Twenty years ago, an 11-year-old boy named Isaac found an injured baby crow in the woods of his hometown, Chester, Maine, and he did what many children would do — he brought it home to his mother.
In order to help the bird, his mother, Evelyn, knew she needed to obtain a state and federal wildlife rehabilitation license — so that’s what she did.
“It was a lot easier then than it is now,” said Evelyn Jordan, who described the process as a couple tests and interviews.
Two decades later, she is still rehabilitating small birds, typically a dozen a summer.
“Grackles, robins, cedar waxwings — things like that come my way,” Jordan said. “I’m just trying to keep a little creature alive. I really don’t make a dent in the wildlife population.”
Jordan is one of many licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the state. Each county is home to at least one wildlife rehabilitator, and Cumberland County currently has the largest pool of rehabilitators — 13 — according to a list provided by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
A number of the wildlife rehabilitators run centers such as Avian Haven in Freedom, Birds Acre in Ellsworth and Acadia Wildlife Foundation on Mount Desert Island. But there are a number of individuals who play a smaller role, caring for just a few animals at a time. They bottle-feed baby skunks in their kitchens and raise orphaned fawns in their barns. Then, when the animals are ready, they release them back into the wild.
“People are compassionate and want to do something,” Jordan explained. “I feel that’s more the role that myself, the small ones, play.”
While Jordan specializes in birds, Sandra Stone of Frankfort prefers helping critters with fur. In her old horse barn, she’s cared for deer, foxes, raccoons, skunks, porcupines, squirrels and fishers for the past 30 years. It all started when her neighbor brought her a family of baby raccoons.
“I started taking care of them and thought, well, if I’m going to do this, I guess I better get licensed,” Stone said. “So I contacted the state to see what I needed. I had to have a game warden come and inspect my place, and I had to go take a test in Bangor and have an interview.”
Spring and summer are the busy times, she said. One summer, she had to take care of 13 baby raccoons at once.
“The raccoons are really easy to get attached to because they’re like little people,” Stone said. “I have to take them down to the barn fairly early because they’d just as soon live with me in the house.”
“When they’re ready to go, I just leave the cages open in the barn. I leave food down there, and they keep coming back until one day, when they’re ready to be on their own, they don’t.”
While Stone has her share of success stories, not all of her patients survive.
“It’s hard when they die,” Stone said. “But you have to look at it as, well, if you didn’t do anything, none of them would make it.”
Like many wildlife rehabilitators, Stone isn’t paid for her services, but sometimes she receives donations from the people who bring her the animals. And the local veterinarian has helped her at no cost over the years.
Many of Maine’s wildlife rehabilitators have been on the job for decades, and their stories tend to pile up over the years.
Nancy Fox of Surry recently retired after rehabilitating animals for about 50 years.
“I’ve only been licensed for the last 20 or 25 years — whenever it came out that you needed a license,” said Fox, who says her best rehabilitation story is about a certain skunk.
About 15 years ago, a young boy from Ellsworth witnessed his neighbor’s dog attack a skunk. A wildlife lover, the boy chased the dog away and crawled under a porch to retrieve the injured animal.
“This little boy had a pet skunk. His father had a special license to keep a skunk,” Fox explained. “So he knew how to handle skunks and talk to them.”
Without being sprayed, the boy was able to place the injured animal in a box and transport it to a nearby rehabilitator — Nancy Fox.
“The dog had blinded one of [the skunk’s] eyes and bit him on the hip,” Fox said. “I gave him a dish of raw egg and milk and cat food, and he stayed in the box in my kitchen until he recovered some and started walking better. Then I put him outside in my backyard in an old chicken coop, and his injuries gradually healed. One day, he went into the woods, and I didn’t see him for a couple of months.
“Then, one day, I was taking clothes in from the line in the early evening, and a skunk came out of the woods. I brought him water and cat food and sat down on the grass. He drank all the water, had a few bites of food and crawled up on my lap. I patted him for a while, then he left.”
Over the years, Fox says many of the animals she has cared for originally were found by children. And when it’s time to release the animals into the wild, she often includes the child who found the animal in the experience.
“One little boy found a baby grey squirrel in the middle of the road in Blue Hill,” she recalled. “When I went to release it, I took it back to the graveyard across the road where the boy found it. We put it up on a tree limb, and he released it.”
Jack Knight had rehabilitated moose, deer and bear at his home in Bridgton for about 25 years.
“I wanted to focus on certain animals so I could give them more attention,” said Knight, who built a fence around a 2-acre, wooded area in his backyard to house the large animals. “I’ve raised an awful lot of animals.”
Knight is adamant about treating his patients as wild animals, not pets. When he feeds an animal, he takes care not to look it in the eye and, if possible, he stays out of sight completely.
“The less contact those animals have with humans, the better off they’re going to be,” Knight said. “It’s quite the process, and if not done correctly, the animal will pay. You cannot become attached to them. That doesn’t mean you can’t love them.”
If an animal becomes used to humans, it can become a nuisance in residential areas, Knight said. This behavior puts the animal in danger of being struck by a vehicle or shot.
While an animal is in his care, he tries to feed it food naturally found in the wild.
“Fawns love hemlock and young maple branches,” he said. “And moose eat a lot of fir. I try to get as many Christmas trees that I can in the fall and put them in the pen with the moose. They’ll eat them right up.”
One problem Knight has witnessed is when people wrongfully assume an animal is orphaned.
“The mother will leave her fawn for a day or more to go off and feed herself,” Knight said. “Fawns will not move basically until you step on them, and people will assume they’re orphaned. The best thing to do is just leave them. I can’t express enough to leave wildlife alone. Nature has its way.”
This problem worries many wildlife lovers, including Adam Farrington of Poland, who learned about animal rehabilitation while working as assistant superintendent at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray.
“I’ve rehabilitated pretty much everything from squirrels right up to bear cubs,” Farrington said.
Farrington, who worked at the Westbrook Police Department several years ago, is serving in the Army National Guard and is an agency program coordinator at Camp Keyes in Augusta. But he still manages to rehabilitate animals from his home, with the help of his family and friends.
“It’s important for the kids to be around,” said Farrington, a father of four young children. “It teaches them to put back into nature what we take out. We’re a hunting and fishing family as well.”
To earn a State of Maine Wildlife Rehabilitator Permit, one must complete an application and score higher than 80 percent on a competency exam. And there are additional requirements: evidence of a working relationship with a licensed veterinarian, evidence of adequate facilities for the species you intend to rehabilitate and knowledge or resources available to wildlife rehabilitators, such as workshops and websites.
The state permit is valid for two years, but it will be renewed if the rehabilitator abides by regulations and submits an annual report by Jan. 31 each year.
A federal permit is required to rehabilitate some species, such as migratory birds and threatened and endangered species.
“I think it’s harder to become a rehabber now than when I started, which is good and bad,” Farrington said. “I’m a little concerned for the future. I wonder, with these new regulations, if we won’t have a very big pool to replace the retiring rehabbers.”
For people who want to be involved in wildlife rehabilitation but don’t have the facilities or knowledge, Farrington suggests becoming wildlife transporters, people who transport injured and orphaned animals to rehabilitators.
“They help drive this chickadee 50 miles away or this raccoon 20 miles … It’s a huge help,” Farrington said. “And rehabbers are very open about sharing what they’re going to do for the animal. You can learn a lot that way. It’s a way to get your foot in the door.”
To learn about how to become a wildlife transporter, visit maine.gov/ifw/education/wildlifepark/volunteers.htm. To learn the process of becoming a Maine wildlife rehabilitator, visit maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/human/rehab.html.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Adam Farrington works full-time at the Westbrook Police Department. He worked at the police department several years ago but now works at Camp Keyes in Augusta as an agency program coordinator.