Monday, September 25, 2006

Injured wildlife finds sanctuary at MA vet school


One recent afternoon, David O’Donnell arrived at the Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University with an odd looking turtle under his arm. The turtle resembled a boxer whose face had been on the receiving end of a punch a few too many times. The entire top portion of its beak was missing.

Mr. O’Donnell, a salesman from West Suffield, Conn., said that as he was driving that day, he noticed the turtle starting to cross the road. He stopped to pick it up so that he could deliver it to the clinic in North Grafton. He knew the way because he had once brought in a painted turtle.

“I’ve been doing turtles for years,” Mr. O’Donnell joked as he handed the animal over to Dr. Mark Pokras, the clinic director.

Dr. Pokras took a close look at the turtle’s face as a small crowd gathered around, exclaiming over the severity of the injury. The amputation might have occurred during a skirmish with a dog or another turtle, Dr. Pokras surmised. Everyone wondered how the animal had survived.

“They’re scavengers,” Dr. Pokras explained. “They eat plant material.” The injury, he said, looked like it had happened a couple of years ago. “One of the things you learn in this business is the kind of thing an animal can survive with,” he added.

Dr. Pokras has been at the clinic since it opened in 1983. At that time, he was a student at Cummings, then called the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine. He graduated in 1984 and was appointed clinic director in 1995. Nearly a quarter century on the job has done nothing to dull his enthusiasm. Dr. Pokras and his staff of seven never know what sort of animal will arrive in a cardboard box carried by a well-meaning person.

“Each species has a magic of its own,” Dr. Pokras said, smiling. “To get up close and see how they see the world, it’s exciting.”

For the most part, the clinic treats birds and critters native to New England. The only types of wildlife it will not accept are the species that can transmit rabies — skunks, raccoons, bats or woodchucks. It has hosted bear cubs, a moose calf born on a highway, a 13-pound bobcat taken from a dorm room at Northeastern University and a coyote hit by a car on Storrow Drive in Boston.

Dr. Pokras used to see more specialized species that required specific types of food and habitats, such as the cottontail rabbit, the piping plover and the roseate tern. As humans have altered and diminished those habitats, the generalists — among them white-tailed deer, raccoons, coyotes and skunks — have thrived. The generalists are the species that are now often labeled as pests, he said.

“Coyotes eat both rats and apples,” Dr. Pokras noted. “They live in the city or in the country. By changing the environment to suit us, we’re changing the species that are out there.”

Conservation biologists are pessimistic about saving many of the specialists, Dr. Pokras said, and they offer varying estimates of how quickly those species are disappearing. “It’s certainly more than 12 a year,” he said. “It’s happening pretty fast.”

Changes in landscapes and habitats also are the reason we are more frequently encountering moose and bear in surprising places.

At one time, the moose population was decimated, said Dr. Allen T. Rutberg, a behavioral ecologist on staff at Cummings’ Center for Animals and Public Policy. With the regrowth of forests, those hefty creatures have recovered.

“They like water, willows and secondary forest, which is young undergrowth,” Dr. Rutberg said. “We’ve got all these little lakes and marshes.”

Bears are versatile forest creatures that eat carcasses, grass, plants and small mammals.

“We wiped out bears, and they’re recovering,” Dr. Rutberg said. “They’re coming from the Berkshires and northwest New Jersey, and they’re doing quite well. A homestead for a bear is eight square miles. A bear looking for a place to live will wander anywhere.”

Bears attract a lot of curiosity. In May, a crowd gathered around a mother and her cubs as they hung out in a tree in Barre.

“We should treat them as if they are dangerous,” Dr. Rutberg warned. “Don’t approach a bear. Back off. They should be treated with a lot of respect and given a lot of distance.”

When questions arise, answers are available from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. For more than a decade, the MSPCA has operated a program called Living with Wildlife. Staff members provide advice to callers who are having a problem with one critter or another. An MSPCA Web site,, offers detailed information about a host of animals and effective ways to handle their presence.

“Conflicts come with people who don’t know that wildlife live in their community,” said Kara Holmquist, MSPCA’s director of advocacy. “We’ve worked with homeowners to take steps to prevent conflicts before they occur. As long as land is developed and animals are displaced, we’ll see conflicts.”

At Cummings, the clinic’s patients, for the most part, suffer from infections and fractures. In late spring and summer, five to 20 animals a day are admitted. Not surprisingly, Dr. Pokras has his share of quirky stories.

“Someone called saying there was a rattlesnake in the backyard,” Dr. Pokras recounted. “I patiently explained that there haven’t been any poisonous snakes in Massachusetts for 200 years. I persuaded the caller to put the snake in a box and bring it to the clinic. I opened the box and took one look: ‘Holy smokes! It is a rattlesnake!’ ”

It is likely, he said, that the snake had been illegally brought into Massachusetts as a pet and then let go.

The clinic once treated about half mammals and half birds; today, the caseload is weighted toward birds. That shift occurred after the discovery of rabies in raccoons in the early 1990s. As a result, the clinic cannot encourage anyone to bring in a mammal that may be sick.

“Now we tell people to call animal control and have the officer bring the animal to the clinic,” Dr. Pokras said. “Often, that doesn’t happen.”

On this day, robins, a Cooper’s hawk, a painted turtle, a Blanding’s turtle, a common loon, a snake, a black duck, a wood turtle, several pigeons, a great horned owl, and a mourning dove were in treatment. A porcupine from the EcoTarium was undergoing a physical exam.

Staff members, veterinary students and visitors all spoke in hushed tones. In the wild, these animals hear a human voice and think a predator is nearby. Their stress levels go up. Many of the cages were covered with sheets to keep the environment consistent with what the animal would normally experience.

At the rear of the clinic was a raptor flight cage used to acclimatize hawks, eagles and other birds of prey to outdoor conditions. One large ward houses carnivores.

The clinic has a mascot, a screech owl called Percy. He peers down from shelving or the tops of doors. Dr. Florina S. Tseng, the clinic’s assistant director, was concerned about publicizing Percy’s presence. She did not want readers to think that it is a good idea to adopt a wild animal as a pet. Percy came to the clinic ill and injured. By the time he was rehabilitated, clinic staff realized he was unafraid of humans and would not be able to survive in the wild.

The only animals the clinic rejects are those that did not need to be picked up in the first place, such as a young robin under a tree not yet ready to fly but big enough to have left the nest.

“The question is always, ‘What’s in the animal’s best interest?’ ” Dr. Pokras said.

In drawing up a treatment plan, staff members consider how much time, money and resources should be put into a case.

“Let’s say we get a mourning dove hit by a car and in need of multiple surgeries,” Dr. Pokras said. “In the winter, when it is quieter, we would most likely do it. In a busier time of year, probably not.”

Last year, the clinic treated slightly fewer than 2,000 animals. It is supported in part through its affiliation with the veterinary school. Mostly, it raises money by applying for foundation grants and soliciting individual donations. The yearly budget is about $300,000.

The goal is to return every animal to the wild. The ones that are treated usually survive and are turned over to wildlife rehabilitators, who help the animals make the transition back to their natural habitats.

Dr. Pokras is frank to say that nearly every animal admitted to the clinic could be euthanized, and there would be plenty more of that species to take its place. So why bother to save these everyday creatures?

One reason is public health. Animals are like miner’s canaries; they are sentinels for environmental contaminants and diseases humans may catch, such as West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis and avian flu.

But equally important, the clinic influences the way people relate to the natural world.

“In terms of conservation, you’ve got to get people to care,” Dr. Pokras said. “If they hear over and over that wildlife doesn’t matter, pretty soon they don’t care. Part of what we do is to help people be more knowledgeable about and empathetic with the animals we share the world with.”

For his part, Dr. Rutberg views the issue in starkly practical terms. With the changes in the landscape and the shrinking habitats, it is essential to build an appreciation and tolerance for wildlife among urban and suburban dwellers. Often, he said, a family moving to the suburbs expects to enjoy a lovely landscaped environment, with shrubs, flowers and, perhaps, a vegetable garden.

“When deer, woodchucks and rabbits start eating the shrubbery — and they can work their way through it mighty fast — the romance of the wild animal wears off pretty quick,” Dr. Rutberg said. “We need to temper people’s expectations about how much they can control the outdoors. The animals will be there. You’re not going to be able to call someone up to take them away. If the grubs are there, the skunks will show up — and they’re coming back.”


A slideshow and more information about wildlife and the clinic:

Contact Pamela H. Sacks by e-mail at AID=/20060924/NEWS/609240497/1116

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