It’s spring, and for the Kentucky Wildlife Center that means babies and lots of them. Baby raccoons, possums, rabbits, squirrels, otters and even coyotes turn up at the center on Leestown Road almost daily.
Some are orphaned and a few are injured. The staff at the center treats what they can and takes more serious cases to Dr. Scott Tritsch of Central Kentucky Veterinary Clinic in Georgetown. Once the animals are stabilized, they usually go home with volunteer foster parents who care for them until they can bereleased into the wild.
How often does he treat animals for them?
“This time of year, it could be every day,” Tritsch said. “Baby season’s a big one.”
Is he ever surprised by what they bring him? “Not any more,” he said. Over the years he has seen everything from fawns to beaver, weasels and even bobcats. “Weasels are the hardest. Unless they are tiny, they are very aggressive and hard to work with.”
Last week, a juvenile bunny, brought in by a cat owner whose pet found the bunny, was getting an antibiotic.
“He likes it, because it’s a butterscotch flavor,” said Jennifer Crabill, director of the center.
Will the bunny make it? Hard to say.
“With a cat bite it’s really touch and go. Cats have a lot of bacteria in their saliva. And it really works fast on bunnies. All we can do is give them antibiotics and supportive care and see what happens. In about three days the bunny will decide if it can make it or not. Cat bites are the worst,” Crabill said
The center helped 1,186 animals last year. Many find their way to the center by sheer luck.
“We give people a place to come to when they come across the injured and the orphans,” Crabill said.
In an incubator against the wall, a two-week-old raccoon so small its eyes are still closed, is recovering from a dog bite. Someone brought the raccoon to the Lexington Humane Society, which contacted the wildlife center. He had a deep laceration on his left shoulder, deep puncture wounds on his tail, and one of his front digits was bitten off.
“He’s had a rough go of it,” Crabill said. Tritsch put a staple in his wound that morning and now the tiny chirruping baby was resting after a feeding.
Some of the animals in the incubators, including two groups of baby possums, were snuggled into knitted or crocheted “nests” made by needle workers who send them in. Others were curled up under old baby blankets.
The center, which is licensed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and by the USDA, relies on donations, both of money and of items such as the blankets, to take care of the animals.
The center was founded in 2007 by Karen Bailey who had three raccoons in her garage. The need for the facility keeps growing as animals are continually displaced with new homes, businesses and roads. Although the center moved into the Leestown Road spot just two years ago, they are already looking for some place bigger.
Bailey, who is studying for a doctorate in wildlife care at the University of Georgia’s veterinary college, is still president of the organization and will return once her degree is completed in a few years.
“In her absence, I take care of things for her here,” Crabill said. “We help each other out. If we ever get any kind of illnesses or see disease outbreaks in wildlife in our area — or we get a lot of calls from all around the United States from people wondering about outbreaks they might have — we are able to assist.”
Sometimes that involves doing necropsies at no cost to help diagnose the disease.
“We like to help our community, other rehabbers, and it ends up benefiting the wildlife,” she said.
The baby season gets started in mid-March, then waxes and wanes through the fall. In the winter, they care for animals who weren’t old enough to be released and have to over-winter.
A big outbuilding on the center’s site has about 40 1-year-old raccoons waiting to go to new homes in the great outdoors.
“I liken our facility to an emergency room for wildlife, and it does have that atmosphere,” she said.
Except maybe more cuddly patients.
Susan Russell, a volunteer who works in Georgetown, held a three-week-old coyote pup who was ready for a feeding. She, for all intents and purposes, is the mother to “Jasmine” now.
“I don’t have kids, but this is what it would be like,” Russell said, holding a bottle of formula to the still-blind pup. “I have to feed her every two hours.”
Coyotes have adapted to live almost everywhere, including cities. This pup was found in Western Kentucky and came to the center via a retired state trooper who passed it to Kentucky Fish & Wildlife officials, who knew where to take her.
“If we get other puppies in her age, she will be raised with them, and then she can be released,” Crabill said. If she is raised alone, she can’t be released because she won’t know how to be a coyote or even that she is one, Russell said.
Other coyotes that Russell has raised live at the center now because they were solo pups but sometimes the timing works out. Last year, a group of pups was successfully released on a private farm with no hunting.
“With a release like that, we do the best we can,” Russell said. “With a coyote, there’s no guarantee.”
Animals that can’t be released often become ambassadors for the center, which also does educational outreach to schools and the public. It’s illegal to have wildlife as pets. The center currently has a 1-year-old mink who was surrendered after its owner realized it wasn’t a ferret.
He doesn’t do school visits because he is just too quick and hasn’t been trained to wear a ferret harness. Taking him to a school sounds like a recipe for disaster, Crabill said.
Shia, as the mink is known, will stay at the center for now, playing with toddler toys, swimming in a tub, and napping in a hammock. Because it was actually raised as a pet, it probably can’t be released into the wild.
In the case of two American river otters who live on Summer Wind Farm in Georgetown, school groups come to them. Oscar and Ogden spend their days romping in the backyard otter habitat, complete with pool, built for them, and occasionally receiving visitors so people can learn about wildlife.
The most common misconception, Crabill said, is that baby animals are orphans when they aren’t. Wildlife mothers often protect their babies by hiding them; they return only a couple of times a day to feed them. So what you think is an abandoned baby animal might be just fine where it is.
Tritsch, the veterinarian, said that he wants people to know that it’s almost always better to leave baby animals alone, unless they are visibly injured.
“We deal with it all the time: people find babies and raise them, and really don’t realize what they have gotten into,” Tritsch said. He has seen it often with raccoons. “They end up obese ... They tear everything up. ... Just leave them alone, or get them to somebody who can rehab them. They are not pets; they are wild.”
Another big misconception is that animals can be dropped off in any remote or wild area to fend for themselves once they are old enough.
“That’s actually a death sentence for that animal,” Crabill said. Instead, “soft releases” are arranged, in a protected area, that gives the animal a chance to explore, find food and a den, and then move out on its own terms.
Even then, it doesn’t always work. Which brings us back to Oscar and Ogden.
Oscar came to the center three years ago and was raised with another slightly older otter, Oliver. Otters have to be 2 years old before they can be released and are released in pairs. The center arranged for a soft release for Oliver and Oscar; Oliver returned to the wild but Oscar didn’t “wild up.”
Maybe that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because last year Ogden was brought in after a fisherman found him orphaned by spring floods.
“They love each other so much,” Crabill said. “Baby otters have to be taught to swim, and when Ogden was a baby Oscar’s job was to try to coax him into the baby pool to swim. Ogden wanted to go but was so scared. So Oscar would get out, get up underneath him and push him in, then grab him by the tail and try to pull him in.”
When Ogden is 2, they may attempt soft release together, but the chances of it being successful are slim. So they may stay in their private otter paradise.
If you go
The Kentucky Wildlife Center, 5423 Leestown Road, is having a baby shower on April 23, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Masterson Station Park Shelter #1.
Gifts the shelter would like to receive include: cereal (Cheerio and Honeycomb types), cookies (Fig Newton, peanut butter and vanilla wafer types), gently used or new washcloths, baby blankets, toys, stuffed animals, towels, Pampers Sensitive diaper wipes, kitchen and 55-gallon trash bags, paper towels, Tide Pods in Original Scent, Dawn dish soap, canned cat food. They also accept gift cards, cash and checks. If you can’t make it to the shower, they have donation barrels in front of the center.