The rehabilitation of a wild animal may take a few days, or several months depending on the injuries or circumstances that bring the animal into PAWS’ care. The process begins when an injured, ill, or orphaned animal is found and ends, ideally, with the return of a healthy animal to suitable habitat in the wild. This is the story of the rehabilitation process for just one of the 4,000+ animals PAWS will have treated by the end of this year.
On June 26th a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway maintenance worker discovered what appeared to be a dead river otter lying on the train tracks in Edmonds. Upon closer inspection, it was apparent that the otter was still breathing. Although it was only about 9 a.m., the day was already uncomfortably warm, and the otter was lying in direct sunlight. Fearing that the animal would overheat, the railroad worker parked his maintenance vehicle over the otter to shade him from the sun. He then contacted Edmonds Animal Control, and the responding officer retrieved the otter and brought him to the PAWS Wildlife Center. Upon admission, he was entered into the PAWS database as case #04-2345.
Otter 04-2345 was comatose when he arrived. He was bleeding from his nose and mouth, and his breathing was labored. A large area of swelling was evident on the back of his head and neck. PAWS Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. John Huckabee placed an IV catheter in the otter’s leg, and administered fluids and medications to help stabilize his condition. X-rays that were taken to determine the cause of the head and neck swelling revealed that the otter had suffered a fractured skull and a fractured neck vertebra. Something had hit the otter very hard from behind and, considering where he had been found, that “something” had apparently been a train.
For the six days following his admission to PAWS, otter 04-2345 remained unconscious. PAWS wildlife rehabilitation staff continued to administer fluids, medications, and other supportive care. During this time, the otter suffered several seizures, but these eventually subsided. Soon the otter began to exhibit involuntary “swimming” motions with his legs when handled, and he also began to swallow fish that were placed in his mouth. By July 2nd the otter began to struggle and bite during handling, and on July 5th he showed signs of awareness and coordination. He regained his feet, but he walked in circles, bumping into the walls of the small enclosure in which he was being housed. He was placed in a small pool daily to give him some exercise, and to keep his fur in good condition. He continued to improve, and he graduated to a larger, outdoor cage on July 14th.
Once otter 04-2345 was placed in his new cage, it became apparent that he was not responding appropriately to visual stimuli. When the door would open and a staff member would enter his cage, the otter would not look in their direction. He also had difficulty avoiding objects in his path when walking. Veterinary Ophthalmologist Dr. Tom Sullivan was kind enough to donate his services to assess the otter’s vision. Dr. Sullivan found that the otter’s eyes were injury free, so his apparent blindness was likely due to a brain injury. He recommended that the otter be given more time to heal, and that his vision be reassessed in two to three weeks. PAWS staff continued to feed and care for the otter, and his behavior was monitored closely.
On July 29th the otter began to show signs that his vision was returning—he became visibly agitated and hid behind objects when a staff member entered his cage. The improvement continued over the course of the following week. On August 8th the otter was given a real test when live herring were placed in his pool for the first time. He immediately went after the herring, and within minutes had plucked every last one from the water. The otter was moved to "pre-release" status, and he was scheduled to be offered more live fish to help prepare him for release. A few weeks later, having benefited as much as he possibly could from PAWS’ care, he was ready to leave.
Wild animals are generally released as closely as possible to where they were found. This helps to ensure that genetic material, parasites, and diseases will not be introduced to a new area by relocating animals. In the case of adult animals, it also means that they will likely know the travel routes and safe retreats in the area, thus they will have a better chance for survival.
Otter 04-2345 was released back to his home in Edmonds on August 31st, close to, but not in the exact spot in which he was found. Instead, he was released about 300 yards away along the Edmonds waterfront, a safe distance from the train tracks.