Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Frozen mid-nibble, dark eyes vigilant, the woodchuck took heed of me, but stood his ground as I passed. In that singsong voice reserved for innocents, I said, “Well, look at you Bold One! Out for a snack and some sun!”
He seemed neither charmed nor frightened, but returned to chewing the spent January grass. Smiling at my encounter with nature, I entered the house.
Shortly after, I heard the door open and close as Dave returned from chopping wood, bounty delivered when Hurricane Sandy swept through. “Steer clear of that woodchuck,” he commented. “I think it’s sick.”
Dave has little patience for woodchucks. Each spring, a rotund mother bears her litter of three beneath our shed, and while I love glimpses of those fuzzy little bodies warming on a stone in the yard, he sees only future garden ravagers. I remind him that we have Stop and Shop to soothe our hunger, while flowers on the verge of full blossom sustain our animal friends. “They are not my friends,” Dave replies with a snarl. (He really is a dear man, but this is a sensitive subject.)
When my husband and I stepped out on the porch to take another look, the woodchuck ignored us briefly, then hobbled away, weaving, and hitching up his hind leg.
“Rats, he’s hurt. I just thought he was brassy,” I said. I don’t know what my problem is; I love animals, but wounded creatures unnerve me. Even wild babies, birds fallen from nests, a fawn seemingly abandoned, helpless, adorable, leave me immobilized and anxious. I’m not overly afraid of being bitten, although that is part of it; I think I’m more afraid of their fear and pain.
My friend Joan once released a mouse caught, but not killed, in a trap she’d set. Mind you, both of us hate traps. As long as the mice confine their skittering behind the walls, we’re happy enough to host them, but when pellets appear in the utensil drawer, they have crossed the line. Anyway, when Joan described freeing the mouse - “Here was this poor little guy, and I was all he had” - I was in awe of her compassion. I would have been in a distant room, eyes squeezed shut, fingers in my ears to block out desperate squeaks for help, praying Dave would soon be home.
So, on behalf of the gimpy woodchuck, I called Wildlife in Crisis (WIC), a local animal rehabilitation organization and left a message. When I went outside, the woodchuck had charitably solved the problem by disappearing. Peter from WIC called back later with information and suggestions, but I hoped it was a moot point.
After Dave left for work the next morning, I headed out to the compost heap. As I crossed the yard, my thoughts focused on coffee grounds and eggshells, the woodchuck and I jumped equally when suddenly we met. As well as he could with a bum leg, he scuttled under the shed while I stood musing, green plastic compost bucket in hand, my mood downcast. Could I ignore him? Did I have a responsibility here? If Nature was taking her course, happy or not, perhaps I had no role to play.
The woodchuck peeked out from under the shed. *Sigh*
Then I noticed my neighbors’ car in their driveway. The woodchuck and I were not alone! My neighbors, Ed and Laurie, and their children Rachel and Eddie, are animal lovers and willing rescuers when needed. I went inside, called them, and soon five of us stood in the yard, studying the gap between the shed door and the ground.
“Maybe we could use the crab net,” Ed remarked.
“Will it be strong enough?” I asked.
“I think so. You’ll need something to transport him though.”
I’d brought out a Have-a-Heart trap earlier, but it seemed small, so I ran to the attic to get a bin, emptied it of my high school scrapbooks, and zipped downstairs, planning to poke it with air holes while waiting for the woodchuck to agree to his capture. I glanced out the back door to see Ed holding a long pole. At the end of the pole squirmed the woodchuck in the net, giving no indication that he’d agreed to this plan.
By the time I connected with Peter at WIC for directions, Ed had transferred the woodchuck from the net to the Have-a-Heart and placed both in the back of my car. “Already smells like roadkill,” said Ed. This did not bode well.
My car’s status did not bode well either, as her transmission was failing. As I drove, I hushed and crooned to soothe the woodchuck, the car, and myself. It was a sensory barrage of revving and knocking from the Caravan and the clack and scrabble of claws on metal from the prisoner in the back. I fought the image of the woodchuck’s appearance beneath my feet and begged him to stay calm and stay put. Every so often, all would be silent, surely not a good sign. I’d glance warily to the floor, and then over my shoulder. “Don’t die! Don’t escape! We’ll be there soon.” If he was at all sensitive to my mental state, as they say animals can be, I was not helping his agitation.
Hugging curves, struggling up hills, and gliding into valleys, we made it – Alleluia – to the wooded haven of Wildlife in Crisis. When Peter met me at the car, he opened the hatch and lifted the cage and its sad occupant from my care, lifting a weight from me as well. I had done my part and delivered the sufferer into knowledgeable hands.
“If you could go sign in at the office, I’ll take him out back and take a look,” Peter said, leaving me to let myself in to the single-story wooden structure to the right of the parking area.
“DO NOT LET THE DUCK OUT,” stated a hand-lettered sign on the door.
Carefully, gauging space for one woman to enter and no ducks to exit, I opened the door and slipped inside. And there he was, a beautiful wood duck, with his distinctive crest, iridescent emerald head, and white accents, waddling freely about the floor, chattering amiably. He was not alone in his wanderings; a seagull, too, eyed me upon my arrival.
Lining the counter along one wall was a series of cages holding tiny hummingbirds, a bluebird and a blue jay. “The hummingbirds were brought to WIC by homeowners after they flew into windows," Peter said when he re-joined me. “We’ll be able to release two of them in the spring. Cats got the jay and bluebird; both are blind so they’ll be staying with us.”
Swoop! On wings, a small hawk buzzed overhead and alighted on a cupboard. As a rule, I am not at ease with flying beings in enclosed places, but this was obviously the norm at WIC so I tried to appear relaxed.
Peter told me the woodchuck would be quarantined for a time until it was certain he had nothing contagious. “We’ll observe him for a while and treat him for roundworms and head trauma. Usually, we’d give him a bath first, but we’ll hold on that until we know more.” A bath. Yet another plan unlikely to please the woodchuck.
At my request to look around, Peter accompanied me outside to stand before a vast netted aviary. Inside, hawks, imposing in size and dignified in demeanor, perched on substantial limbs placed at varying heights. I noted one with half a wing. “Most were hit by cars.” Peter explained, adding that about fifty hawks were currently in residence. “Most are red-tailed hawks. The population has really rebounded. They were almost wiped out, the hawks and eagles as well, but once DDT was banned, they came back. That’s all it took; to recognize the problem and take action.”
In another aviary, I spotted two great horned owls. When I exclaimed upon seeing them, Peter said, “Yes. Also, struck by cars.” I asked who brought in the creatures nurtured here. “Mostly caring people who have seen them in passing and stopped. Occasionally state troopers bring them in.” Peter smiled sadly and said, “It’s rarely those who hit them.”
My impulse was to silently condemn those callous people, but twice, I have seen wounded animals in the road and, guilt-wracked and sobbing, driven on, paralyzed by my ignorance and fear, hoping someone caring and knowledgeable would follow soon after. For those like me, and the animals we are unable to help, Wildlife in Crisis is that someone.
Wildlife in Crisis (WIC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to wildlife preservation and land conservation. WIC rescues injured and orphaned wildlife and seeks to protect threatened ecosystems. WIC's habitat protection, wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education programs share the parallel goal of protecting wildlife while improving the quality of life in our community.
For more information, see the WIC website at www.wildlifeincrisis.org