by Kay Joubert and Kip Parker
They come into the PAWS Wildlife Center from all over Washington—arriving singly, by twos, threes, and fours, sometimes a dozen together. They arrive in cardboard boxes, shoe boxes, dog crates; wrapped in towels and pillow cases; packed in cracker packets and sewing baskets; stuffed in bras and bird cages. Some are naked and blind, without fur or feathers; others are softly furred or covered with fine downy feathers. They are frequently cold, dehydrated, and emaciated, and thin feeble cries or tiny cheeps signal their need for warmth and food. Some are injured, with broken limbs or wounded bodies. “They” are wildlife babies, and it’s that season—the April trickle has become a flood that will continue through the summer until September.
The scene at the PAWS Companion Animal Shelter is much the same. The babies here are primarily kittens and puppies, with the occasional tiny domesticated rabbit. They arrive in boxes and crates or gently nestled in the arms of caring people. They come in as orphans or with their tired and stressed mothers, all seeking a quiet place to rest and eat and the gentle touch of a human who cares. Many of them arrive in unstable conditions—dehydrated, malnourished, their bodies too cold, their eyes not yet open. Quite a few of the mothers are severely emaciated, tense with worry, and unsure of their new surroundings, which are filled with the smells of other dogs and cats. It is “baby season” in the shelter, and the wave of kittens and puppies will build through the summer months and hopefully subside by late fall.
This “baby season” happens throughout Washington so the PAWS shelter focuses on assisting the local community, primarily taking in babies from many parts of Snohomish County. The shelter staff and medical team will handle more than 1,000 of these high-risk and special needs animals, attending to their every need before they are placed, through the Foster Care Program, into temporary foster homes where they will grow and mature into companion animals ready for permanent loving homes.
About 30% of the companion animals received will go through the Foster Care Program before they are considered ready for adoption. The majority of these animals require the highest level of care and socialization that PAWS can provide. All of the babies will eventually be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, de-wormed, and treated for fleas to ensure they do not become anemic or weakened by parasites. Newborn kittens and puppies are bottle-fed around the clock with a specially formulated kitten or puppy milk replacer that contains the nutrients they would typically receive from their mother’s milk. Because kittens and puppies cannot regulate their temperature until they are 3-4 weeks of age, they require a special heating pad to maintain and regulate their body temperature. Foster parents continually monitor weight gain, attitude, temperature, eating and elimination regularity, and social development. This intensive care and monitoring is essential to the kittens’ and puppies’ normal growth and development.Special care is required
Each summer, more than a hundred different kinds of wildlife babies requiring specialized care and rehabilitation arrive at the PAWS Wildlife Center. Many are orphans—their mothers have been shot, hit by vehicles, or killed by predators. Others will be separated from their parents when nests, dens, and birthing places are disturbed by human activity and development, such as tree felling, property cleaning, lawn mowing, and house renovation. Others will be “kidnapped” by well-meaning people who don’t understand when it is appropriate to leave baby wildlife alone.
About three-quarters of the 4,500 wild animals in distress that come to our center each year will be babies or juveniles, each requiring additional care and handling beyond what is normally provided for our adult patients. This special care involves hand feeding and nurturing young wild lives until they can start to feed themselves. TLC is a normal part of care for wildlife babies, especially when they are very small. Young birds and mammals are raised with others of the same species whenever possible, and extra care is taken to ensure that these youngsters do not become imprinted on or habituated to their human caregivers. It is very important that they grow up wild and retain all their species’ natural fear and distrust of humans if they are to survive once they have been returned to their natural habitat. Specially trained teams of volunteers work with rehabilitation staff to give wildlife babies the individual, nurturing care they need to survive. Volunteer wildlife care assistants and bird nursery caretakers are a vital part of the care team in the Wildlife Center and provide the thousands of hours of work that is necessary to meet the needs of our small patients.
Fostering more than 1,200 kittens and puppies each year requires special care that adult animals usually don’t require. Just like human children, these youngsters are growing by leaps and bounds and will want to explore, test out new spaces, and be stimulated by new experiences. Every year, volunteers who foster and those who work in the shelter give thousands of hours of their time to help with these little ones’ special needs. Before making this commitment, the individuals and families involved go through a comprehensive orientation class so they understand the time and emotional commitment involved in fostering. All foster homes are instructed on the stages of development as the babies rapidly grow during the first critical eight weeks of life.
Ensuring that the animals are well socialized and properly exposed to routine human activities is essential to their emotional development. Foster parents learn about proper nutrition and feeding procedures, as well as the fear-imprint stage, bite-inhibition procedures, and development of play and social skills. Understanding and nurturing the puppies through these stages helps ensure they grow up dog- and human-friendly; time spent in foster care can help kittens learn how to retract their claws when socializing with humans and gives them the opportunity to be exposed to dogs so they’ll be more comfortable with a canine in their new home.Feeding: a labor of love
Feeding baby wildlife is a real labor of love. Each mammalian species requires a unique milk baby formula. Twelve distinct milk formulas are used at the Wildlife Center for the mammal babies, which include raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, bears, bobcats, cougars, deer, beavers, otters, foxes, coyotes, skunks, porcupines, and lagomorphs (hares and rabbit species). Baby mammals are fed through syringes and a gavage tube, with formula delivered directly into the stomach. In this way, precise amounts can be fed and recorded for each baby’s feeding. Baby mammals may need to be fed between two and six times in a 12-hour period. Tiny genitals must be stimulated with wet, warm cloths (simulating a mother’s tongue) to help very young babies urinate and defecate. Environments must be closely controlled to provide the proper heat, light cycle, humidity, and feeding schedule for each species. Once weaned, each animal moves on to a special mammal mush diet before graduating to solid food.
Diets and feeding needs for baby birds are equally complex. Diets are precisely mixed to provide the right nutrients for rapid growth of bones and feathers and include different slurries for baby songbirds, fish eaters, seabirds, crows, and ducks and geese. Freshly prepared food is delivered through a small syringe into gaping beaks, every half hour for 12 hours a day. Appropriate adult diets gradually replace the slurries as young birds are weaned off hand feeding and begin to feed themselves.Development needs are unique and important
The development of all wildlife babies is closely monitored (amounts fed, weight gained, behavior norms met). As the babies grow and develop, the individual care continues, but contact between the caregiver and the baby animal is reduced, to be replaced by association with others of its own species.
Unlike the babies handled by the Wildlife Center, where extra care is taken so they do not imprint on humans, the foster care providers take time with their little charges to ensure they are comfortable and confident with human beings. Foster families expose the kittens and puppies to lots of human attention and familiarize them with noises, smells, and the kinds of activities that they will encounter in their permanent homes once they are adopted. Parents watch their children closely as the puppies and kittens learn to play with their human friends. These foster parents know the joy of watching their family interact with kittens who are having a great time learning to climb and play-fight with their litter mates as they practice “puffing up,” hissing, and jumping all over their siblings.Ultimate goal
Raising a healthy, well-socialized litter of kittens or puppies that is ready for adoption is the goal of every person involved in the PAWS Foster Care Program. Many of these tiny charges will be fostered for eight weeks or more, and it can be tough letting go after watching them grow from helpless “bottle-feeders” to gangly kittens ready to enter the colony at Cat City. Yet it is through the dedication of these families, and the hard work of the staff and medical team, that has made the PAWS Foster Care Program the largest shelter-based kitten and puppy care program in the Puget Sound region.
The goal of PAWS wildlife rehabilitation is always to return a properly wild animal to its natural habitat. Young wild animals at our center experience a process of care that takes them through different stages of development and into pre-release conditioning caging (the last stage of their time at the center). This caging helps prepare young lives for a return to the wild—branches and logs to climb and claw, space to exercise growing wing muscles in flight, perches to stand on, and hidden places to sleep. Appropriate wild foods help them in the transition to fending for themselves on that final day when the transport box is opened and the bird flies free, the deer bounds forth, or the chipmunk quickly scrambles into the safety of the underbrush—another wild life saved.What you can do to help
The flood of unwanted baby kittens and puppies can be stopped by a simple preventive measure— spaying or neutering your dog or cat before the first litter is born. Cats can become pregnant at five months of age and have as many as three litters a year. If you know people who need to have their cat or dog altered, please encourage them to do it right away. PAWS provides a list of low-cost spay/neuter clinics, and you can even present your friend with a gift certificate to his or her local veterinary clinic to help pay for the surgery. Families who want their children to experience the birthing process or the fun of having a litter of kittens or puppies can contact the PAWS Foster Care Program (at firstname.lastname@example.org) to help with the thousands of animals who already need special care.Wildlife babies
Many wildlife babies are “rescued” unnecessarily; wild animals often leave their babies alone for long periods of time, but will return to feed them. For example, deer visit their fawns only twice a day, and cottontail rabbits nurse their babies just once, for less than five minutes, each day.
If you find a baby you think might be orphaned, take time to assess the situation. Check the animal every few hours, keeping a safe distance so the parents feel secure enough to return.
Look, learn, listen, watch— and call first before acting. You can reach the PAWS Wildlife Center at 425.787.2500 x817.