Retired Cape Cod rehabbers reflect on golden years

Retired rescuers and rehabbers Donna Backus and Karen Von Den Dealle

By Harry Kane


When Donna Backus found a group of ducklings on a river without their mother, she had no idea her life would change forever. She scooped the ducklings up and called Orenda Wildlife. That’s when she began her wildlife rescue and rehabilitation days. “From then on, it was calls about picking up this animal or that animal.”

Donna Backus - Picture by Harry Kane
Donna Backus ~ Photo by Harry Kane

In the beginning, Backus took whatever kind of animal came to her. She took rabbits, red squirrels, grey squirrels, flying squirrels, opossums and skunks.  “Once I got my first skunk, it was all over. They’re just like kittens… they’re cute, they’re sweet, they’re easy to deal with,” she said. But she soon found out that skunks are very demanding and noisy. Yet, Backus had found her niche in the field of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and decided to specialize in skunks.

Most of the skunks Backus rescued were babies. They became very attached to her, she said. The early juveniles, however, didn’t want to have much to do with her. “They’ll tolerate you because you feed them.”

Karen Von Den Dealle and Donna Backus both started around the same time at Orenda Wildlife, in Barnstable. They both worked for Barbara Birdsey who founded the Orenda Wildlife Land Trust in Massachusetts in 1986. Birdsey brought wildlife rehabilitation to the Cape, Dealle said.

Dealle recalled meeting Backus in 1988. They both had received word that the Orenda Wildlife Trust needed volunteers. “It was my mechanic actually who suggested on two different occasions that I contact them,” Dealle said. People were bringing Dealle injured birds and other animals. This seemed to be a natural transition into helping wildlife animals, she recalled. “The night that I went, I believe, was probably the first night, first meeting, that Donna went to…that’s when I met Donna.”

That same year Dealle received her state and federal permit. She said she had the same background as a lot of people: she’d find a sick or injured animal and take it home and try to help it.

Donna and her skunks

Originally, the skunk cage – a 25-foot by 12-foot by 6-foot enclosure – was located at Orenda. Backus went to the cage two times a day; once every morning to “clean up from the party they had the night before,” and then she’d come back and put dry food out for them later.

Backus estimated that she annually rehabilitated around 50 baby skunks. Many of the telephone calls Backus would receive in the spring would be regarding adult skunks with septic arthritis.

The arthritis was a result of ticks, according to Backus. The skunks get big abscesses and the joints become swollen, she explained. “I picked up a mom with septic arthritis, who had like four babies, and the babies were just trying to get her to get up,” Backus said. “She was so debilitated. Her claws were long. She was covered with ticks, and every baby was clean, bright, fat and fuzzy.” The mom was later euthanized. But all the babies survived.

Photo by Sigrid Warren

Dealle and her own clinic

Meanwhile, Dealle decided to go it alone with her home wildlife center. In 1992, she started WILDCARE and she did her own fundraising. People would come in and volunteer in her home. She’d raise hundreds of baby birds every year. The volunteers, who became licensed, worked with the mammals.  Dealle said that at that time, she was the only one on the Cape who rehabilitated foxes and coyotes.

Dealle kept that organization going until 2002, when it got so large that it needed to expand into another facility. When WILDCARE moved out of her home in 2002, her practice became Carapace Healing Center – named for a turtle’s top shell – which has since closed. Dealle is now 73 years old and says she doesn’t have the energy she wishes she still had.

Throughout her rehabilitator career on the Cape, Dealle took care of songbirds, opossums, turtles, and other animals. The goal of a rehabilitator, she explained, is not to socialize wildlife with people, but to get them healthy and ready to go into the wild.

Animals need to be kept separate and apart from humans, she added. They need caging where they are independent from other species so that they don’t get comfortable with a predator. “You don’t want to temper that fear,” she said. “They need that to survive.”

Backus says skunks are tricky to catch

Backus recalled her experiences with capturing skunks. She would only get sprayed when chasing them down through the woods. She remembered one time when she received a call from a homeowner who complained that something was continually knocking over the bird bath. The homeowner had put a leg-hold trap in the yard, and shortly after, an adult skunk was caught in the trap. “I wasn’t thinking clearly,” Backus explained. “I was just trying to get the rocks and the dirt off the chain so I could pick him up and get him somewhere where we could remove the trap. And I got sprayed that time.”

But there is a method for catching a skunk that Backus has used on many occasions. It depends on the skunk’s age and location, she said. If they are under a shed, the homeowners can put down food for a couple of days at the same time every afternoon. On the third day, after the food was laid out, Backus would be there, standing downwind. “Skunks have a tendency to keep their eyes low to the ground; they’re not really looking around. If they don’t see your feet, they don’t know you are there,” she said. That was a sure way to catch them without causing pain.

Photo by Sigrid Warren

“Some of it is knowing where their limit is, sorta what they’re thinking,” she said, “knowing the animal well enough to know how it’s feeling, and what you need to get it where you need it to be.”

Back then, “it was picking them up where they were, picking off the bugs and treating.” She would give fluids and medication to the skunks when needed. “You had to learn to use a needle. You had to learn to peel a mouse and put him in blender.”

When the Orenda Wildlife Center moved to Meadow Lane in Barnstable, Backus and the skunk cage followed. Backus remembered helping with many of the orphaned skunks from one end of the Cape to the other. “I’d get a call and they’d say, ‘There’s five babies walking around in my yard unattended.’ So then I would have to go out and catch them.”

In the wild, skunks eat bugs and small mice if they can catch them. They also eat carrion. You know a skunk has been in your yard if there are little holes. But, Backus said, they’re great because they get those grubs that are going to damage your lawn. “Some golf courses now even let them stay because it’s just a natural method of keeping the grubs out of the green,” she added.

Skunks eat a lot and can double their weight in a week, Backus said. She fed them formula if they didn’t have teeth. Later she’d move them onto chicken baby food in little jars. Then she would have them eat Iams canned dog food and mice. At the time she was working with a wildlife group who had a connection with a lab in Boston that breed mice for testing and experimentation. The lab had extras that had been euthanized and frozen. She was able to get freezers of frozen mice for free on a regular basis. “I think it was like a $100,000 worth of mice… maybe more,” Backus estimated.

Photo by Sigrid Warren

Keeping emotions separate from the job

“Donna is very cutesy about it. I kept myself more separated from it, you know, emotionally,” said Dealle. Dealing with wild animals is quite different than helping domesticated animals and they cannot be socialized with people, she explained. Dealle provided for the animals and treasured that experience, “But the ultimate goal is for you to allow them to go back to the wild. And really, they’re going back to die.”

Dealle explained that this facet of rehabilitating is hard to come to terms with. “You know, when you spend three months raising babies and then they have to go back out into the wild,” she said. “Of course, the other side of that is that the responsible rehabilitator raises those babies so they are not bonded to the human caretaker but they bond with each other.”
Understanding what the animals need is crucial.

“Squirrels need to climb and jump and bury and dig and open nuts and they need to be fed their natural foods so that they recognize out in the wild what they’re supposed to eat. It’s a huge responsibility and it’s a huge amount of pleasure when you have allowed that animal to become what it was meant to become, even though you are raising baby squirrels to be killed.”

A lot of people have trouble separating their love for the animals from the job. Dealle says that she used to give certain animals extra attention and time, and would wake up many times throughout the night to make sure it got something to eat. “You give it all your blood and guts, and then in six to eight weeks you have to release it out into the wild… it’s extremely rewarding. I treasured every single minute.”

Backus continued caring for skunks until 2002 and tried to fight General Mills in a battle against Yoplait containers. Apparently, hapless skunks get their heads stuck in Yoplait yogurt containers and die.  It gets stuck behind their ears, she said.

“From the beginning of rehabbing I had to rescue Yoplait container guys,” Backus said.  She created a survey, calling every animal control officer in every town in Barnstable County, Dukes, and Nantucket, and compiled the information.

A stamp was eventually put on the container saying, “Protect wildlife, crush cup before disposal,” she explained.  But the containers still have not been changed. She refers to herself as a skunk hugger but feels “it’s wrong for you to create a product that’s hazardous to animals. That’s just the bottom line.”


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.