Flight Complex Construction Underway

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Work first began in late July, when the ground in TreeHouse’s back field was planed in preparation for construction.

There is excitement in the air at TreeHouse.  At long last, the biggest remaining step in completing our move to Dow and fully closing down the old Brighton facility has begun.  Construction is currently underway on our new avian rehabilitation flight training complex.  This unique structure will be the crowning feature of TreeHouse’s new outdoor rehab facilities.  Funded by grants from four separate organizations, the complex is nearly one hundred feet long and rises from eight feet tall at the front to twelve feet at the back.

This innovative new enclosure will have nearly 6,000 square feet of flight space.  Its numerous sliding pocket doors will make it fully reconfigurable, so that it can be used simultaneously for the rehabilitation of numerous birds ranging in size from tiny screech owls to bald eagles.  The basic unit of the complex is a twelve by twelve foot holding compartment, but doors can be opened or closed to give birds access to multiple compartments.  It will also be possible to set up a “track” configuration, in which birds will be able to fly a complete circuit of the entire length of the complex without having to turn around.  In essence, this will allow them to fly an infinite loop rather than landing after a single flight, which will be a great advantage for building up flight muscles prior to release.

With the skeleton of the structure now in place, we really get a sense of the massive scale of the flight complex.

With the skeleton of the structure now in place, we really get a sense of the massive scale of the flight complex.

The structure has a concrete foundation, eliminating concerns about weasels and other predators tunneling into the enclosure, and it will be outfitted for containment of the mice used in prey training.  This is a vital part of release training for any raptor.  Many young raptors have an extended learning period as they first begin to hunt, and in many cases it is impossible to determine whether a bird has recovered sufficiently for release without testing its ability to hunt.

A great deal of work remains before the flight complex is complete, but progress has been steady, and we hope to be able to debut our operational new flight training facilities at our annual Open House this October.


The new flight complex fits beautifully into the previously unused field in the back portion of TreeHouse’s property.

The Fawns of Redwall

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Over the past few months, the additional help of several summer interns has meant that TreeHouse has been humming with activity as projects that have been backed up for ages get wrapped up one after another.  For me, the biggest step came a couple of weeks ago, when we completed work on our new deer pen.

The deer pen has been in the planning stages since last winter.  It was originally intended to have been completed in time for last year’s fawns, but a number of factors ultimately made that goal untenable.  To me it was beginning to feel like the enclosure would never be started.  Even after the materials had been ordered and delivered, it seemed like the weather would never cooperate.  So, the first time we had an open afternoon, a few of the interns decided we just needed to start it.

Looking at the enclosure in person, it's pretty easy to imagine guard towers at the corners and crossbows sticking out between the posts.

Looking at the enclosure in person, it’s pretty easy to imagine guard towers at the corners and crossbows peeking out between the posts.

With the help of a lot of hard work by interns and volunteers, the pen went up remarkably quickly.  The enclosure is more than 1500 square feet, and it includes a swinging gate that allows us to separate specific individuals if necessary.  It also, with a bit of imagination, looks exactly like a medieval fortress.

Apparently, TreeHouse interns tend to have a certain number of shared interests.  Maybe that should be obvious—clearly, something drew all of us to want to intern at TreeHouse.  So maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I mentioned the Redwall books and found that both of the interns I was talking to had also read them as kids.

A portion of the combined collection of my brother's and my Redwall books.  Apparently there are a total of 22 books in the series.

A portion of the combined collection of my brother’s and my Redwall books. Apparently there are a total of 22 books in the series.

For those of you unfamiliar with Redwall, it is the name of an abbey populated and defended by an assortment of woodland creatures in a series of novels by Brian Jacques.  I loved the Redwall books when I was younger, but I haven’t met many people who read them.   Evidently they’re very popular among TreeHouse interns though.  So it was sort of obvious to all of us, once the name had been brought up, that our new deer pen had to be called Redwall.  At the moment it basically has a moat along the east wall where a new water line was put in a few months ago, it is currently housing about a dozen fawns, and as more of our new rehab enclosures are completed in the coming months, it will be increasingly surrounded by assorted woodland creatures.  I’m not sure if the name is actually official, but to those of us who built it, it will always be Redwall.

The fawns themselves, meanwhile, seem very pleased with their new housing.  Before the enclosure was completed, they had been staying in an indoor exercise room.  They were quite young at that point, so the situation wasn’t bad, but the outdoor enclosure gives the growing fawns a much healthier and richer environment.  The fawns, predominantly car-strike orphans, will live and grow in Redwall until this fall, when they are old enough to set out on their own.  In the meantime, I suppose we’d just better keep a lookout for an invading horde of weasels wielding battleaxes.

Redwall has sunshine and shade, shelter, and plenty of natural vegetation for enrichment when the fawns are old enough to start browsing.

Redwall has sunshine and shade, shelter, and plenty of natural vegetation for enrichment when the fawns are old enough to start browsing.

Meet Marti

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DSC00857This is Marti.  Marti is an eastern box turtle with an interesting life story.  A few years ago, Marti had a run-in with a lawn mower that resulted in the loss of one of her back feet.  Upon realizing that the turtle had been injured, the lawn mower operator brought her to SIUE’s Turtle Research and Rescue Lab, which collaborated with TreeHouse on turtle rehab.  Rehab was only one aspect of the lab’s work, though.  The researchers there tagged and tracked turtles to learn about their dispersal patterns and population structure.  So, after her wounds had healed, Marti was fitted with a radio tracking device and released on SIUE’s extensive campus.

It wasn’t long before the researchers monitoring Marti’s tracking device realized that something was wrong—she had been stuck in one place for much too long.  So, they went out to find her.  When they located the tortoise, the problem was clear.  The oddly pointed stump of her missing foot had gotten stuck in the ground, and she was unable to get free.  The researchers helped her get loose and decided to give her another shot at life in the wild.  But it wasn’t long before her radio signal stopped moving again, and the researchers had to rescue her once more.  It was obvious that Marti would not be able to survive on her own.

So Marti came to live in TreeHouse’s Education Center.  While there, she delighted and informed a multitude of visitors, helping our snakes and aquatic turtles teach people about reptiles.

We all loved having Marti at TreeHouse, but she spent her days staring out of her terrarium and out the window into the flower beds in front of the Ed Center.  When a TreeHouse volunteer who also happens to be a grade school science teacher mentioned that she would love to have a box turtle in her classroom, but she knew better than to take one out of the wild, we found the perfect solution.  Marti would spend the school year roaming the classroom and helping kids learn about reptiles, and in the summer she would return to TreeHouse.

But when Marti came back this summer, we found it difficult to confine her to her terrarium after the relative freedom she had enjoyed all year.  She went back to spending all her time looking out the window, and maybe we were anthropomorphizing her a bit, but she seemed a little depressed.  So the volunteer who had Marti in her classroom (my mom, actually) donated the materials to build an outdoor enclosure for Marti.

It doesn’t take all that much to keep a turtle in one area—especially one whose missing foot detracts from her ability to dig.  It is much more difficult to keep potentially mischievous raccoons out, so we decided that in order to keep things simple, Marti would only spend the days outside, and we would bring her in overnight.

So now Marti has her own outdoor enclosure, a fenced-in area of vegetation at the base of a huge oak tree.  She has a little pool set into the ground, sun, shade, and a great variety of grubs, worms, leaves, and roots available for the foraging.  The only problem is that she is so well camouflaged under the leaves and pine needles that it can be very difficult to find her when it’s time to bring her in for the night!  As a result, Marti has now been decorated with a few bright blue spots painted on her shell.  If you get the chance to visit TreeHouse this summer, make sure you take a moment to see if you can find her!

Even with her new blue spots, Marti blends into the vegetation pretty easily.

Even with her new blue spots, Marti blends into the vegetation pretty easily.

Belleville Bobcat: An Overdue Conclusion

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It occurred to me the other day that before I took a hiatus from writing here, one of the primary stories I had been chronicling had not yet been wrapped up.  Belle, the bobcat that was brought to TreeHouse last year after being hit by a car, and Bobbie, the kitten she gave birth to while rehabilitating, concluded their stay at TreeHouse last October.  For anyone who hasn’t heard the amazing story of how Belle and Bobbie came to be TreeHouse’s guests, you can read about it here.  And thanks to the trail camera donated by a reader of this blog, we were able to watch Bobbie grow without interfering as he learned from his mother how to be a bobcat.

This picture from the trail camera actually shows Bobbie's first step out of the den.

This picture from the trail camera actually shows Bobbie’s first step out of the den.

I could go on for twenty pages talking about all the incredible (and adorable!) behaviors and interactions we witnessed between Belle and Bobbie thanks to the trail camera, but luckily I don’t have to.  The best videos are available for anyone to view on our YouTube channel.

Our number one priority with the bobcats was to ensure that they would both be able to return to the wild as soon as Bobbie was old enough to take care of himself, so we erected a privacy fence around the cage and strictly prohibited visitors and even volunteers from that area.  A handful of interns and volunteers were responsible for all bobcat care, keeping the number of humans they became comfortable with at an absolute minimum so that Belle was able to raise her son wild.

Bobcats spend an extended period of time with their mothers, and this interaction is vitally important for their behavioral development.

Bobcats spend an extended period of time with their mothers, and this interaction is vitally important for their behavioral development.

Ultimately, Belle resided at TreeHouse for about seven months.  In October, one week before Bobbie reached six months of age, mother and son were released in a wildlife conservation area in southern Illinois. Their release site was deep in optimal bobcat habitat—plenty of dense vegetation, steep slopes, caves, and spring-fed streams.  We couldn’t have designed a better place for them to live.

In the actual moment we opened the crates to let them go free, it was—as is often the case with mammal releases—a bit anticlimactic.  After a minute in which they both seemed to debate whether they were safer inside or outside their crates, Belle took her first cautious peek out.  Slowly and deliberately, alert and testing the air at every step, she stalked off into the woods in the direction opposite the spot from which the humans were watching.  Bobbie apparently decided that his crate was the safest spot, and finally we had to unscrew the top in order to get him to leave.  As soon as the top was removed, though, he took off like a shot, without a backward glance.  A video of the release is also available on YouTube.

Watching through the lens of the trail camera over the course of half a year, we witnessed Bobbie grow from a squirmy dark blob at the back of the den box into a wild and rambunctious young bobcat.  We saw his first steps outside the den box and his first attempt to reach the ground level of the cage.  We watched him snuggling with his mother, being bathed by her, and later ambushing her for rounds of play-fighting.  As with all carnivores we release, we needed to be sure that he was capable of hunting to provide food for himself, so we also observed his first encounter with live prey and his first kill.

When we released Belle and Bobbie, several people asked me if I was sad to see them go.  Although I can understand why someone might think I would be sad—of course I grew attached to them as I cared for them and watched their lives unfold—I can honestly say that their release wasn’t even bittersweet.  It was only sweet.  A successful release to a habitat like the one Belle and Bobbie were sent to is exactly what a wildlife rehabber hopes to achieve for every animal.  If I could write the perfect ending to Belle and Bobbie’s story, it would be this: “And they never saw another human as long as they lived.”

Bobbie, a few days before his release.

Bobbie, a few days before his release.

The Fox and the Hound and the Human: Part II

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It’s almost a rite of passage for an intern or volunteer at TreeHouse to answer the phone one day in the spring and find him- or herself attempting to dissuade someone who is clearly planning to make a pet out of the young animal they have just found in their backyard.  It might be a litter of squirrels; it might be a raccoon; it might even be an opossum or a clutch of ducklings.  Whatever the species, it’s with a sinking stomach that we begin our conversations with these well-meaning animal lovers who call for advice about what they should feed their new pets.


It can be difficult to convince people that the Beanie Baby-esque red fox kit will not make a good pet.

We politely inform them that it is against Illinois state law to remove any animal from the wild for the purpose of keeping it as a pet, and then we go on to talk to them about some of the many reasons this law exists.  Wild animals have specific nutritional requirements that can be difficult for a private individual to meet.  If the animal requires medical attention, few vets have the training, experience, and licensing required in order to treat wild animals.  Wild animals can carry and transmit a variety of diseases, and vaccines developed for use in domestic animals may be ineffective in wild animals.  But above all, for all the reasons I discussed in Part I of this article, wild animals simply do not make good pets.  A person who takes in a raccoon may be enough of an “animal person” to overlook a set of shredded curtains and a few broken knick-knacks, but that raccoon is not a “human animal,” so to speak.  Wild animals do not want to live with humans, and they’re not suited to do so—the absolute best someone could realistically hope for is for their wild pet to form a close bond with a handful of people and behave in a misguidedly defensive manner toward anyone else.

In my experience, the most difficult “pets” to talk anyone out of are foxes and coyotes.  It goes back to those dichotomous views on carnivores—some people will shoot a fox on sight, and others dream of having a pet fox that will scamper around their feet in the kitchen and then curl up in a ray of sunshine on the back of the couch.  Yes, foxes are indescribably adorable when they’re young, and coyote pups look and act pretty much like any other kind of puppy.  It’s easy to look at them and imagine what fun it would be to cuddle them and play with them, and then when they grow up to have this close relationship with a wild creature.

In general, the people who find young foxes and coyotes and decide to keep and raise them want, above all, to do what is best for that animal.  The problem is that in many cases, by the time they are convinced that what is best for the animal is not for it to live as a pet, irreversible damage has already been done.  Social animals form social bonds easily when they are young.  Wild animals do not bond with humans as readily as domestic animals do, but if a member of their own species is not present, young animals will latch onto a human for companionship.  When this happens, we consider the animal “human-socialized”.  A human-socialized fox or coyote may be very playful and affectionate when it is young, but when it grows up an array of problems are likely to arise.

First, health problems result from inadequate nutrition or exercise.  Then, training does not “take” the way it does in domestic dogs—a domestic dog will often perform merely for praise and the satisfaction of pleasing its master, but while a wild animal may know exactly what its trainer wants from it, there is nothing that will convince it to obey if it sees a better reward in doing something else.  The final straw for many people keeping wild canids as pets is often tragic—the yapping of the neighbor’s Chihuahua or even the squealing of a small child that has tripped on the stairs can be enough to trigger a wild carnivore’s prey response.

One of the kits tries to get Chuckles to join in the fun.

Chuckles is our red fox foster mother.  She helps orphaned kits grow up wild enough to be able to return to the wild.

It is often after either a string of problems or a single major episode that the person in possession of the fox or coyote finds him- or herself facing a difficult choice.  Pet shelters will not accept wild animals, sanctuaries are nearly always full to capacity, and, of course, possession of the animal was illegal to begin with.  So the choice is one between putting the animal down and releasing it back into wild.  Usually, those who have kept foxes and coyotes as pets choose the second option when they can no longer keep the animal, thinking that their erstwhile companion will go on to have a fulfilling life in the wild, but in reality this second option is hardly different from the first.

A wild animal, once human-socialized, will have little hesitation in approaching humans again.  It has learned to see humans as a source of food, and if it has difficulty obtaining food in the wild (which is likely, given that it never had the opportunity to learn from its parents how to hunt), it will readily approach trash cans and pet food dishes, and even approach humans directly, looking for a hand-out.  But because of the fear and hatred that many humans feel toward these animals, the hapless fox or coyote is likely to be run off, shot at, poisoned, or even killed by a larger domestic dog.  One way or another, the life of a human-socialized carnivore in the wild will be a short one.

Within just a couple of weeks, or even much less, depending on the age and personality of the animal, a young fox or coyote can become human-socialized to the point that it will never be able to survive in the wild.  At TreeHouse, we receive semi-socialized foxes and coyotes nearly every spring.  Sometimes, someone who finds an orphaned kit or pup does not know about TreeHouse at first, but brings the animal to us as soon as they can.  Other times, the person who finds the young animal does not realize the importance of avoiding all human-socialization, or they think that raising the animal themselves for a short time will have no negative impact.

When this happens, our priority becomes a sort of psychological rehabilitation.  The young foxes and coyotes are placed with other young of their own species when possible, and as soon as they are eating solid food they are placed outside to bond with and learn from a foster parent. Sometimes it works, and the animals are able to return to the wild when they are grown.  But not always.

Trickster, just a few months old when this picture was taken, is a permanent resident of TreeHouse because of his human socialization.

Trickster, just a few months old when this picture was taken, is a permanent resident of TreeHouse because of his human socialization.

Neither of our permanent resident coyotes at TreeHouse have any physical problems precluding them from going into the wild: they were both human-socialized as pups.  We give them the best life we can at TreeHouse—they have each other’s companionship, and they receive regular enrichment, but they will forever be caged in a sort of limbo—animals that were born wild but raised by humans, too fearful to be really comfortable in human company, but too bold to survive an encounter with humans in the wild.  And that is why we hope every year that this will be the last time we admit an animal too human-socialized for release.

The Fox and the Hound and the Human: Part I

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Generally speaking, carnivores seem to be the most divisive members of the animal kingdom.  Attitudes toward them run the gamut from blind hatred to adoration.  But even this adoration can sometimes be blind.  People who have a Disney-fied perception of lions might be horrified to learn that infanticide is a relatively common occurrence in lion prides.  (Bear in mind that I say this as someone who will readily admit that The Lion King is my all-time favorite movie despite the somewhat skewed reality it presents.)  Even Disney seems unable to make up its mind, though.  Simba may be noble and brave, but Shere Khan is a twisted, evil tyrant obsessed with pursuing his prey—the lovable man-cub Mowgli.

Four species of carnivores admitted at TreeHouse, clockwise from top left: bobcat, red fox, gray fox, and coyote.  Otters and other members of the weasel family are only other carnivores we normally receive at TreeHouse.

Four species of carnivores admitted on occasion at TreeHouse, clockwise from top left: bobcat, red fox, gray fox, and coyote. Otters and other members of the weasel family are the only other carnivores we normally receive at TreeHouse.

What it comes down to is that even those who consider themselves “animal people” are sometimes unsure of what to make of carnivores.  At TreeHouse, there are two carnivore species that we commonly admit, and we contend with these divergent attitudes on a regular basis.  Red foxes and coyotes, both common in our area, are the objects of as deeply mixed emotions as are the majority of their fellow carnivores, and particularly their fellow wild canids—wolves, jackals, dingoes, etc.  On the “anti” side, they are demonized as poultry- and livestock-killers and feared for their supposed slyness and viciousness.  The “pro” side extends to the polar opposite—that wild canids are really just cooler, better dogs.  For those subscribing to this viewpoint, foxes supposedly are an adorable combination of looking like dogs but acting like cats.  Coyotes, and more particularly their cousins the wolves, are supposed to be the White Fang-like pinnacle of man’s animal companion—smarter, more physically adept, and more loyal than a domestic dog.

But there is an important fact to remember: there is a world of difference between taming an animal and domesticating it.  When a wild animal is tamed, it is socialized to humans so that it learns to behave in a submissive or docile manner.  This behavior is learned as opposed to innate, and as a result it will never be entirely predictable.  If circumstances change, or if a new person comes into the picture, the animal may not continue to behave in a docile manner—and now it no longer has a fear of humans.

domestic dog

Domestic dogs have undergone generations of selection in order to be molded into suitable companions for humans.

Domestication, in contrast, is a process that happens not within the lifetime of a single animal, but rather over the course of many generations.  In essence, domestication results from the combined effects of natural and artificial selection, by which traits that make an animal better suited to life with humans are favored.  Wild animals are adapted for life in the wild; domestic animals are adapted for life with humans. For example, domestic dogs have different nutritional requirements than wild canids, because thousands of years of eating whatever food humans saw fit to give them favored the survival of those individuals that were able to digest and thrive on those foods.

Even more pronounced than the physiological differences are the behavioral differences between domestic and wild canids.  Although different breeds of dogs have undergone selection to develop different behaviors (think hunting dog vs. herding dog vs. guard dog vs. lap dog) one trait common to (essentially) all domestic dogs is that they will recognize and submit to human dominance.  In the early stages of the domestication process, an intractable animal that could not be trained or trusted to behave in a predictable manner would have been rejected.  For wild canids, on the other hand, the ability to rapidly modify their behavior in response to changing circumstances is of great adaptive value.  Their determined persistence and a skill for problem-solving help wild canids—and indeed most predators—to survive in a world where they must outsmart or outperform their prey in a life or death contest on a daily basis.  But this same persistence is what will lead your pet coyote to tear apart your couch in its pursuit to reach the crumbs between the cushions.

Check back next week to read about what happens when someone decides to make a wild animal into a pet, and the effects that we feel at TreeHouse.

Introducing: TreeHouse Wildlife Explorers

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To start with, I’d like to apologize for the unannounced leave of absence from writing this blog.  I started a new job as an animal keeper at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis last fall, and although I still regularly work at TreeHouse as a volunteer/intern (my exact status is a bit unclear to everyone, and probably at this point irrelevant), my new schedule meant that a few projects had to be put on hold for a while.

DSC00044So, naturally, what time of year would I choose to resume old projects and begin new ones?  Why, baby season, of course.  Because who needs to sleep?

Yes, it is baby season once again, and TreeHouse’s nursery is packed with orphaned squirrels, opossums, fox kits, and owlets.  Any volunteer opening the door to the isolation ward, where the young owls are kept with their foster mothers in order to minimize the likelihood of human imprinting, is greeted with a chorus of clacking bills so energetic that it almost sounds like applause.  We love the sound of clacking bills and the look of the fiercely staring eyes that peer out at us from the nest boxes, as they are very positive signs that the young owls have learned from their foster parents to perceive humans as threats, and not as providers of food.  Any wild animal that sees humans as dangerous is likely to avoid contact with humans and should thus stay out of trouble when it returns to the wild.

But I mentioned earlier that this baby season, I am not only getting back to work on old projects, but also starting new ones.  In particular, the new project that I would like to introduce is TreeHouse’s brand new junior membership program: TreeHouse Wildlife Explorers.

TWE logo medium 001

Drawing by Kristina Heaton

This very special program is just for kids aged 14 and under.  For dues of only $15 a year, members will receive a monthly newsletter in the mail.  This newsletter will help get kids involved in wildlife conservation by keeping them informed and in the loop about the animals we are caring for at TreeHouse, providing them with ideas for how they can help wildlife in their own backyards and communities, and teaching them about animals and ecology in a fun and engaging way.  In addition to receiving the monthly newsletter, kids who join the program will receive a personalized membership card that they can present at TreeHouse events to take advantage of special offers and discounts.  We will also be holding a special annual event just for TreeHouse Wildlife Explorers and their families.

At TreeHouse, we know that reaching out to kids is one of the most important things we can do for the future of wildlife conservation.  That is why environmental education has always played such a major role in our mission.  TreeHouse Wildlife Explorers expands this mission by providing the opportunity for kids to have an ongoing connection with TreeHouse Wildlife Center and a resource for learning about nature at home.

We are working on getting a registration form up on our website, but in the meantime, if you would like to sign a child up for TreeHouse Wildlife Explorers, you can either stop by TreeHouse and pick up a pamphlet, or send me an email at treehouse.jennifer@gmail.com.

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