"You get used to the smell," say volunteers at the Fox Valley Wildlife Center in Elburn. Odor is the first thing that hits when walking into the two-bedroom farmhouse, not surprising, since nearly 300 animals dwell here.
Call it a shelter/hospital for homeless animals who have fallen on hard times: hit by a car, orphaned, injured, alone. And this year, the heat has taken a severe toll on them so some arrive dehydrated.
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Found an animal? Here's what to do -- and what not to doWhat not to do
Birds: Many people find what they perceive to be abandoned birds. Instead, warns Ashley Flint, director of Fox Valley Wildlife Center, these are actually fledglings, or birds who have just left the nest and are learning to fly. These birds spend time on the ground for a while before taking flight. It's perfectly normal and in fact, you should leave them alone during this stage. Flint advises people to observe for a while because the mother typically is close by during this stage.
Ducks: It's common to see people feeding ducks. You might want to join in, but while it may be fun and you think it's helpful, it's harmful. It increases aggression among them as they compete for this food source. The unnatural food given to them (such as bread) can become lodged in their digestive tract. It is best to leave wild ducks alone. They know how to find their own food source.
Baby animals: Squirrels, rabbits and other babies found cannot be kept as pets. It is against the law. Also, cuddling such animals creates stress, decreasing their chance for survival. It's best to call a wildlife rehabilitation center if you've noted the mother has left the nest or been killed by a predator. Animal specialists are trained to care for the fragile orphans until they can fend for themselves. Since the best chance of survival always is its mother, watch babies for four to six hours to see if the mother returns to the nest. Mother bunnies visit the nest at dawn and dusk.
Hawks and owls: These are dangerous animals that shouldn't be handled by people. Try to locate a humane trapper or call the wildlife center and they will refer one. Trappers charge a fee.
What to do
Here is an example of a recent case of wildlife rescue. Volunteer Larissa DeSmet found an injured mallard duck near the Fox River in West Dundee. Its leg was broken. As a volunteer, she knew the proper procedure to follow:
1) She caught the duck by gently tossing a towel over it and then called Fox Valley Wildlife Center (the only center that also takes nonnative birds) at (630) 365-3800.
2) She carefully placed it in a cardboard box.
3) She kept it quiet and calm while driving it to the Fox Valley Wildlife Center.
4) Specialists there treated the leg and the duck rested and recuperated in a cage for a few weeks.
5) Larissa released the duck at the same location where it was found to return to its family and familiar surroundings.
Fox Valley Wildlife Center has an informative website with more information on what to do if you find an animal. Visit fvwc.org and click on the "Found An Animal?" tab.
-- Stefanie Dell'Aringa
On one particularly sweltering day, the heat index drove the "feels like" temperature over 100 degrees. Ashley Flint, the center's director, had just spent time outdoors caring for wild animals such as squirrels, raccoons and an imprinted coyote. She returned exhausted and sweating.
"We don't have any drinkable water here," she said. "So we've gotten a lot of generous donations of (bottled) water."
Luckily, the air conditioning is working inside the house. That wasn't always the case. Just imagine 300 wild animals living inside approximately 1,200 square feet of space.
"We had fans set up everywhere," said Flint. "We finally got the air conditioning working."
Flint said more baby animals are being found dehydrated this summer, and the heat has made many animals have to travel farther to find a water source, which can contribute to them getting hit by a car, eaten or injured.
The center had 2,300 animals come through last year, about half of which are birds. But the good news is that 45 percent of them will be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
As two interns work in an examination area one afternoon, they cautiously tag a family of baby cottontail bunnies by painting bright pink nail polish on their ears. It's a gentle and trauma-free way to identify them.
"Cottontails are the only wild bunny we have in this area," said Flint.
They can be raised and released, but then there are the permanent residents, such as Lucy the imprinted goose, who has full reign of the house and lets everyone know it; Ernie, a pigeon with a fractured wing who shuffles around on the floor, a sort of hall monitor in the bird room; and Franklin, a fawn missing one leg, who's awaiting surgery and a prosthetic. It seems the blind Virginia opossum is one of Flint's favorites, as she lovingly cradles him in her arms.
Motherless wood ducks will graduate to a life on their own along with the baby birds, some of whom are on a feeding schedule as often as every 10 minutes.
The care is demanding, and without the volunteers and private donations, work at the center would cease. It is not funded by the state, county or federal government. A group of about 35 volunteers, two paid staff and the two summer interns -- each working 20 hours per week -- help it run.
Two grocery stores donate produce regularly and lots of other private donations help considerably. But more volunteers are needed to get through the hot summer, and more bottled water wouldn't be bad either.
"It's the same situation as when we have bad storms," explained Flint. "Weather definitely affects all of us."
Volunteers at the center have a variety of duties. Most include feeding the furry or feathered friends and cleaning up after them.
Retired veterinarian Richard Velders of Plano has spent four years working five hours per week. The skilled doctor jested that he is back to square one in his career.
"These people know so much already that all I have to do is clean poop," Velders said. It's how he started out as an intern.
Still, his knowledge is put to use here.
"I like to work with the raptors, red-tailed hawks especially. I've released several of them."
The hardest part of the job for him is not getting attached to them.
Dani DeSmet is 12, the minimum age you can be to volunteer with an adult. In April, she and her mom Larissa, residents of Gilberts, began helping out on Friday afternoons.
"It seemed like a great opportunity for me because I could learn a lot and would be working with animals and seeing them close up," said Dani.
Feeding baby birds a mixture of mashed berries and wet dog food with tweezers is her favorite task.
Larissa DeSmet, an animal activist, loves watching the dedication of the staff and becoming more knowledgeable about the fragile creatures for which she cares.
"There's the possibility to learn, and I think that's incredible," she said. "It's been so rewarding."
As Larissa drops an ear of corn in front of Lucy the goose for a peace offering, it looks as though she has learned something about human/animal relations.
"If she wants food or something, she'll peck at your leg," said Flint, referring to Lucy. "She's spoiled."
To volunteer or donate, visit fvwc.org.