Raising a dozen raccoons in your basement is noisy, messy and extremely rewarding, according to Wendy Clark, a wildlife rehabilitator in Baldwin who is currently doing just that. She’s also currently caring for six baby squirrels and two groundhogs, all while holding down a full-time job. It may sound hectic, but for her, it’s all in a day’s work.

Clark is one of 44 licensed wildlife rehabilitators listed in Maine as having the permission to care for injured, sick and orphaned wildlife, from flying squirrels to black bears. And for many of those rehabilitators, spring is an incredibly busy time.

“There’s a lot of bottle warming, formula making, cleaning laundry — it’s quite the production,” said Clark, who is also a nurse. “I’m usually at it for three hours in the morning and three hours at night, and I have a volunteer that comes in a lot during the day when I’m at work.”

In Maine, it’s illegal to possess a wild animal without a proper license. Wildlife rehabilitators provide a service to the public as a resource people can turn to for help upon finding a wild animal in need — such as a turtle hit by a truck or a bird caught by a cat. And while wildlife rehabilitators are always happy for donations, they accept wildlife patients free of charge.

“A lot of us could use volunteers,” Clark said. “But you have to be a certain kind of person, I think, to really delve into this and do a good job.”

Maine is home to a few large wildlife rehabilitation centers that treat thousands of animals a year, such as the Avian Haven bird rehabilitation center in Freedom and Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick. But the majority of the state’s wildlife rehabilitators run small, at-home operations like Clark’s. These small-scale rehabilitators sacrifice their time, personal living space and often their own money to care for animals and return them to the wild.

A group of baby squirrels Credit: Rachel Parsons

Becoming a wildlife rehabilitator

One chance event propelled Rachel Ann Parsons of Hampden into wildlife rehabilitation. In January of 2008, she was driving her son to preschool when she spotted what she believed to be a dead skunk beside the road. But something about the way the animal was positioned made her wonder if it was still alive, so on the way back home, she stopped.

“I pulled over and rolled down my window and stared at it for about two minutes, and I had just decided it was dead when he tucked his nose in and put his paw over his nose,” Parsons recalled. “My heart melted. I put my coat around him and brought him home.”

At home, she placed the skunk in a cardboard box then drove him to a nearby licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Caryl Widdowson. By the end of the visit, Parsons had resolved to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and Widdowson, who passed away in 2017, had offered to mentor her through the process.

A porcupine snacks on some food while recovering from its quills and fur being tangled with burdocks.  Credit: Rachel Parsons

That spring, after completing the required training documents, Parsons passed the state exam to care for medium to small mammals. She also established a relationship with a local veterinarian who could help her treat injured wildlife, which is a necessity for all wildlife rehabilitators. And that fall, the state inspected her at-home setup — including the specific enclosures needed for housing certain species — and issued her a license to start caring for wild animals.

“It’s fun and fascinating because each species is a little different,” Parsons said. “Each has its own requirements for housing and care. You have to learn the natural history of it to know how to best rehab it and understand what mom would do in the wild so you can release it having mirrored as much as you can of what would have happened in the wild.”

Nowadays, Parsons takes in more than 80 wild animals annually at her home operation, R&R Wildlife Rehabilitation. Her patients have included porcupines, squirrels, raccoons, flying squirrels, opossums, snowshoe hares, woodchucks, chipmunks and — of course — skunks.

But what about that skunk she picked up from the side of the road so many years ago? It recovered and was released back into the wild.

A young fisher that had been struck by a vehicle rests while being rehabilitated in Casco. Credit: Jessica Jackson Beaulieu

Patients, not pets

While many of Maine’s wildlife rehabilitators are capable of caring for a variety of animals, they tend to specialize in certain species. Libby Peck of York, for example, specializes in opossums. Cynthea Bridges of Baldwin favors raccoons. Dawn Brown in Sharon is known for her care of black bears. And Jessica Jackson Beaulieu, who runs Safe and Sound Wildlife Rehabilitation in Casco, concentrates on some of Maine’s most adept predators.

“Fox, coyotes, fisher cats, minks, weasels — anything with pointy teeth is sent to me,” said Beaulieu. “I’m your girl.”

A red fox being rehabilitated by wildlife rehabilitator Jessica Jackson Beaulieu of Casco. Credit: Jessica Jackson Beaulieu

To share their expertise and get animals to the right person, wildlife rehabilitators are in constant communication by phone and through social media. They also use social media to reach the public, giving people updates about certain wildlife patients, fundraising and raising awareness about wildlife-related issues.

“As rehabilitators we have two roles, two facets of our job,” said Beaulieu. “One role is to take orphaned and injured wildlife, but equally important is facilitating a healthy relationship between people and the wildlife they encounter.”

Through her Facebook page, Beaulieu is able to share her experiences with wild animals, though often it’s through hidden cameras in their enclosures. She minimizes her interactions with her wildlife patients so they don’t become habituated to people. The animals are wild — not pets.

“The goal is to keep them truly wild. We do this work to be able to let them go,” Beaulieu said.

Cynthea Bridges of Baldwin specializes in rehabilitating orphaned, sick and injured raccoons. Here is just one of her many wildlife patients. Credit: Cynthea Bridges

The challenges and triumphs of wildlife rehabilitation

Releasing an animal back into the wild is one of Beaulieu’s favorite parts of rehabilitation, and it helps balance out the inevitable hardships of the profession.

“We get overburdened, we do,” Beaulieu said. “We have to prioritize what we’re taking. You have to convince me to take an animal out of the wild. And sometimes we have to euthanize the ones we won’t be able to save. Those are some hard decisions.”

In some cases, rehabilitation isn’t necessary. Often, people think baby animals have been abandoned when their parents are right around the corner. In those cases, wildlife rehabilitators will often work with people to help them reunite the wild family.

“It happens a lot,” said Peck. “And if we can get people to follow instructions, it usually works really well.”

An opossom stares through the window of its enclosure while being rehabilitated in York. Credit: Libby Peck

Being selective about which animals they rehabilitate is important for small-scale wildlife rehabilitators because they’re in such high demand, especially during the spring and summer.

“It hits hard in April,” said Parsons. “Then June is hell month, especially for people who take in raccoons.”

That’s because springtime is when many wild species — such as raccoons — give birth, and that sometimes results in orphaned babies. Baby raccoons are especially noisy, which may contribute to so many people finding them. In addition, spring is a time when many animals are moving across the landscape in search of food and a mate, and this can result in them becoming injured on roadways or by people’s pets.

Wildlife rehabilitator Jessica Jackson Beaulieu of Casco feeds a baby mink formula with a syringe this spring. The orphaned animal has grown strong and is scheduled to be released into the wild this fall. Credit: Jessica Jackson Beaulieu

While wildlife rehabilitators are often selective with what animals they choose to treat, they sometimes take on special cases — even if the prospects look grim.

This spring, Beaulieu received a call from someone about a “kitten” they found in the belly of their trailer. On closer inspection, it was a baby mink, and it only weighed 80 grams.

“I didn’t think it would live,” Beaulieu said. “It was just too small.00

“Every life is just as important as the next, whether you have a fur coat or a head of hair,” Beaulieu said, “at least to me.”

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.