Perils in Suburbia

When it comes to treating the injuries of wild animals, the considerations are numerous and complicated

Because of the speed in recent decades of development sprawl and the successful restoration of species and forest habitats damaged by human activity, evolution hasn’t exactly equipped wildlife with the mechanisms to cope with the dangers of the suburban landscape.

“Many of our patients are brought in for trauma resulting from human causes,” says Flo Tseng, director of the Wildlife Clinic at Cummings School. Admissions to the clinic have increased 41 percent in just over a decade, mostly due to accidental clashes between animals and people. Cars hit all manner of furry, feathered and scaly creatures. Fences and soccer nets ensnare birds. Nestlings and baby squirrels crash to the ground when homeowners prune trees and shrubs. Lawn mowers chew up rabbit nests.

On a recent day at the Wildlife Clinic, staffers hover around a painted turtle that looks like Humpty Dumpty; its shell was shattered during a run-in with a car. Staff veterinarian Maureen Murray, V03, undertakes the painstaking process of putting the reptile back together again. She inserts a tiny breathing tube to administer anesthesia, and then drills tiny holes around the edges of the fractured shell. She threads fine wire through the holes, pulling it tight.

The shell will heal nicely around the wires, and the turtle will be released when it’s deemed healthy.

People who bring animals into the clinic receive a case number for the patient they’ve delivered—and many of them call back, sometimes daily, for updates. “It’s always great to be able to share good news,” says Jessica Zorge, the staff assistant who helps triage the 100 to 250 phone calls the clinic receives every day during the busy season from April to August. “Since they took the time to bring an injured animal in, it’s satisfying when you can let them know it will return to the wild.”

Wild animals are more likely to die from trauma than our pets. A cat or dog attack on a baby bunny might not look severe initially, but Tseng says that many of these animals are not in great shape by the time people bring them to the Wildlife Clinic. “The stress of the initial injury or illness, followed by captivity, can sometimes be too much, especially for prey species,” she says. Wild animals that suffer even a mild gash from a dog or cat’s teeth often go into shock and die as a result of nasty infections caused by the bacteria found normally in pets’ mouths.

“Treating wildlife is a lot different from treating pets,” Tseng says. “In small-animal medicine, you can do a lot more medically and surgically with the patients.”

The Wildlife Clinic staff weighs the benefits of giving medications and performing procedures against the potential harm of handling a wild animal too much. “We try to be as hands-off as we can,” Tseng says. “Every time we touch a wild animal, it thinks it’s going to be eaten. It’s like an alien-abduction experience for them.”

Wild patients can’t get the level of follow-up care that makes the prognosis better for our companion animals. “Our patients have to be pretty perfect to be released,” says Tseng. A dog hit by a car may have an owner willing to administer daily pain relievers to keep it comfortable for the rest of its life, she notes. But a coyote with the same injury has to be able to run fast enough to catch its meals.

Back to Top