rescue. reunite. rehome. rethink.
  • Share to Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • Print

Help! There's a Raccoon in My Trash

The Toronto Wildlife Centre’s hotline helps area residents solve human–animal conflicts, rescue injured and orphaned animals, and assess when it’s best to do neither of these things and just leave well enough alone  

The Toronto Wildlife Centre’s hotline helps area residents solve human–animal conflicts, rescue injured and orphaned animals, and assess when it’s best to do neither of these things and just leave well enough alone  

© Toronto Wildlife Centre

At some point in their lives, most people come across a wild animal who seems out of place in his environment and wonder if he needs help. Unless they’re curious enough to have read up on the mating, nesting, feeding, and parenting habits of furred and feathered species, the average citizen is usually not prepared for the discovery of a fuzzy baby bird hopping beneath a tree by himself or a night-loving skunk wandering around in broad daylight. 

Often the first instinct of a compassionate-minded soul in these situations is to call the local animal shelter, the state department of natural resources, or, if such a thing exists, a wildlife rehabilitation center. And the first instinct, if not duty, of an animal control officer is to respond to reports of creatures in distress and people in potential danger.

The problem with that scenario, say wildlife experts, is that too many of these reports are false alarms. Of all the wildlife-related problems phoned in to shelters, nature centers, public agencies, and other entities that handle such issues, researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent aren’t problems at all.

Read other articles from recent issues on dealing with wildlife.

The Wild Among Us (September-October 2005)

Did You Know...? (September-October 2005)

The Wild World of Wildlife Hotlines (November-December 2005)

“Many, many, many orphan situations are ones where callers are simply not familiar with the natural history of the animal,” says Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre in Canada. “They’re calling about a … perfectly normal situation like fledgling birds on the ground or rabbits that are being left alone for periods of time while their mother is just off doing normal rabbit stuff.”

Lack of knowledge also influences how people respond to situations involving animals who’ve entered the infrastructure of their homes or disturbed their garbage cans. Those who turn to private businesses for help are vulnerable to fear-mongering tactics. If a homeowner reaches someone who considers raccoons “nuisances,” for instance, a problem that might have been simple to solve over the phone can easily turn into an unnecessary expense for the caller and a nightmare for the animal.

“The caller will receive on the other end, ‘Well, raccoons can cause rabies, and they are nuisances and they are pests and they are varmints,’ ” says John Hadidian, director of The HSUS’s urban wildlife program. “And the unsophisticated listener is going to say, ‘Well, I’ve got to get these things out of my neighborhood,’ and will call a trapper who will very obligingly trap and remove these animals for $200 or $300 or $400 a shot. That activity never needs to happen and shouldn’t happen.”

And it wouldn’t happen anymore if every community could set up a wildlife hotline like that of the Toronto Wildlife Centre. With 30,000 calls flooding the phone lines each year, the service helps at least as many animals as the center’s rehabilitation division—by educating people about the habits of individual species and passing along a whole catalogue of tips for living peacefully with wildlife.

Whether it’s guiding people to the right place to buy a raccoon-proof garbage can or explaining how to determine if baby bunnies are still being visited by their mother, hotline staff help dispel myths about animals and defuse confrontations in a way that can prevent unnecessary trapping and reduce the number of orphaned wild animals.

“We’ve often said at Toronto Wildlife Centre that if we had to shut down every single program or service that we had except for one, we would keep going with our wildlife hotline,” says Karvonen.

Hotline callers run the gamut from the good Samaritan who wants to help an injured adult bird in the backyard but has mistaken him for an orphaned baby to the frightened family hiding inside their barricaded home after seeing a harmless, cricket-eating snake.

In Ontario as anywhere else, misperceptions die slowly. Though rabies has been all but eliminated in red foxes, old fears about the animals persist, says Karvonen. “So, for example, when anyone sees a red fox in their neighborhood, they think that it’s a very, very dangerous animal, that they’re all rabid and they’re going to kill their children and drag them off and eat them,” she says. “And you just simply have to give some straightforward information about what a red fox in their neighborhood will do and also tell them, ‘If it is sick, this is what it’ll look like.’ ”

Sometimes people aren’t primed for listening; just as in animal shelters, some callers are already mad as hell. “We’re dealing with people who hate wildlife sometimes, and we’re dealing with people who just really don’t like backyards, and they don’t like squirrels, so it’s not that we’re just all a bunch of happy bunny-huggers and we’re talking to other happy bunny-huggers all day long,” Karvonen says. “We’re really helping angry people deal with the problems that they have sometimes with wildlife.”

At The HSUS’s Animal Care Expo in Atlanta last April, Karvonen couldn’t say enough good things about wildlife hotlines in the hopes that animal shelters and other local organizations would consider implementing them. Not only do such ventures meet the mission of promoting peaceful coexistence with animals, she told the audience; they also heighten credibility in the community.

Perhaps most importantly for shelters, they are proactive. Whether your shelter rehabilitates wild animals brought through your doors or euthanizes them, says Karvonen, you can reduce your workload by preventing those animals from entering in the first place. “And if you can make sure that you’re not taking babies from healthy parents, that means you don’t have to respond at all,” she says. “You don’t have to go pick it up; you don’t have to … euthanize the animal; you don’t have to do anything with the animal at all other than just help it get back to its parents or leave it in a normal situation.”

Many animal control officers know the frustration of false alarms, the precious minutes spent each day responding to calls about geese with injured wings, for instance, only to arrive on the scene and discover they’ve wasted their time.

That happened once in Toronto, when some concerned residents got together to try to figure out what to do about a goose acting strangely. Worried about his welfare, one phoned the Toronto Wildlife Centre while another called the animal services agency. “We spent about two and a half minutes on our hotline determining that it was a gander defending a nest; that’s why he wasn’t flying away,” says Karvonen. “And everything was perfectly normal. We had to just tell them what to expect—and for how long—and how they could potentially protect themselves from the gander as well if he’d go to try to charge them.

“About half an hour later, the animal services truck came … to pick up the injured goose they had gotten calls about. Of course they realized when they arrived that there was nothing wrong with the goose at all and just turned around and went back to the shelter.”

© Toronto Wildlife Centre
A hotline can save valuable time: Reports of an injured goose in Toronto prompted animal services officers to venture into the field to rescue him, but hotline staff at the Toronto Wildlife Center who received the same call were able to determine within minutes that the animal in question was just a gander defending his nest.

Most animal shelters field these kinds of calls every day, responding in whatever way their resources will allow. While some lack the funding to set up a hotline, others may be in a position to formalize an existing program for wildlife in a way that will eventually save them both time and money. The annual budget for the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s hotline, staffed full time by three people, is about $125,000 Canadian (or about $100,000 U.S. dollars), but the expenses of a successful hotline can be offset by major grants and donations that help support its existence. Here are some tips for getting one started:

Hire people-friendly staff or volunteers. Knowledge of wildlife issues isn’t high on the list of characteristics Karvonen looks for in new hires; three months of full-time training helps take care of any deficits in that area. And compassion for animals, while important, doesn’t rank nearly as high as people skills—because hotline staff can only help animals by helping their fellow man first.

Just as in an animal shelter, patience—even when it seems undeserved—is the operative word. “If a person calls screaming blue murder because it’s your raccoon that’s gotten into their garbage, you have to be able to figure out the right buttons to push,” says Karvonen. “You have to let them scream for a while. You’ve got to maybe empathize with them and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve had raccoons do that to my garbage, too, last month, and it was really annoying.’ ”

Pushing the right buttons can also mean portraying animals in a positive way that’s more acceptable to the public. Everyone loves a koala bear, so when people call the Toronto hotline to complain about the presence of an opossum in the neighborhood—a relatively new phenomenon in the region—hotline staff say, “Wow, you’ve got the only marsupial in North America in your backyard! You know, she carries her babies in her pouch like the koala bear.”

“And then they usually get off the phone very happy that the animal’s there,” says Karvonen.

Get the word out. Publicize your hotline through the Yellow Pages, and alert police departments, other shelters, animal care and control agencies, and even pet stores to your service. Work with like-minded organizations that provide services you can’t—and that will back you up when a skeptical caller turns to them for a different point of view. In situations that require animal removal from a building or something else that can’t be solved over the phone, the Toronto Wildlife Centre refers calls to AAA Wildlife Control, a humane company that helps homeowners animal-proof their dwellings and releases wild animals on site rather than relocating them.

Triage phone calls. Dedicate a special phone number to the hotline and be sure to include voice-mail capabilities. It may sound obvious, says Karvonen, but with 200 calls a day coming in, she can’t afford to go without voice mail. In fact, hotline staff let most calls go directly to the messaging system so they can triage them in the same way the center’s rehabilitation staff would triage incoming animals. “All calls about sick, injured, or orphaned animals are returned very, very quickly,” says Karvonen. “The calls where Bobby just wants to talk about his Uncle Joe who raised a baby raccoon will be left until after the emergency calls are done, and when staff are eating their lunch or drinking a cup of tea, they’re going to call them back and listen to stories about the baby raccoon.”

An exception to the voice-mail rule is when the call-display indicates a potentially dire situation; calls from police departments, pay phones, or staff doing rescue work in the field would be received immediately.

Develop a computerized record-keeping system. By keeping detailed records, staff won’t have to go back to square one if a member of the public calls back with follow-up questions a few hours or days after initial contact. Link databases so you can cross-reference donor, volunteer, and call data; that way, staff will also know if they’re dealing with a major donor on the phone.

You never know who might be calling, as the Toronto Wildlife Centre discovered years ago when a wildlife care supervisor was a bit rude to a caller. “We actually ended up losing a really, really huge grant because of that—because the woman was the wife of a guy who controlled the grant,” says Karvonen. “And I could not repair the damage that was done by that call.”

Since that incident, the organization has made changes for the better, separating jobs so that wildlife care staff take care of the animals and hotline staff take care of the people. Computerization and linked databases also help prevent similar problems from occurring again.

Tracking calls helped Karvonen and her staff trace the reason behind an opposite scenario: a donation of $100,000 in stock that came in out of the blue one day. “We said, ‘Wow, who are these people?’ And we started searching for them, and they’d never brought in an animal, they weren’t a donor. And we found them in our hotline database; they had called us and wanted to know something … and they said that the Toronto Wildlife Centre had been really helpful.”

Keep good reference materials. What started as a 150-page project has turned into more than 500 pages as the Toronto Wildlife Centre begins to wrap up its draft version of a hotline manual. Working with The HSUS, the center is hoping to create a tool that can be offered to other organizations, one that covers topics found in The HSUS book Wild Neighbors as well as other situations encountered by hotline staff.

Protocol binders help staff keep notes on strange situations they’ve never experienced before so they’ll be prepared if a similar call ever surfaces again. Internet access and a working list of contacts help staff respond more thoroughly to the odd questions that might arise.

© Toronto Wildlife Centre
Researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of wildlife-related problems phoned in to shelters, nature centers, and public agencies are not problems at all. When this red-winged blackbird starts leaving the nest in a few days, his fledgling attempts to test his wings may appear to the untrained eye to be a sign of distress—even if, in fact, his behaviors are perfectly normal.

Assume nothing. “If they call and say, ‘Hi, I’ve got a bird,’ stop right there. Say, ‘What makes you think it’s a bird?’ ” says Karvonen facetiously. “Because really, it’s amazing; you’re dealing with a very complex species, the human being.”

In some situations, callers will mistake geese for loons and moths for bats, but in others, you might have an experienced ornithologist on your hands. It’s important, therefore, to ask questions, listen carefully, and take notes that will help you assess the situation accurately.

Gathering as much information as possible can also help you avoid critical mistakes, as in the case of a call Karvonen’s staff received about a possibly injured bird. Earlier in the day, a local humane society had recommended putting the bird, which was assumed to be orphaned, in a berry basket and nailing the basket to a tree. When the bird was still sitting there a few hours later, the homeowners suspected something was amiss and called the Toronto Wildlife Centre. “We asked them a couple more questions, and it turned out that it was a brown creeper that had been attacked by a cat, and that’s why it couldn’t fly,” says Karvonen. “And now this injured adult bird had been sitting up in this berry basket nailed to this tree all day long. So we did get the bird in and treated him.”

Recap the conversation. A 20-minute call about a wildlife situation can include more information than the person on the other end of the line is able to retain, so Karvonen recommends repeating the main points and ensuring the caller understands his action steps. That’s especially important if you don’t have a mechanism to follow up on the calls. “So if it’s something like you’re leaving a baby squirrel out for the mother to retrieve it, you want to make sure that you really hammer the point home that they need to check on that baby later that day; it’s critically important,” she says. “If the baby is still there, they need to call you back; they need to be prepared to bring the animal in to you.”

Make sure the callers feel comfortable getting back in touch if they need to; let them know they’re not bothering you and you’re not too busy to talk to them, says Karvonen.


Powered by Blackbaud
nonprofit software