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Diaper duty for parents of many mammals is a distasteful chore | Island Wildlife
It’s baby time!
The wild animals all around us have started giving birth, sitting on eggs, and nurturing their newborns. So far this year, only a few orphans have come to West Sound Wildlife for care, including a little grey squirrel.
I suppose I’m feeling more bucolic than usual because I too have a baby in my life. Our little man is 6.5 months old. Yesterday, he saw (and actually noticed!) his first squirrel — a fat little Douglas squirrel on our deck.
Once our little guy can walk, I’m looking forward to the first time that he tries to chase down a squirrel, his fat stubby legs pumping down the deck. That will be a humbling life lesson; I have yet to see a human that can catch a squirrel with bare hands. But that won’t stop my boy from trying! I can already hear the squirrels laughing at him.
Being a father has opened my eyes to how difficult it must be for wild animal parents. Imagine a small nest in a tree cavity with five warm, snuggly baby squirrels. Momma squirrel doesn’t have a diaper service, so what does she do with her babies’ poo? Often she’ll have no choice but to eat it. Yummy. This is true for many mammals, including dogs. I will never again complain about changing a diaper!
Although we at West Sound Wildlife try as hard as we can to keep our patients wild, we handle their feces a little differently than their parents do. Caring for orphans is actually one of the most endearing activities in our wildlife hospital. The orphaned squirrel currently in our care is fed a special, squirrel-specific milk formula out of a little syringe frequently during the day. Like any good baby, she often makes a mess all over her face.
Once she’s fed, she is held over a sink while her belly is stroked with a warm cotton ball. This is the equivalent of her mom licking her, and it stimulates her to pee and poo. Then she’s put back in her enclosure, a sleepy bundle of squirrelness. Although once this girl gets a little older, she’ll morph into a hellion who bites through Kevlar gloves. Thank God my little boy doesn’t have teeth yet.
While it is amazingly heartwarming to care for helpless wild animal babies, we’d prefer for their parents to care for them. If you come across a baby wild animal, do not assume it is orphaned and don’t pick it up. As newborn wild animals turn into toddlers, they head out and get into trouble just like human kids.
If you see a young wild animal wandering around your yard, the parents are most likely nearby or will be back soon. Just grab a chair and enjoy watching the youngster. If the baby is alone long enough for you to start worrying, call us before doing anything: 206-855-9057.
And if you have a wild animal living in or around your house and you want to evict it, please do not do so at this time of year, at least not until you have confirmed that it does not have babies. The last thing you want is four baby raccoons dying of starvation in your crawlspace.
Sometimes, though, babies really are orphaned and need our help. For instance, opossums are marsupials; they have a pouch in which their babies live for their first two months of their life. If you see a recently killed opossum on the road at this time of year, please stop to see if she has babies in her pouch that are still alive. Opossum babies can live in a dead mother’s pouch for twenty-four hours. I don’t have words for how horrible this is, so I’ll stop there.
Instead, I’ll bring us back to that fat little Douglas squirrel my son was watching. Due to its size,
I think she is a mother. I like to envision her little pod of babies sleeping happily up in the cedar tree by my house. I’m looking forward to watching my little man chase them around our deck later this year when they and he are bigger. He won’t catch them, but he’ll have fun and they’ll get to laugh at him. And at the end of the race, I’ll change his diaper instead of eating his poo. Now that’s a win-win.
Kol Medina is executive director of the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.