Gena Richard called me just as I was walking out the door.
“There’s an orphaned possum in Louisville,” she said. “Can you bring it to me?”
The possum in question was a 3-month-old female, found wandering the busy streets of Louisville. I met the lady who had found it, and took the young, scared animal to Nature’s Guardians in Murray, where I was visiting for this story. Thus began my one-day career as a wildlife rehabilitator.
When I arrived, the baby was examined, I was shown the pouch, already visible, where she would one day carry her own babies, and she was placed in a comforting dark and quiet cage.
Gena Richard is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, one of only 25 in the state, and the only rehabber in the surrounding three counties. Along with husband Rudy and full-time volunteer Allison Tweedy, she fosters deer, squirrels, possums, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, fox, beavers, and once even an armadillo. The animals that come in may be orphaned, injured, their nests may have been destroyed, or they were raised as pets, and Gena just can’t say no to any of them. She rehabilitates these animals—mentally, physically, and medically—until they can be released into the wild; her success rate is high.
It’s difficult to keep an accurate tally of the number of animals she has at any one time: as animals are released, more come in. A momentary estimate is 30 raccoons, with more at Allison’s place, two fawns, three young squirrels, and five possums. No, make that six.
On this particular day, Gena and Allison are rather weary. They were up most of the night saving three young raccoons that were trapped in a trash can. They were dehydrated and exhausted.
“No telling how long they’d been in there,” Gena says, shaking her head. “You could feel the heat coming out of the trash can.”
“And they already had maggots on them,” Allison adds. “They were as close to death as they could get.”
The raccoons were treated immediately and put in a cage away from the others. When I saw them, they had eaten a little and drunk water, but were still exhausted and very quiet. But Gena and Allison had every reason to believe they’d survive.
Gena’s animals live in various enclosures in an expansive back yard that opens up into acres of woods. It’s a perfect setup, and I soon saw just how perfect it is: two fawns came out of the woods into the back yard, right on schedule for their morning bottles. Rudy, who is in charge of the deer, at one time had as many as 14 fawns to care for, so he’s relieved to have only two right now.
“The deer we’ve released sometimes come up for a visit,” Rudy says, “but mostly they stay in the woods. Sometimes, when I come up on them in the wild, like Dotson and Brown Sugar that we raised, they’ll stop and look at me. I get lots of reports from neighbors that they’ve seen those two.”
The deer are perfect examples of a common misconception by the public. Rehabbers are often criticized for bonding with young animals; the belief is that the love and care will prevent them from ever being releasable.
“Not true,” says Allison. “It’s okay to bond with them. They need a mother, and what does a mother do but love and care for her young? We’re simply a temporary replacement, and they will break that bond themselves when it’s time, just like in the wild.”
It’s a natural progression, adds Rudy: “Those young ones we’ve got now are already not as kissy-huggy as they used to be.”
As Allison notes, “A good rehabber learns to think like an animal mother. Babies need that bonding, that security.”
A visit to this rehab facility is wildly entertaining and educational, with the raccoons providing most of the entertainment. There is a cacophony of sounds from their many enclosures that never completely stops: chatters, purrs, barks, and other distinct sounds have definite meanings in raccoon language.
“Raccoons have 30-40 different sounds they make,” Allison tells me. “See, you’re standing too close to this one, so he’s giving his ‘stranger’ call to alert the others.” It works—they all scatter.
Despite her obvious love and admiration for all animals, Gena’s passion is these raccoons. The first wild animal she raised was a raccoon, and she lost her heart to them.
“I believe their sensitivity is what keeps me in awe of them. Their love is totally unconditional, and they’re wonderful mothers. We could learn a lot from them.”
Gena notes that raccoons are extremely sensitive to moods, not just of people, but of each other. A raccoon named Chatter was given up by her owners, and has had trouble adjusting to life at Nature’s Guardians.
“She’s still waiting for her family to come get her. When she gets upset, her roommate Coon Dog will pat her and console her.”
Walking by the enclosures, I see raccoons in nesting boxes, playing in their baby pools, swinging in children’s swings, lounging in hammocks, and climbing branches or the cage walls. As fun as it is to watch, it’s all part of the rehabilitation process, as these are all behaviors they’ll use in the wild. Well, the swings might be an exception.
And when a fight breaks out over their latest meal, Gena is happy.
“I’m glad to see food aggression. It means they’re progressing, because that’s something they’ll have to do in the wild, fight over food.”
The goal for most of the wildlife here is, of course, to be released into the wild, and each animal must meet the criteria for their size and weight to be released. State law says a rehabber can keep an animal for a certain amount of time, then it must be determined if the animal is releasable. There is a bit of leeway: if Gena feels an animal, given extra time, can later be releasable, she can request permission from the Department of Fish & Wildlife to keep the animal, especially if winter is approaching. Fish & Wildlife works with rehabbers so that as many animals as possible get a chance at living in the wild, as they were meant to be.
Sometimes an animal simply cannot be released; whether for physical or even mental reasons, they can never adjust to the wild.
“It’s our responsibility,” Gena says, “to release these animals as healthy as we can.” Which means sometimes an animal must be put down—sadly, at times it’s the kindest option.
Other unreleasable animals may be used as educational animals. They may be taken to schools, for example, to teach children about wildlife, or teachers may even bring their students to the facility on a school trip.
After spending years with wildlife, Gena and Allison are convinced they receive as much love as they give, especially from two very special, very large raccoons named Hoss and Mikey. These two lived for years in cages. They had little interaction with people. Their feet had never touched the ground. When they were brought to Nature’s Guardians, Gena was told the raccoons would be hard to handle and probably couldn’t be given their routine vaccinations.
But that’s not what happened. From the first day, Hoss and Mikey climbed into Gena and Allison’s lap, behaved perfectly for injections or any other medical treatment, and cannot get enough attention from their caretakers.
“They were simply craving love,” Allison says, “and they have been an absolute joy to us.” Hoss and Mikey are obviously living a much better life.
There have been any number of animals at Nature’s Guardians that have heartbreaking stories. Jocko was a pet raccoon whose owner had him neutered and declawed, only to decide he couldn’t keep the animal. Gena deemed Jocko as handicapped, and built a special enclosure for him so that he could use his instinctive climbing abilities.
A fox came in that another person had kept as a pet. He discovered his pet was illegal when he took the fox to the vet. He brought the fox to Gena, who says, ” I don’t know who was more upset about the separation, the owner or the fox.”
In another cage, there’s Ripley, who was given the wrong food, and as a result is nearly blind. “More human intervention,” Allison sighs. “People mean well, they just don’t bother to educate themselves.”
Another raccoon named Zoe has mental issues to overcome. This raccoon will rarely eat. Her owner apparently had no time for her: she would take Zoe out of the small bathroom she kept her in, hurriedly feed her, then put Zoe back in the bathroom, alone. Zoe now associates eating with being trapped, alone, in a small area.
Then there’s Stinky the skunk, who came from horrid conditions. “He didn’t even look like a skunk when he came in,” Gena says. Then, when Gena tried to integrate Stinky into another litter, they all cornered him and sprayed him.
“Poor Stinky,” Allison laughs ruefully, “he really had a bad time of it.”
But Stinky’s fine now. Happy and wonderfully friendly, Gena says he’ll make a great educational animal.
As for the educational aspect of my trip here, that surprisingly came mostly from the possums. They’re actually quite interesting.
Some of the facts I learned about possums: they can “play possum” for 8-10 hours; they can’t eat fresh food, that’s why they eat garbage, and they don’t kill other animals; they are genetically the same as in prehistoric times; they have few predators (except for man), and can even be bitten by a poisonous snake with no ill effects; they are the only marsupial native to the U.S.; they don’t see well, so they keep their mouths open to sense their environment—this makes them drool, giving them the reputation for being “nasty”; and they are generally not susceptible to rabies and distemper.
That last fact led to an interesting note about raccoons and possums. Contrary to common belief, rabies is mostly not an issue in Kentucky—according to Gena, it is not seen in wildlife nearly as much as people think.
And as for distemper, here’s another myth dispelled: wildlife in Kentucky is more apt to contract distemper from domesticated animals, rather than the other way around. The same goes for rabies. It’s for that reason that Gena vaccinates all her animals: she’s more concerned that household pets will make her wildlife sick.
Sitting down to feed some hungry, squirming baby squirrels with an eyedropper, Gena says that, despite being licensed by Fish & Wildlife, being a rehabber is a completely out-of-pocket venture. It takes a minimum of $150 to rehabilitate a raccoon to be released in the wild, and Gena welcomes any help people can provide.
Gena and Allison also try to educate the public about wildlife: too many people try to rescue and even illegally raise babies that don’t need rescuing.
“Mothers will leave their babies alone to feed and hunt,” Gena says, “but rarely do they abandon them. Human intervention is the biggest problem for wildlife.” Her Web site gives detailed information on how to determine if an animal does indeed need rescuing. In that case, do not keep the animal for a pet; instead, you should contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
The baby squirrels are finally full, and getting drowsy. Gena gently puts them back in their cage and says, “Okay, guys, next feeding is in two hours.”
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724 Shoemaker Rd.
Murray, KY 42071