When Maine game warden Jim Fahey ended up in custody of an abandoned baby red squirrel that was discovered in Dedham a few weeks ago, Fahey knew he faced an unfortunate challenge.
His goal: Find a wildlife rehabilitator who could raise it and reintroduce it to the wild. The problem: In this area, rehabilitators are few and far between.
The nearest state-licensed wildlife rehabilitators live about an hour away, in places like Vassalboro, Mount Desert Island and Freedom.
“I have to get on the phone to get somebody to come up here and get the animal,” Fahey said. “That’s a lot of networking to try to pull off a little rescue. If there was someone local, it would be simple.”
Most wildlife rehabilitators take in even the most common animals, such as squirrels, so the public has a place to take the injured or orphaned animals. Otherwise, people would be more inclined to keep wild animals in their homes, which could create a public health hazard and lead to an abundance of nuisance animals.
There’s long been a need for someone in southern Penobscot County to step up and become a wildlife rehabilitator, Fahey said. Even if they decide to care for only a few species, it would be a huge service to local wildlife, the public and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The baby squirrel
In this particular case, Fahey called George Smith, a man with 16 years of experience rehabilitating wildlife at his home in Orono. Smith retired from the job more than a decade ago, but he still finds himself assisting the DIF&W to rehabilitate animals found in the Bangor area.
Last winter, during a bout of foul weather, Smith took in a starving bobcat that was found perched on the windowsill of Quality Jewelers in Bangor. He kept the weary wildcat in a cage covered with snow and evergreen boughs and fed it beaver meat. After a few days, the animal regained its strength and was released into the wild.
“Every one you’ve saved, you’ve done your part,” said Smith.
His current patient, the 3-week-old squirrel, may seem like a small responsibility in comparison, but it actually needs to be fed a formula by bottle four times a day.
He’ll nurse the squirrel for a few months, transitioning from formula to solid food (pinecones, acorns and sunflower seeds) by soaking bits of bread in the formula — something he’s done hundreds of times.
To rehabilitate wildlife in Maine, a person must complete an application, score at least 80 percent on a state exam and meet several requirements explained in the materials provided at www.maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/human/rehab.html. They are then issued a State of Maine Wildlife Rehabilitator’s Permit.
A federal permit is required to rehabilitate species governed by federal regulations, such as migratory birds and threatened or endangered species.
Then, of course, a person need to have the facilities — cages, heating blankets or incubators, a variety of food. It all depends on your patients.
“You don’t have five raccoons in a 3-by-3 cage,” Smith said.
Some of this information can be found in the study guide and exam booklet provided by the DIF&W. But for the most part, rehabilitators learn on the job.
Smith has housed just about every wild Maine animal you can think of. He has rehabilitated hawks and owls, black bear cubs and moose, fox pups and racoons.
When someone brings an animal to Anne Rivers, director of Bar Harbor’s Acadia Wildlife Foundation, it’s free — as in, she doesn’t get paid to heal its wounds, feed it and house it. And that’s the same story for most Maine wildlife rehabilitators.
“It is basically a labor of love by anybody who does it,” said Rivers, who during springtime, the busiest season, has housed upwards of 100 critters.
River relies on donations from the general public. She has the option to apply for various grants, she said, but they’re extremely competitive. She lives right beside the clinic and often wakes in the middle of the night to care for her many patients.
Rivers is unusual in that she accepts all Maine species, from bald eagles to snakes. Most rehabilitators choose to specialize in certain species.
The DIF&W lists 47 licensed wildlife rehabilitators for the state on its website, which was updated in May. Penobscot County has three listed rehabilitators, in Chester, Lee and Springfield — all about an hour drive from Bangor.
“We’ve really tried to get new people interested. I think a lot of us are frustrated now,” Rivers said. “I get really frustrated with animals who are three hours away and there’s nobody to send them to.”
Rivers doesn’t just receive wildlife patients from the Bangor area. She’s had animals transported to her from places as far away as Lubec.
Currently, Rivers is caring for hatchling phoebes, three tiny songbirds that need to be fed glass worms every 15 minutes. Whenever she goes for a ride, she has to pack them up and take them with her. It’s that type of commitment that makes becoming a wildlife rehabilitator so intimidating.
“There’s a lot of older people in rehab and nobody coming up,” Rivers said. “We feel like dinosaurs. And there aren’t many of us left.”
In the Bangor area, the vast majority of wildlife brought to rehabilitators aren’t injured or sick — they’re orphans. In fact, many young animals are separated from their mothers by misguided but well-meaning people — people who assume the animal has been abandoned when the mother is just out collecting food. That’s why the DIF&W prescribes to the slogan, “If you care, leave them there.”
Most of the injured animals that rehabilitators receive have been struck by vehicles.
The animals that do heal are returned to the wild as soon as possible, to live out a life they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
To learn about Acadia Wildlife Foundation and to donate to its animals, visit www.acadiawildlife.org or “like” the foundation on Facebook.