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Wildlife rehabilitators give special TLC to baby animals blown from nests by Isaias

Rescue foundations like the STAR Foundation in Middle Island have seen an increase in the number of animals needing treatment since Tropical Storm Isaias. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

As utility and municipal workers clear roads and restore power across Long Island following Tropical Storm Isaias on Tuesday, wildlife rehabilitators face an urgent task: caring for baby squirrels and other animals whose nests were destroyed or blown to the ground in heavy wind.

The tally includes 14 squirrels, 12 mallards, three woodpeckers, three cottontail rabbits, three robins, three house sparrows, a bat and an osprey brought to Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays between Tuesday and Thursday. That center is one of about five on Long Island. There are also dozens of individual New York State-licensed wildlife rehabilitators on Long Island, often people working out of their private homes.

Rehabilitators now face a wave of baby squirrels in need because August litters had just been born when the storm hit. Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown and STAR Foundation in Middle Island took about 50 to 60 each, and volunteers for Wildlife in Locust Valley has another 30.

Most of the squirrels were brought in by concerned residents. The majority of them have not yet opened their eyes. They are pink, furless, about the length of a man’s thumb and weigh as little as 11 grams. Hypothermia is a worry, even in the height of summer, so rehabilitators keep them in temperature-controlled incubators or next to hot water bottles and hand warmers. Sweetbriar also uses woolly knit bags, with as many as eight squirrels to a bag keeping each other warm.

Every few hours, rehabilitators use syringes to feed the squirrels milliliters of baby squirrel formula; they use feeding tubes for the weakest. Some centers use a formula made by a company called Fox Valley that consists primarily of vegetable oil and dried milk protein.

The storm and the influx of animal patients came at a time when many of the nonprofit rehabilitation centers’ resources were stretched because the pandemic has impeded fundraising. A mix of paid staffers and volunteers is doing the work and “everybody is swamped,” said Isabel Fernandes, Sweetbriar’s wildlife care coordinator. A tree came down on a STAR fence enclosing a resident wolf, but the wolf was not harmed and did not escape. 

The storm and loss of power have “introduced some additional challenges to squirrel raising,” said Volunteers for Wildlife center supervisor Lauren Schulz. “It’s something we have to do all the time, but usually we don’t have to do it in conditions like this.” 

Squirrels have not been known to transmit rabies to humans, but it’s illegal to keep them, and untrained people who feed the animals can actually harm them. It’s almost always best for a concerned human to watch, wait and call a center for advice before rescuing a baby squirrel or any other animal, rehabilitators said. Their parents may retrieve them. Mother squirrels often keep a reserve nest and may take their young there. 

The animals that came to rehabilitators in the past few days were brought in shoeboxes or shipping boxes by their rescuers. Some of the squirrels at Evelyn Alexander came in with umbilical cords still attached, said Virginia Frati, that center’s executive director.

“The very first thing we do is look them over for injuries, clean them up and warm them up,” said Lori Ketcham, a STAR director. “You look for bleeding, make sure there’s nothing in the mouth obstructing breathing.”

Many of the squirrels that came in were bruised from falling out of nests, Fernandes said. Some had puncture wounds inflicted by dogs or cats, requiring antibiotics, she added.

“The more days that pass, and we’ll probably get more today, they’ll probably be in worse shape” because of dehydration, hunger and exposure, Frati said. Schulz said her hospital treats fractured squirrel bones with splints and pain medication.

Hand-feeding will continue for another two months for the baby squirrels. It is now done round-the-clock, and the task is so time-consuming that some centers sent squirrels to volunteers’ homes.

“Even if you’re fast and feed one in five minutes, if you have 60 of them, that’s five hours of feeding,” Ketcham said.

As the squirrels grow, rehabilitators will stop hand-feeding and put them in outdoor cages. Ultimately, almost all of the squirrels will be released into the wild. “You don’t kiss them and talk to them like babies,” Ketcham said. “You’ve got to keep them wild or they won’t survive when they go out.”

Dwight and Sharon Becherer of Shirley dropped off one of the squirrels Friday at Evelyn Alexander. 

On Tuesday after the wind died down, Sharon Becherer spotted a nest fallen from a neighbor’s tree near the property line. Her husband, a Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at William Floyd High School, inspected it: “Just a big bunch of junk, twigs and grass and lawn furniture stuffing,” he said. But when he spotted four baby squirrels he brought the nest into his basement. He said he put the babies in a shoebox with some of the downed nest. He used a ladder to stick the shoebox in the neighbor’s tree, and when the neighbor spotted the mother squirrel retrieving her babies, Becherer thought his work was done. 

But on Thursday the Becherers' cat, Hug, discovered a fifth baby squirrel in the basement and carried it upstairs, apparently unharmed, in his mouth. Out came the ladder again, and the shoebox went back into the tree. But when the squirrel was still there Friday morning, Becherer said he dropped it off at the center.

“They’re helpless defenseless little babies,” Becherer said.

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