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The Wild World of Wildlife Hotlines

From hearse-pecking robins to ghostly flying squirrels, the animals who confound Connecticut citizens keep Laura Simon busy throughout the year. As a longtime Fund for Animals employee and now The HSUS’s urban wildlife program field director, Simon, along with HSUS program coordinator Becca DeWeerdt, operates a wildlife hotline that helps man and beast cohabit an increasingly crowded world. Animal Sheltering editor Nancy Lawson spoke with Simon recently about her most common calls—and her uncommonly sage advice for animal shelters and other organizations that handle wildlife issues.

How long have you been doing this?
I’ve been doing this for 10 years. When I started the hotline, I didn’t mean to. It was an unintended hotline. Basically I was doing rehab work and I got newspaper coverage, and I just said, “Well, if people have questions about wildlife, they can call me.” And sure enough, I got bombarded with phone calls, and I suddenly had several-hundred-dollar phone bills. This occurred during spring and summer, which is the height of birthing season for wildlife, and I was suddenly spending a fortune returning all the calls. So I appealed to Cleveland Amory, who I had done some consulting work for in past years. I said, “There is a huge public need for wildlife problem-solving, and would you consider hiring me to set up a hotline and do other wildlife projects for you?” I wrote out a full job proposal, and he hired me two days later. So that was the birth of the urban wildlife program for the Fund for Animals and the hotline.

And you had just started doing rehab on your own time?
I’d done rehab ever since I was a child. My mother always took in any orphaned or injured wild animals from the local nature centers and was known as the local animal woman, so we always took in baby raccoons and baby skunks ever since I was about 10 years old.

After the initial publicity you received locally, were you getting calls mostly from the surrounding area?
They were mainly throughout Connecticut. The publicity was based on certain animals that I had taken in, and one was a particularly controversial case because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had trapped out raccoons on an island that they own or manage, and there were orphans left behind. I took in the orphans, and I wanted to get the message out that trapping raccoons during spring and summer is likely to lead to orphaning. Here was a very good example: I had the most pathetic, adorable-looking raccoons as a result of trapping, and they were very photogenic so it became a good educational story.

And what did people start calling you about then? Is it still pretty similar now in terms of what your most typical calls are?
In a lot of ways, yes. They called about everything. They called about what to do about raccoons in the chimneys, skunks under the deck, baby birds fallen from a nest. But the neat thing was I didn’t have all the answers, so I did a lot of consulting with [the late] Guy Hodge of The HSUS. … He really, in my mind, was probably one of the most important influences on my life’s work because he was out there doing all this neat problem-solving work and developing expertise in an area that I’d never heard of but that was so desperately needed. And then with [HSUS director of urban wildlife programs] John Hadidian, he started these urban wildlife workshops. I went to as many as I could, I learned so much from them, and I could apply it directly to my hotline work. Now it’s fun because I help teach the workshops, but back then I was following the urban wildlife workshops around and just tapping Guy’s brain all the time. And so the hotline grew and I think it was in the first year that the New York Times did a profile, and that bumped up the calls. One came in from France, so suddenly the hotline went international!

© Carolyn Polio
Something as seemingly harmless as a yogurt cup can prove treacherous for skunks because of their torpedo-shaped heads, says Simon, who helped free this one from a container three years ago.

What was that one about?
Bats in a mansion. I felt like saying, “Well, let me come look. If you’ll pay for me to come out to the south of France, I’ll be there. I’ll check out your bats.” … So that was neat. The hotline is a lot of work, particularly right now. Spring and summer is the biggest time of conflict, and it’s baby season, so baby animals are everywhere and people are grabbing them and not knowing what to do and not knowing if they’re orphaned or not, so we do a lot of troubleshooting and detective work. When somebody calls and says, “I have an orphaned animal,” we have to figure out: Is the animal really of the species they say it is? Is the animal really an orphan? Or is that animal actually a baby bunny or a deer? If it’s the latter, is the mom nearby but the person doesn’t realize that mother deer and rabbits don’t stay with their young since the mother’s scent would attract predators? Maybe a cat got the animal? So it’s a lot of analysis over the phone. You have to really question the caller because you’re not seeing the situation with your own eyes.

What are some of the most bizarre things you’ve dealt with?
Here’s the most bizarre one this year—not bizarre, but it just reflects a lack of public knowledge. A woman called; she had a cardinal in a nest outside her house, and she decided that the cardinal mom was probably hungry because the bird was just sitting on the nest. So she took food out to the bird and went right up to the nest and tried to feed the mother bird, which of course freaked the mother out. The mother flew off the nest. Then the person saw that there were newly born baby birds in the nest, and because the mother didn’t come right back, she took the newly born baby birds inside the house and called us to say that the mother had abandoned the baby birds. So I said, “You know, although your intentions are good, you are creating a bad situation—you scared the mother off; she’s staying away because you’re a predator, and she’s trying to show the predator there’s nothing to prey on, so she’s not being active around the nest. But you’ve now taken her babies from the nest, and if you do that much longer, they will be truly orphaned.” So I explained to her, “You’ve got to put the babies back, leave them alone, and don’t worry about Mom. Nature has created a good system for her; she’ll have plenty to eat.” But that was a “multiple good intentions gone awry” sort of call.

It seems so intuitive; you would think people would just know not to do that.
No, they don’t know. They feed milk to baby birds and kill them. They just think, well, everybody drinks milk. Yet birds don’t. You don’t tend to see mother birds going around and picking up quarts of milk. They pick up worms, not milk, for their babies. The other weird call we had was from a funeral home a couple years ago, and they said, “There’s a psychotic robin attacking our hearse, and it’s making it really embarrassing for services.” The problem was that the bird was defecating on and attacking the hearse. It turned out that the hearse had a really shiny fender, and this male bird was merely seeing his own reflection in the fender and mistaking it for a competitor in his territory because it was breeding season. So while it looked like he was attacking the fender, he was actually attacking himself! So we advised them to suds up the fender, leave it soapy and let it dry so it wasn’t so reflective, and that solved the problem. We’ve had a lot of bizarre calls. We’ve had calls where one lady thought she was seeing a ghost in the night. She’d see the animal’s eyeballs staring at her every night, and the animal supposedly would touch her in the middle of the night; she had all these visions of this ghost. It turned out to be a flying squirrel that was just coming into her house at night, sitting on the curtains, and running across her bed because she kept a snack on her bed table. Because she was half-awake when this happened, she’d have delusions of seeing a ghost even though the animal turned out to only be a flying squirrel.

How’d you figure that out?
We finally had her put down flour and we said, “We’ll check for fingerprints.” And flying squirrel footprints were what we found.

You get all the wacky phone calls.
Sometimes we really do. But we’ve had calls where people just tend to misunderstand the animal’s intent. Like we’ve had people call about malicious raccoons and squirrels that were tearing off the siding of their house and that were “obviously rabid” because they were being so destructive. And what was really going on—and this is always the tip-off this time of year—was that the person had a hole in their house that they had just patched, and in that hole were babies. So these raccoons and squirrels were just merely trying to get back to their young.

How many calls do you get a year?
We’re trying to calculate that. It’s well over 6,000, and it’s seasonal. Right now we might get 50, 60 calls a day, and in the winter there might just be a dozen. Spring and summer are the birthing/rearing seasons, which means the height of conflicts with people and the height of public misunderstanding. And so that’s why we are extra-busy right now.

For more information about wildlife hotlines and humane wildlife control services, see the September-October issue of Animal Sheltering.

Do you have any advice for shelters looking to start a hotline?
I’d say it’s really rewarding and very challenging, and it can be quite expensive, so you definitely need to get some funding through your municipality by pitching to them what an incredible public service it is. Or you need to work on getting foundation grants. If you can get a company to pay for the phone line, that’s great. We feel that it’s really important to have a live person answering the phone because there’s a lot of back and forth with the caller to figure out what the problem is and the best way to solve it. A computerized system is not always the best for helping the public; sometimes they don’t even know what species they’re dealing with. So if you can have a live operator, or more than one, that’s ideal. It’s a great way to prevent thousands of animals from being orphaned or injured because by giving good advice, you’re hopefully preventing or resolving a problem before an animal is compromised beyond repair. I have two messages for shelters that are important. One is to please rethink your trap loan program. A lot of shelters loan out traps to people without realizing that they are orphaning animals with every trap. Because people don’t know any better, they set a trap, capture a mother animal, and relocate the mother or bring her back to the shelter for euthanasia. People need to be educated on humane ways to solve wildlife problems, yet trap loan programs are a step in the wrong direction. People also need to be taught how to prevent wildlife problems. The animal’s not the problem; it’s what’s attracting the animal. And so we say, “Solve the problem at its source.” You don’t solve a problem by trapping animals; you often create a far worse one. And the second part of my message for shelters is that, if they’re referring calls to nuisance wildlife operators, they should be very selective because there are very few operators that do the job in a humane, progressive way like AAA Wildlife Control in Canada. We do have standards that shelters can require NWCOS [“nuisance” wildlife control operators] to sign before referring any work to them. (To access a copy, visit www.wildneighbors.org.)

Why should a shelter try to take on wildlife hotlines or humane wildlife control services?
It’s a black hole in a lot of communities because, like here in Connecticut, if a person calls the police about a wildlife problem, they say, “Call Animal Control.” Animal Control says, “No, we only handle dogs and cats; call the vet.” The vet says, “We handle dogs and cats; call the nature center.” The nature center says, “We don’t have a rehab program.” So it’s that kind of thing: people get bounced around. There’s a gaping public need for this kind of service, particularly as more areas get developed, bringing people and wildlife into closer contact and in more conflict with each other. It’s a huge problem and it’s one that is not handled in “the system.” I constantly tell rehabilitators that hotlines are a great way to prevent orphans from coming in. Just yesterday, an animal control officer called about eight ducklings. I asked, “Well, where’s Mom?” And she said, “The ducklings kept jumping with their mom back in the person’s pool. We couldn’t get them to leave, so we took the ducklings.” And I said, “You’re orphaning them; you’ve got to put them back. And then we’ll walk you through how to use helium balloons to get them all to leave with the mother at the helm!” But in that case, if we had just given a referral to a rehabilitator, eight ducklings would have been orphaned. And instead we got them back with Mom, and we taught the animal control officer how to evict the whole family as a unit.

 

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