Amid Challenging Year, Tufts Wildlife Clinic Cared for Thousands of Patients

In 2020, Tufts Wildlife Clinic weathered the COVID-19 pandemic with help from a new fellow, many remote volunteers, and local rehabilitators
This turtle was one of thousands of animal patients at Tufts Wildlife Clinic in 2020.
“Our team is amazing. We support each other and stay focused on our mission, which is to care for these animals and educate our veterinary students," said Maureen Murray, V03, director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic. Photo: Riley Aronson
February 22, 2021

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On a normal day, Tufts Wildlife Clinic relies on a small group of staff, several volunteers, and half a dozen veterinary students at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine to care for the dozens of animals recovering there at any moment in time. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, that changed drastically.

Students shifted to remote learning, and due to safety restrictions, volunteers could not enter the clinic to help with daily tasks such as cleaning cages or washing laundry. But the clinic never closed, because injured red-tailed hawks and Eastern gray squirrels in the clinic still needed to be fed and monitored, and new patients were still arriving. That left the clinic’s small core team to figure out how to manage those tasks along with their responsibility to provide medical care.

Under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, Tufts Wildlife Clinic cared for about 3,200 animals in 2020, including 1,790 birds, 1,246 mammals, 147 reptiles, and 11 amphibians.

“Our team is amazing, and everybody kept a good attitude,” said Maureen Murray, V03, director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic and clinical associate professor at Cummings School. “We support each other and stay focused on our mission, which is to care for these animals and educate our veterinary students.”

“There aren’t many training programs like this in wildlife rehabilitation and conservation medicine. I’m so thankful to be able to learn from the staff for multiple years as part of this learning and teaching fellowship,” said veterinarian Elena Cox, the Shalin Liu Fellow in Wildlife Medicine and Education. Photo: Riley AronsonOne of the ways in which the clinic accomplished that mission in 2020 was through a new fellowship enabled by a gift from longtime donor Shalin Liu, a generous friend of the clinic who previously gifted a flight cage for bird rehabilitation. Veterinarian Elena Cox, who completed a one-year internship with the Wildlife Clinic, will be the Shalin Liu Fellow in Wildlife Medicine and Education for three years. 

“This is the first time we've been able to have someone in a training program that spans multiple years, which will allow Dr. Cox to refine her skills, build her knowledge base, and experience working exclusively with wildlife,” Murray said.

“Professionally, this has been an amazing opportunity,” Cox said. “There aren’t many training programs like this in wildlife rehabilitation and conservation medicine. I’m so thankful to be able to learn from the staff here for multiple years as part of this learning and teaching fellowship.”

This consistency also enables Cox to help the Wildlife Clinic build and strengthen its educational programs, Murray said, especially since veterinary students were able to safely return to the clinic in June 2020 (though fewer students are on rotation at a time to keep the number of people in the clinic low).

The clinic also welcomed additional help from licensed wildlife rehabilitators around Massachusetts. The clinic veterinarians and staff always have worked closely with wildlife rehabilitators, but in 2020, they collaborated more than ever before, especially in the spring and summer—otherwise known as “baby season.” Sometimes people bring young animals to the clinic that are healthy, but they assume have been orphaned.

“Healthy orphan rehab is labor intensive and time consuming because those little animals need a lot of care and frequent feedings. That's something we are not staffed to do even under normal circumstances, so our remote phone-answering crew was able to divert people to bring those animals directly to local licensed rehabilitators,” said Murray.

This infographic shows a selection of species that the Tufts Wildlife Clinic treated in 2020.

Volunteers also continued to pitch in however they could. Some dropped off branches and greenery, which the clinic uses to create hiding spaces and habitats in the animals’ cages, as well as old newspaper to line the bottom of cages. Other volunteers dropped off groceries—“sometimes for the patients and sometimes for us,” Murray said.

For that reason and more, Murray said she’s very grateful for the clinic’s volunteers and members of the public who interacted with the clinic.

“It's not unusual for us to get thank you notes from people who brought in an animal. But recently, we have received some amazing notes just thanking us for being here,” she said. “It has been such a difficult year for everyone, and it was heartening to know how much it means to people that we do what we do, and also to see how much people care for our wildlife, even in the midst of all that was happening.”

Clinical veterinary staff at Tufts Wildlife Clinic perform an oral swab on a sedated bobcat to obtain a sample for the Coronavirus Epidemiological Research & Surveillance (CoVERS) study. (Credit: Whitney Stiehler/Tufts Wildlife Clinic)

The Wildlife Clinic staff not only helped their patients, but also other Cummings School researchers. Jonathan Runstadler, professor of infectious disease and global health at Cummings School, is running a study to investigate the potential for SARS-CoV-2 transmission from humans into domestic and wild animals. Researchers have found the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in humans in cats and dogs as well as zoo animals, such as big cats in New York and gorillas in California. 

“We were able to take samples from our bobcats, as we know that cats seem to be a species that contract the virus. And we sampled other mammal species, too,” said Murray. “We do a nasal swab, an oral swab, and take a blood sample that can be used to test for antibodies. This helps Dr. Runstadler’s lab get a better, more complete picture of what species potentially can and can't harbor the virus.”

Animals seen at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic are treated without charge. If you would like to aid the Tufts Wildlife Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in covering the costs of these treatments, you may give online. If you have found orphaned, injured or sick wildlife, you can call 508-839-7918 or visit https://wildlife.tufts.edu/ to get advice on what to do next.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.