Cape Cod rehabilitators revive small mammals

Rehabilitators nurse squirrels and raccoons back to health

By Harry Kane


Sometimes in incubators, or by whatever means necessary,  rehabilitators revive mammals and later release them back into the wild. One of the larger treatment facilities is The Cape Wildlife Center, run by the Humane Society. First and foremost, the center educates people so they know what to do when a wild animal appears on their property, said Veterinarian Roberto Aguilar. Initially, their main concerns lie with human/wildlife conflict.

All too often people will call the center and say that there is a distressed animal on their property. Aguilar says that the Cape Wildlife Center can sometimes walk them through the problem over the phone. “About 30 percent of what we do is talk people off a ledge,” he said. The other phone-related help they provide includes talking with homeowners and trying to prevent them from manhandling or mishandling an animal, and preventing exposure to diseases.

Vet Aguilar
Veterinarian Roberto Aguilar at The Cape Wildlife Center ~ Photo by Harry Kane

In 2011, the center assisted 135 species and 120 different species the year before. The center has been treating fewer raccoons and skunks overall, and that could be attributed to a growing number of diseased animals, he said. But Aguilar admitted the Cape has only so many raccoons. Recently though, Aguilar has received raccoons from other areas, which are released into sanctuaries or reserves.

The Cape Wildlife Center vaccinates and microchips wildlife. An injection with a large needle implants the microchip under the skin between the shoulder blades. Once treated, the animal is often released and returned to its originating county.

Dave McRuer runs a database in Virginia called Wild One, which is a means for collecting wildlife data in a standardized way. Right now, around 50-60 organizations across the country are using the system. The database, unfortunately, does not involve everyone participating in wildlife rehabilitation, he explained. But, Cape Wildlife Center is one of those organizations that sends Wild One information.

Since February 2011, 110 raccoons were humanely euthanized, 23 died from complications, 88 were released and 31 were transferred, according to the Wild One database.

A common misconception is that wildlife are being admitted because of rabies or distemper. But Wildlife Biologist Mike Huguenin at the Division of   Fisheries and Wildlife explained that notion to be untrue; diseases are more likely to be a result of, or diagnosis of  and not a cause for raccoon admittance. Instead, those that have been admitted in the center are often brought there because the animal was trapped in a house or hit by a car. So injuries may not be a true diagnosis of the animal’s disposition.

When admitted to a larger center like Cape Wildlife, each animal has a unique patient number, and information collected on the date of admission, life stage, rescue jurisdiction and the circumstances of rescue, and injuries. The rehabilitators test the animals to see if they are coming in clinically healthy, and try to determine what part of their body is having problems. Is it a gastro-intestinal issue or a neurologic condition? That is the sort of data recorded and placed in the Wild One database.


Griffin and Coffin
Brittany Griffin and Kelly Coffin at The Cape Wildlife Center ~ Photo by Harry Kane

Brittany Griffin and Kelly Coffin said almost all the raccoons received by the center have been orphaned. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t particularly like raccoons,” Griffin said, “so they’ll call companies to have them removed, and a lot of times they’ll then feel bad about the babies.” The center, therefore, will end up with a lot of baby raccoons.

The rehabilitators bottle-feed the babies until the raccoons are ready to transition into the barn, where they have access to things that are similar to an outside environment but are under the protection of the center. Later, they are transferred into outdoor enclosures where they can climb and run around.

Rehabilitators don’t want the animals to have interaction with people and therefore release the raccoons in various remote locales near water. A lot of factors go into the release: the location, the space, how far away they would be from people and siblings. Coffin said  the raccoons thrive on the edges of urban areas, so the rehabilitators try and release them into areas away from people.

Raccoons that show signs of distemper or rabies will be admitted and stay in an isolation room, for at least 10 days. Coffin says rehabilitators don’t have much of a problem with raccoons getting distemper on the Cape, but they often receive raccoons from off the cape.

Many wildlife suffer from distemper — an infectious viral respiratory disease that can result in partial paralysis and often death.

“With distemper we’re testing for inclusion bodies through an ocular swab,” said Griffin. Distemper can take some time to show; sometimes when testing on the raccoons for distemper a false negative will result, so the rehabilitators will do weekly swabs before allowing the raccoons from off the Cape to integrate with the rest. If the rehabilitators find that the raccoons have rabies or distemper, the raccoons are humanely euthanized. There’s no cure.


In the small mammal nursery at the Cape Wildlife Center, squirrels were getting ready to be released before the wintertime. Each squirrel is weighed every day to confirm its weight. Once the squirrels gets over 200 grams, they can be released into the outdoor enclosures.

Photo by Sigrid Warren

Some of the bigger squirrels are juveniles that have been “kidnapped” by people, Griffin explained. Kindhearted people take the squirrels home, feed them for a couple days and then bring them to the center. The squirrel kidnappers are under the delusion that the squirrels are lost and need help, Griffin said.

Most people don’t know, Griffin added, that squirrels who have a fluffed tail are fine to be on their own. Unfortunately these squirrels come to the center too often for the wrong reasons.

Mother squirrels have two litters a year, said Griffin. Typically, the second litter has a lot more health problems. The unhealthy ones are placed into incubators to help them through the critical period. Most of these squirrels were left for dead by their mother or orphaned because the mother was killed. Sometimes a tree is cut down and their home is gone. The young squirrels are bought to the center and are re-hydrated.

The center charts the young squirrels’ progress daily. As the squirrels in recovery reach a certain weight they are fed differently; when they get older, the squirrels are weaned off of formula and onto solids. Halfway through the process they start by adding solids to their diet. They even eat bowls of Cheerios and water-based vegetables like zucchini, squash and berries.

At the Cape Wildlife Center, during the fall season, squirrels transition into outdoor enclosures that simulate a natural environment. The outdoor enclosures are the last step before the animals are released. This is important for the animals because they need a certain amount of time to be away from people, Griffin said. But, they still have access to food and shelter. In the squirrel enclosure, runways made out of long branches are spread throughout so that the squirrels can learn to run and climb.

About Harry Kane 4 Articles
Harry Kane is a print journalist, photographer, videographer and video editor. Kane worked at a weekly newspaper called The Somerville News for two years while he attended Emerson College. Previously, Kane shot and edited video in LA and NY.