Photo above from Audrey (flickr)
It’s been a long day at work, but no matter. Tonight is the night I volunteer. Twice a week I care for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife and tonight is one of those nights. I’m excited. I’m always excited on volunteer nights because no matter what’s going on in the rest of my life, my soul is freed just a little bit more with every animal I care for. I get home, take care of the pets, feed myself and change into my “Wildwoods Only” clothing – stuff that can take a little poop and formula stains.
I arrive and head down the hill to the back door. Peggy is there cleaning out cages and, as she always does, thanks me for volunteering. After hearing something like that a few times it can start to sound fake and forced, but somehow it always sounds sincere from her. Last week the staff suggested I come earlier than my normal 8pm shift, since at the moment we don’t have a lot of animals that require an 8pm feeding. I’d get to do more if I came earlier, so I do and they weren’t lying. There aren’t a lot of mammals to take care of but there are probably 50 birds that need cleaning and feeding. I ask the staff where I am needed and they point me to the nestlings.
Nestlings are intimidating to feed–they’re so small and seem so breakable–but I’m confident in my training and set to work. First “goop” and mealworms to the Starlings, then “goop” to the pigeons, then mealworms to the blue jays. One of the jays hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet, but he will in time. It takes a while to feed him and by the time I’m done, it’s 8pm. Time for baby mammal feeding.
There’s only two, now, that still need to be hand fed. There are several woodchucks that are old enough, have been weaned off the formula, and are being prepared for release. I can’t quite explain why, but the woodchucks are my favorites and I’m happysad to see them go. Now, my attention turns to the Franklin Ground Squirrel who was saved from a crow attack, only to be nearly killed by the well-intentioned finder who fed him cow’s milk. I open his cage and can see he’s made a full recovery, snipping and grunting at me as I pull back the blankets to find him. He’s feisty and neither one of us will be happy if I pick up up to feed him so I just lower the formula-filled syringe into his enclosure. After a few tentative sniffs he decides I mean no harm. Most young animals are so eager to eat they practically swallow the entire nipple, but this little guy just licks at it and half-closes his eyes in sweet contentment. His entire demeanor changes as he laps up the formula, he relaxes, and so do I. Content baby animals have that effect. I think, “ahhh,” and can feel a bit of the day’s weight lifting. I fill the syringe again, and again he happily laps it up. A little more weight lifts. He eats less than his maximum amount allowed, but that’s not uncommon for someone his age. He’s being weaned off the formula and has solid food in his cage to munch on. When he’s had his fill he snaps right back into cranky mode, huffs at me once or twice, and hides under the blankets. That’s ok, he can be cranky. The weight is nearly gone.
Time to move on to the lonely Gray squirrel. He’s an orphan and none of his siblings were found with him. Whenever I can I give this little one extra attention since he doesn’t have the physical contact and social interaction that he normally would get with siblings. I fill up the syringe with warm formula and offer it up. Unlike the Franklin, this little guy, just barely four weeks old, latches on immediately and voraciously sucks it down. Nothing will separate him from this meal. He eats so intently that he goes into a feeding trance. His body reflexively stretches out, lean and long, and his arms reach out in front of him. His mouth gapes open, then shuts, over and over like a goldfish. A feeding trance isn’t dangerous, but it impedes feeding so to coax him out of it I pet him with my thumb in quick little “licks,” to simulate the grooming that a mother would be doing while nursing. The trance subsides and he eats his full meal. I use a towel to clean the formula from his face–he’s a messy eater–and then continue “licking” him with my fingers. Under the chin, then up the side of his face, around to the other side, up the back of his ears, the top of his head. He eventually curls up for a nap. I keep “licking,” down his neck, then his shoulder. He raises his front arm up, just like a puppy would, asking me to rub his belly. I oblige and he pulls his arm back further in approval. I move to just under his armpit and his back leg jumps up and starts flapping up and down in a phantom-scratch, just the way a puppy would.
This is the second time this Gray has done this for me and I’ve never seen it before. Last time there was only one other person in the room to see what was happening, so while I “lick,” and while he phantom-scratches, I slowly walk out of the room, down the hall, and find the other staff. They are amazed. They haven’t seen anything like that before from a squirrel either. Eventually he falls asleep in my hand, all curled up in a little ball, his thin little tail wrapped around him as far as it will go. I put him back in his crate under a fleece blanket and thank God for these days. All the weight from the day, and previous days, is gone and I feel light as a feather. This is why I volunteer here.
I end the night finding dandelion greens for the rabbit to munch on, not even caring about the onslaught of mosquitoes. I head home, looking forward to my next volunteer shift.