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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Spotlight: a Labor of Love

Healers of the Wild
by Shannon Jacobs

Reviewed by Tamia Nelson

March 19, 2002

We're not alone on this earth. Wherever we live and work—in city, suburb, or countryside—wild animals are living out their lives alongside us. And we've got a lot in common with our wild neighbors. They are (to borrow the words of one of Shakespeare's great tragic characters) warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as we are, and fed with much the same food. They also have the same senses, affections and passions as we do, are as easily hurt as we are, and are subject to many of the same diseases.

But there's one big difference. When wild animals are injured or become ill, they can't call 911 and expect an ambulance to show up at the door. (A lot of people can't either, of course, but that's another story.) So wildlife suffer and die alone and unattended. This is nature's way, and there's no point in lamenting it. Yet sometimes wildlife die needlessly, and sometimes we're to blame. Waterfowl are strangled in nooses of monofilament. Loons ingest discarded split-shot sinkers and die slowly of lead poisoning. Cars kill nursing raccoons, leaving their young to starve. Trapped muskrats "wring off" and succumb to gangrene. Sea turtles think floating plastic bags are jellyfish, eat them, and then suffer fatal intestinal obstructions. House cats kill nesting veeries and other songbirds. Partridges fly into plate glass windows. Migrating birds die by the thousands in collisions with high-tension lines and office towers. The list is a long and disheartening one.

If you paddle for many seasons, you'll see the evidence at first hand. Wildlife watching is one reason why we go out on the water, after all, and if you get into the habit of observing wildlife when you're paddling, chances are pretty good that you'll carry the habit over into your everyday life. And the more you look, the more you'll see. Sooner or later, then, you'll find a wild animal in distress. It can happen anywhere.

You're trimming a tree in your backyard. As you get ready to go back inside, you discover a baby squirrel lying helpless on the ground. What do you do now?

You're driving to the lake for a day on the water. You notice a turtle upside down at the edge of the road. You stop, put on your emergency flashers, and walk back to the turtle. It's alive, but it's been struck by a car. Its shell is badly cracked. What do you do now?

You're hiking along a hedgerow on the margin of a stubble-field. A halting movement on the edge of your vision attracts your attention. It turns out to be a yearling whitetail deer, limping along with an arrow shaft protruding from her flank. What do you do now?

You're launching your canoe. You see a mallard drake with a large fish-hook skewering his beak. He can't eat. He's obviously losing strength. What do you do now?

You're having a late breakfast on Sunday morning, watching the birds at the feeder in front of your picture window. Suddenly, a moving shadow blots out the view. Then there's a loud bang, and the plate glass in the window seems to tremble. You go outside and find a red-tailed hawk with a broken wing. What do you do now?

Not sure? You're not alone. When Shannon Jacobs found an obviously ill robin in her flower bed, she didn't have a clue what to do next. She began by asking her friends and neighbors for advice, but none of them had any ideas, either. Finally someone gave her the phone number of a wildlife rehabilitator. Shannon called the rehabilitator and then took the robin round to her home. A happy ending? Not necessarily. The rehabilitator couldn't give Shannon any guarantees. But at least it was a good beginning. The robin had a fighting chance.

What's a "wildlife rehabilitator"? If you aren't quite sure, you're in good company. Yet all across the world, a small but dedicated group of people have opened their homes to ill and injured wildlife. For the most part, these rehabbers—that's the name rehabilitators often give themselves—are unpaid volunteers, who meet the considerable costs of nursing ill and injured wildlife out of their own pockets, with occasional, and very welcome, assistance from private donors. "Unpaid" doesn't mean "unskilled," though. Rehabbers spend years learning to care for their wild patients. In many states they even have to pass a qualifying exam before they can work independently. Not surprisingly, then, rehabbers often achieve very high levels of clinical competence. Many contribute to the professional veterinary literature. Some have even founded clinics.

This came as quite a surprise to Shannon, a professional writer and author of two children's books about animals. It also awakened her curiosity. In the end, she spent four years in the company of rehabbers, learning who they were and what they did. The result was Healers of the Wild: People who Care for Injured and Orphaned Wildlife.

It was worth the effort. Healers is a wonderful book. Although written primarily for young people, it never patronizes and never talks down. Indeed, it's a model of clear expository prose, whose text is enhanced by hundreds of black-and-white photos and well-executed line drawings. Just another illustrated children's book? Certainly not! Healers is an engaging narrative, a handbook for property owners concerned about bats in their belfries, a guide to wildlife watching and conservation, an invaluable reference…. It's all these things, and a great deal more besides. First and foremost, though, it's a guide to the rehabber's world. It's also a great help to anyone, paddler or not, who may someday encounter an ill or injured wild creature and ask herself, "What do I do now?"

And that's just about all of us.

This would be enough for most books, and most authors, but there's still more to be found in Healers. It has a useful glossary (Do you know what a "pinky" is?), a comprehensive directory to state and federal wildlife agencies, and—that rarest of treasures in any book—a good index. It even has several excellent "immediate action" flowcharts and checklists. These give quick, authoritative answers to questions ranging from "I found a baby bird…now what?" to "What can I do for an injured sea lion?"

Most importantly, however, Healers is simply a good read. Shannon introduces us to a benign international conspiracy—a conspiracy of compassion. The "conspirators" inhabit an almost unknown and largely invisible world, a world in which seemingly ordinary people devote their lives to healing injured squirrels, saving sick sea turtles, or rescuing stranded whales. And for the most part, these extraordinary "ordinary people" work without any compensation whatsoever: theirs is truly a labor of love. I strongly suspect that Healers was a labor of love, too. It's certainly a book that no paddler with an interest in the world's wildlife can afford to be without.

Jacobs, Shannon. Healers of the Wild: People Who Care for Injured and Orphaned Wildlife. Coyote Moon Press, Denver CO, 1998. ISBN 0-9661070-0-4. 214 pp, glossary, index, appendices.

Think you've found an "orphaned" bird or animal? Before you do anything, read this. Do you need a wildlife rehabilitator now? Don't know where to turn? No problem! First, check out "How To Locate a Wildlife Rehabilitator." It's an extensive—though necessarily incomplete—directory of rehabbers, both in the United States and elsewhere.

Still can't find a rehabber in your area? Then call your local Humane Society, your veterinarian, or your state's Fish and Game Department. Someone will be able to help you. Keep trying.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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