Pennsylvania wildlife

Baby Fox Rehabilitation Considerations

baby fox kit Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center

By Rick Schubert, Director

Last week we received our first baby Red Fox of the year (above) Before the Ooo's and Ahhh's commence, there are some important things to say about this:

First, it is only as a last resort that wildlife rehabbers take animals like this into human care. Most of the work we do is over the phone, and out of every call we receive about a possibly orphaned animal, we only need to admit about a quarter of them to the Center. The rest either just need to be left alone, or we can talk you through reuniting them with the parents. That's why experience is so critical in a wildlife rehabber.

Second, the red fox is a Rabies-vector Species in Pennsylvania, along with raccoons, woodchucks, skunks, coyotes, and bats. It is beyond critical that these animals are not handled with bare hands. Any mistakes here means a death sentence for the animal. Fay, the volunteer feeding the fox here, is vaccinated against rabies and has been volunteering for us for 13 years.

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Third, this is a lone single fox...we eventually have to get it with others. The cardinal sin of wildlife rehabilitation is to rehab any animal in such a way that it becomes tame. To do that is a gross breach of our ethics, and will result in the death of the animal. It MUST be raised with others of its own kind, it MUST have absolutely minimal handling, and upon release (in this case, at about six months old), it MUST be 100% able to survive on its own. Teaching baby foxes to be foxes is not an easy task, especially because it must be done without them seeing humans. But, that's why we're here. We respect their wildness, we respect their free will.

Ok, you may resume ooh-ing and ahh-ing.

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How to Safely Capture an Animal to Bring to a Rehabilitation Center

If you've ever looked for help for a wild animal, you will know that centers like ours are few and far between. We are the only fully licensed wildlife center in 4 counties, serving millions of people.  Zoos, SPCAs, and other animal rescues are not licensed for wild animals so cannot rehabilitate hurt wild animals.

Because no one “owns" wildlife,  we believe it is everyone’s collective responsibility to get them help when needed. After all, the majority of the injuries we see are human caused  - whether it is accidental (hitting an animal with your car or lawnmower) or deliberate (human cruelty). We have the hospital, the medications, the cages, and the years of study to treat these animals. What we DON'T have are the resources to come and pick up injured animals. If we left the center to do that, we would only be able to treat one or two a day, and not be able to be there to answer important phone questions, and take care of the patients we already have. So we are grateful that we are able to 'partner' with a member of the public who is willing to get the animal to us. We have the hospital; you have the transport and the desire to get the creature in need to us!  You can be the difference between life and death for this animal. But how? How do you do this if you have no experience with wild animals?

In this article, we hope to describe some basic techniques for a member of the public to get an injured wild animal to a licensed facility like ours. First, here are the two basic underlying rules in capturing wildlife in need of help:

1) HUMAN SAFETY COMES FIRST.  It is never advisable to put yourself in danger or do something with which you are not comfortable.

2) CALL US FOR INSTRUCTIONS. Every situation is a little different. And, not every animal who seems to be hurt, actually is. (Did you know, for example, that hawks do a behavior called "mantling", where they sit on the ground, wings extended, guarding their food? People sometimes think the hawk is hurt when they see this behavior)  We will be more than happy to talk you through any situation with a wild animal. Sometimes, after speaking to us on the phone, we will request a photo to give us more information. If it is after hours, we provide a tool on our website that is a 'virtual rehabilitator”- an interactive program to help you know what to do in a wildlife emergency situation. Below are the basic rules for capturing a wild animal in need of help

  • Unless instructed by us, do NOT feed the animal, force it to drink water, or put water in the box.(Birds, for example, have a hole in their tongues that go directly to their lungs! It's easy to drown them by putting water in their mouths. Other animals can get hypothermic if the water spills on them, making their condition worse!)

  • Do not feed the animal! The wrong food could make it very sick. Most patients need to be medically rehydrated before feeding. And if the animal is emaciated, putting calories in the animal before emergency treatment could end up killing it.  

  • Close the box after catching the animal, and resist the urge to 'peek'. Dark and quiet conditions help animals to stay calm. Stress, like a human who seems like a predator looking at the animal,  can cause the animal's 'flight or fight" system to work overtime, causing serious illness or death. Imagine that for the animal, it's like being abducted by aliens. They don't know we are trying to help, so reducing stress is the goal.

  • Do not use a bird cage or rabbit cage. A cardboard box is uually best, to keep the animal in the dark, protect fur and feathers, and reduce his stress.

  • Wear gloves, and  never touch a bat, skunk, raccoon, woodchuck (groundhog) or coyote with bare hands - rabies is a real concern.

If the animal is possibly dangerous, like a hawk, owl, fox, raccoon, fox etc. or if you are unsure in any way,  the best method is usually the 'box over" method, if the animal is debilitated and can be approached, and is hurt enough that he won't run away. Any animal is a candidate for the box over method. Even a squirrel who is seriously injured can inflict a dangerous bite. So when in doubt, use this method for ANY animal, even a small bird.  Here are the instructions, with illustrations for the box over method, using a stuffed toy squirrel as an example animal:

1) Find a suitable sized box or container. Poke a few air holes in it.

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2.) Wearing gloves, approach calmly and place the box over the animal.

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3.) Slide a piece of board, cardboard, or any other stiff material under the box (like you are catching a spider in a glass with a playing card.)

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4.) Duct tape the whole thing up

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5.) Bring to a rehabilitator right away. Keep quiet and calm. Don't play the radio in the car.

This article cannot cover all the possible scenarios and injured animals people may come across, nor can it prepare you for all the dangers you might face with an injured animal. Great blue herons, for example, absolutely require eye protection before approaching. Their spear-like beaks are made for plucking shiny objects, like eyeballs (and fish). Snapping turtles can reach almost all the way to the back of their shell and relieve you of a finger. Some hurt animals can only be caught with a live humane trap.  So it is always best to call us if unsure, and we will be happy to talk you through the best way to get help for the animal you encountered. Thank you to all of you, past and future, who have and will bring hurt animals to us. It is this partnership between wildlife rehabbers and caring members of the public that ensure we can care for such a high number of creatures in need.


















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Canada Goose Rescue Story

By Michele Wellard, Assistant Director

Here is a rescue story from a few years ago, just in time for throwback Thursday.

We got a call at the wildlife clinic about a goose at a local canal, 2 minutes away, who had a blow dart through his neck. Rick and I went down to the site, and there were many Canada Geese there – at least 30 hanging around. Soon, though, we spotted the one with the dart. It went straight through his long neck, and out the other side.It looked like this:

About 4 inches long, this was what was in the goose’s neck

About 4 inches long, this was what was in the goose’s neck

Since we know the anatomy of a goose, we were worried that this dart penetrated the esophagus and or the trachea, so it could either start to obstruct his breathing or his eating.

So, we started the process of trying to catch him. We brought lots of goose treats, including bread, which is not good  for them, but which they like and they are used to people feeding to them, and this was an emergency. (this is the ONLY time I would support feeding them bread. This was a life of death emergency for the goose, and we needed him to want to come to us). Our objective was to get ‘dart goose’ close enough to grab.We brought healthy goose snacks, too - cracked corn, apple and popcorn. 

So we started to feed the geese and get them to come to us. They did. They came right up to us, close enough to touch. They ate our food. Except  dart goose, who stayed on the periphery, only occasionally eating. He was nervous, possibly because he knew of his ‘difference’ or because he knew, despite the subtle nonchalance we were trying to project, that we were actually focused on him. Who knows what clues we were showing with our body language? He was much more nervous than the other geese.

After a while, we gave up. We came back the next day, and gave up, too. Ultimately, we came back 5 days in a row. Rick and I were getting good at giving each other signals to isolate and surround the ‘target’ goose, but still he evaded us. We hadn’t t actually made an attempt to grab him at this point yet.

After about 3 days, the dart goose started to eat our food more readily. He started to trust us and join the flock. On the fifth day, we got him close. He was eating out of Rick’s hand. Rick looked at me and signaled me with his eyes to guard the goose’s escape. Then, he grabbed for the goose, and got him. All the other geese flew and ran away. The dart goose looked at us like we had betrayed him, and we had. We earned his trust over 5 days, and betrayed it by grabbing him.

We stuffed him into a box and took him to the clinic. I wanted to cry.

The dart was cleanly right through his long neck. It looked like we could pull it right out, but we felt a tiny lump at the point of entrance and exit of the dart through his neck. We decided to take him to one of our vets with an xray machine.

The goose with the object of human cruelty straight through his neck.

The goose with the object of human cruelty straight through his neck.

It turns out the dart went right through his trachea, but not his esophagus. This is why he could still eat with no problem. But the lumps we felt on the outside were present on the inside, too – scar tissue forming around the entrance and exit of the dart.  The vet said that the scar tissue would grow , both on the inside and outside, eventually obstructing the goose’s breathing and killing him. The vet felt confident, though, that he could pull the dart straight out. He did.

We kept the goose a few more days to give him a few more free meals so he could put on a little weight. Then we took him back to the canal, and to his flock. He leapt from our box, back into the water, and joined his flock, an outcast no more.

Free of the injurious object, the goose recovers for a few days prior to release

Free of the injurious object, the goose recovers for a few days prior to release




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The Case for Pigeons

By Rick Schubert, Director

Why do we bother to rehabilitate non-native wildlife species like pigeons?

The rock dove, or "rodo" as we call it here, or pigeon to most people, is a common patient at the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center. Although they're a highly adaptable and incredibly tough species, they are still brought to us when they're poisoned, shot, abused, hit by cars, caught by cats, and stuck on glue traps. They're not native to North America; they were brought here by Europeans and have since proliferated in urban areas throughout the United States.

This pigeon had surgery to fix a broken wing. The blue object is an external wing fixator that was removed after a few weeks.

This pigeon had surgery to fix a broken wing. The blue object is an external wing fixator that was removed after a few weeks.

But you can read about the natural history of pigeons elsewhere...we do not need to reiterate it here. What we are here to talk about is why we love them, why they matter, and why we treat them at our wildlife center. 

Wildlife rehabbers do not make a difference in wildlife populations, nor do we try to, any more than a paramedic saving a human life matters to the population of 7.5 billion people on planet Earth, it is infinitesimally negligible. However, to the person whom that paramedic saved, it makes all the difference in the world. You save a life because it needs saving, and because life matters, and because compassion matters. When a person has the compassion to step out of our narcissistic, dehumanized world to help a suffering life form, be it an endangered piping plover or a common rock dove, we are here to affirm and validate that behavior, and hope they teach it and pass it on to their children. As with anything else, including humans, if you look at them in terms of populations and statistics, you get a skewed, partial picture. When you hold a hurt individual in your hands and see in its eyes, you see more into the truth of things. 

This pigeon had a fractured wing, seen here in a stabilizing “figure 8” wing wrap

This pigeon had a fractured wing, seen here in a stabilizing “figure 8” wing wrap

Oh yes, and we really dig pigeons. They're here in North America because of humans, it's not their fault. We can't un-ring that bell now, we can only learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them. We caused the extinction of the passenger pigeon a century ago--that's on us. Then we caused the proliferation of the rock dove--that's on us too. But when you get to know these birds, and their unique personalities, the endless variation in their individual colors, and most of all their gritty toughness, you cannot help but love and respect them. They remind me most of all of our home town of Philadelphia: scrappy, tough survivors, but with an unexpected beauty, and depth, and complexity. Can you dig it?

Beautiful checkered pigeon

Beautiful checkered pigeon

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Great Horned Owl - A Patient Story

By Michele Wellard, Assistant Director


This is the story of a Great Horned Owl and his initial treatment at the wildlife center. A caring member of the public was concerned enough to call us when she found him on the ground and follow our instructions for capturing and transporting him. She brought him in a large plastic tub.

I opened the container, carefully looked inside, and saw those huge yellow eyes looking up at me. He was beautiful, but he looked weak.

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Director Rick Schubert and I examined him. First, Rick held those dangerous feet (Red Tailed Hawk talons can hurt you, but Great Horned Owl talons can put you in the hospital) while I prepared fluids to give him. Rick said the owl was emaciated and dehydrated. Suddenly, we saw the feather flies on his body. Feather flies, also called hippboscids, are evil. They dart and scurry around and you see them for a second, and get ready to grab one, and they go bury themselves deep in the feathers again, disappearing. Rick grabbed a fly and smashed it with his thumb. CRACK, it went, spewing the owl’s blood on the white exam table sheet. Then I saw one and grabbed it and did the same thing with my thumb. CRACK.  The blood spewed, and I swear the thing came back to life. I had to take my thumb and mash and mash and mash it onto the white sheet to finally kill it.

I got out the feather lice/fly spray and sprayed the owl all over, under the wings, on his back, near his vent, all over. Then we went back to preparing the fluids. Suddenly, the flies got angry at the chemical killer, and started coming out of the owl en masse. They scooted all over the owl. They flew off him onto my shirt, into my Rick's eyes, into my mouth. I spit them out and killed them. Rick picked them off his cheek and shirt.  We worked on killing them with our fingers, Rick one handed since he still had the owl’s feet (the owl’s head was covered to reduce his stress). We killed about 40 feather flies with our fingers, leaving 40 bloody smears on the sheet, as they flung themselves off the owl and onto us.

Rick flipped the owl so his feet were down so I could access his back. I parted his feathers to give him an injection of fluids. His pink skin was covered in red feather fly bites. I wanted to cry for this poor creature.The flies continued to jump out and we continued to search and kill them. Then I parted the feathers on his neck and saw…maggot eggs.

Flies love to lay their eggs on a compromised, sick bird, and they go deep into the blood feathers (a blood feather is a feather that is still growing, so still has a blood supply). Rick removed as many maggots as he could physically with hemostats (metal grabbers)

Rick then transferred the feet to me  and I held them while he left the room to prepare some oral rehydration fluid, L-Glutamine, and Capstar (which kills maggots from the inside of the animal). I was super aware. I had the claws of one of the most powerful, dangerous animals we handle, and I was restraining him. It may seem strange I wasn’t wearing gloves. Not for bravado purposes, but your bare hands have more control. It’s easier for a powerful animal to slip out of hands you can’t feel.

So, while he was out of the room, it was just me and the owl. He was on his back, his head covered, with me holding his powerful feet. Flies were getting irritated and leaving his body, flying up into my face, smacking me in the eyes, hitting my tongue as I took a breath. I spit one out on  the floor as I remembered not to let those talons go. I was able to kill 5 or so flies as I held the feet with one hand.

Rick came back and we transferred the feet to him. He pried open the owl’s mouth and I inserted the long tube down his throat, made sure it was in place, and pushed the plunger. Then he put the owl face down and I gave him his fluid injection.

The poor dear owl, once the most fierce killer,  looked like he had given up. He must feel so sick, and on top of that, what he must perceive as predators are grabbing, poking and prodding him. His head slumped and he closed his eyes. I thought he might die. I try to convey to these patients, even though they can’t understand, “I won’t hurt you. I am trying to help you. I am sorry about this.”

Because we sprayed his feathers, they were wet. In his weakened condition, there was a danger of him becoming hypothermic . We put him in an incubator and covered it to make it dark. In a half an hour, I checked on him. He had lifted his head. He looked brighter. He started actually clacking his beak at me, the universal owl signal for “*@*&*) ”!

We had made some progress. 

We treated him for several days, and the owl started eating, perching, and hooting. After a few weeks, he really started to recover

Not too long after, he was released back into his wild territory.



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A Dramatic Rescue with a Happy Ending!

Our first blog post is the story of a dramatic rescue at the Philly Metro Wildlife Center. Someone had to cut a dead tree down, but it had TWO holes in the trunk. The nice tree guy cut the trunk into pieces and brought them to us. The first piece of trunk was making sounds like baby red-bellied woodpeckers inside, but woodpecker parents don't just bore a hole straight into a tree--instead, they bore a hole in, then deep down. Specifically, narrow enough and deep enough that a raccoon can't get his arms down there, or a hawk can't reach his talons down there, to pull the babies out to eat them. In this case, no human could get a hand in there, not even Tyrion Lannister. So how did we get the babies out without hurting them? 

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First, we had to widen the hole. We started with a saw, cutting two longitudinal lines down, then using a drill to make holes across and then router-out the holes and remove the piece of wood. The rehabbers Rick and Michele have been doing this kind of work for a combined 31 years, so we know exactly how to do it without hurting babies. Don't try this at home! When we were done, it was wide enough for a woman to get her hands in. What did we find?

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With the hole widened, volunteer Moya Kinnealey, who has been with us for 13 years, was able to get her hands in and safely withdraw the babies--4 red-bellied woodpeckers! They were alive and doing well, and recently hatched! You can still see the egg tooth if you look closely. BUT--the story is not over yet...this tree had one more surprise for us!

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Baby red-bellied woodpeckers!

Baby red-bellied woodpeckers!

This particular tree had TWO holes in it. The second contained a baby screech owl.

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This is a sad thing--two families disrupted, two sets of parents devastated, two different species unhomed. And screech owl nests typically have 3 or 4 babies, not 1, so the others must have fallen or jumped out beforehand, and are lost. However, through wildlife rehab we were able to salvage some of the situation and give some of these beautiful animals a second chance.

Below is a photo of the woodpecker babies after they have grown a bit, looking happy and healthy! The screech owl baby also did very well and was eventually released! A true success story!

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At Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, our mission is to provide support and rehabilitation to injured and orphaned wildlife, and to inspire and educate people to care about and coexist with wildlife. We accomplish this work with the support of our dedicated volunteers and are purely funded through donations. Please help us accomplish our mission by sharing this blog post, following our stories, and providing donations of supplies or funding. Any questions? Please send an e-mail to info@phillywildlife.org

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