spotlights, the den was discovered. It was a very deep hole on an embankment that was difficult for the rescuers to get to. Initially, three cubs were captured. As Erika was leaving, she heard a faint sound and noticed some movement in the den. Lying on their stomachs, the firemen managed to pull out two more cubs. These were smaller than and not as lively as the ones already captured. The firemen kept prodding and checking the den. Finally, a sixth fox cub was pulled out. Erika asked the firemen to keep an eye on the den and surrounding area for adult foxes and more cubs.

Erika rushed the fox cubs home and checked them for injuries and parasites. She bottle fed them Esbilac, a milk replacer for foxes. Soon they were asleep in two large adjoining cardboard boxes that had been prepared for them in her kitchen. In the morning, she received a call from one of the firemen who said that he had just found another fox cub staggering around. He wanted to know if he could bring it to her house. Soon the smaller and frailer male fox cub arrived. After he was checked over and treated, he happily joined his 3 sisters and 3 brothers slumbering in their cardboard "condo".

The latest arrival was definitely the runt of the litter, but one would not have known it by his actions. Mr. Fox, as we soon called him, was a real fighter and his siblings tolerated his annoying behavior to varying degrees. Not long after his family reunion, Mr. Fox ended up with a large wound on his stomach. Dr. Hiss agreed to see him. This was the first of many trips Mr. Fox would make to the vets. After we spent an anxious time in the waiting room, Dr. Hiss took tiny Mr. Fox into the examine room to check his injuries. After another long wait for us, she came out to tell us the bad news that Mr. Fox had to have surgery and that his injuries were life threatening. His abdomen was ripped apart and she was not certain that she could mend the serious internal damage. Dr. Hiss spent a considerable amount of time meticulously sewing Mr. Fox back together. We were happy that she was able to keep him for a few days to watch for and treat likely complications.

When Mr. Fox returned home to Erika’s, keeping him from opening his wounds was not an easy task. He could not immediately be put back with his siblings and had to be confined alone in a small cage. It was clear that just looking at his siblings during their kitchen playtimes got Mr. Fox’s fighting juices flowing. Indeed, it was a difficult time for us and for the feisty little fox. When his wounds were almost healed, he rejoined his siblings under close supervision. Although still not completely healed and still much smaller than his siblings, as soon as he got near them, Mr. Fox would jump on them and try to instigate a fight. During this period, when we weren’t rescuing him, we were driving him to follow-up vet appointments and sitting with him in veterinary waiting rooms. When it appeared that he might have developed a hernia, Mr. Fox went to see specialist Dr. Anke Langenbach, the veterinary surgeon who had successfully operated on The Little Girl. Happily, what was thought to be a hernia was judged to be scar tissue and no further surgery was required.

After about a month, the wound was sufficiently healed for Mr. Fox and his siblings to be moved out of Erika’s kitchen and into a large outdoor cage. There, Mr. Fox soon established his territory by urinating in a corner and again trying to provoke fights. Unfortunately, as a result of all the care he had required, Mr. Fox had become rather tame, not a good thing for a fox. We tried to ignore him as much as possible.

In late spring, the group was taken to the large outdoor fox cage in the woods at the Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge to be cared for there before being released in the wild. The fox cubs now looked like adult foxes. Mr. Fox, still somewhat smaller than his siblings and scrappy as ever, again established his territory by urinating in a corner and trying to provoke fights. Red foxes are quite peaceful animals so his siblings generally ignored him and seemed to look upon Mr. Fox as the immature brat he was.

A few weeks after arriving at the refuge, the foxes were released in the meadow near the fox pen. They soon dispersed, occasionally coming back to a feeding station. Mr. Fox was very special and he, too, was one of our miracles. We miss him. Whenever we pass the wildflower meadow at the refuge, we look to see if he is nearby trying to stir up trouble.

Although we do everything in our power to restore the orphans that come into our care to good health and, ultimately, return them to the wild, some are simply too injured or too ill to survive. That is one of the sad facts of life for rehabilitators. However, the stories of Lawny, Little Girl, and Mr. Fox show that miracles can and do happen. These three are representative of the many special little lives that, with human help, were able to overcome particularly harsh beginnings. Once held together with surgical staples, sutures and casts, they are now wild creatures running in meadows, climbing trees, and foraging in ponds and streams. We are indeed fortunate to have known them and to have been able to help salvage them so that they could reclaim their wild heritages.