Bobcat Status: Moving Outside

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The new bobcat cage provides a rich environment with great opportunity for behavioral enrichment.

This week, we completed construction on our new outdoor bobcat cage.  It turned out beautifully–it has three levels so the bobcat has plentiful opportunities for climbing and jumping, areas of shade and sun, and a variety of surface materials that contribute to creating a rich environment to allow behavioral flexibility in the cage’s occupant.  The cage was originally intended for long-time permanent resident Tigger, but, sadly, he passed away before his new home was completed.  So, we are now using the cage temporarily as a rehab cage for the bobcat that was hit by a car in Belleville a few weeks ago.

On the positive side, she fought pretty spiritedly when we were putting her in a crate to take her out to the new cage.  With the help of a large net and some heavy gloves, we were able to get her into the crate without any mishaps, but it was a fairly nerve-wracking experience.  On the negative side, no one at TreeHouse has yet seen her outside the nest box in the outdoor cage, with the exception of a brief glimpse I caught of her as she slipped back into the box.  We know that she is leaving the box, which is on the second level, because her food, on the ground level, is gone each morning.  Still, at some point we will have to get a good look at her moving around in order to assess her condition and her prospects for release back to the wild.

For this reason, we are trying to obtain a camera that can be mounted in the cage, allowing us to record video of her activity when no one is around to observe it directly.  A trail camera with an infrared flash (such as the one found here) would allow us to to record video and still images of the bobcat both during the day and at night without disrupting her natural behavior.  If you are interested in making a donation toward the camera, please call TreeHouse at (618)466-2990.  Or, you can come out and visit her in person!–you can find directions here.

The bobcat has yet to leave her nest box when anyone is around to see, but visitors can still come out and see her.

Baby Season Begins

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Last week, baby season officially returned to TreeHouse.  We have all been a little surprised by how far into the season we went without admitting any babies, especially given the mild winter and the strong wind storms of a few weeks ago.  Of course it’s always best for the animals when parents raise their own young, so we had our fingers crossed for a light baby season, and so far that’s what it has been.  We have, however, now received several orphaned baby squirrels, including a young fox squirrel that got stuck in pine sap when its tree was cut down and a gray squirrel so young it still had a piece of umbilical cord attached to it.

This fox squirrel is at my favorite squirrel age–about 5 to 6 weeks old.  Squirrels first open their eyes at about 4 weeks, and for the first few weeks after opening their eyes they are absolutely delightful.  They are inquisitive and playful and perfectly sweet.  They are easy to feed–although they are still hand-fed formula, many of them will practically feed themselves.  They are also incredibly cute.  Unfortunately, this age really is the peak of squirrel delightfulness.  Soon he will be weaned, and then he will start biting, and we won’t be friends anymore.  But that’s really for the best.  We don’t want the grown-up orphans we release to be overly comfortable with humans.  They are wild animals, and we don’t forget that.

Bobcat Status: Week 3

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The bobcat’s condition is continuing to improve.  She has now moved into the exercise room, so she has a lot more space to move around, and she seems to be taking advantage of it.  Bobcats are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours, so during the day she spends most of her time resting either inside or on top of her den box.  Still, we can tell that she is much more active when no one is around–she knocks things over and drags her food all over the floor of the exercise room.  She’s also been eating well.  We’re feeding her mice and a variety of types of meat.  At the moment she has a leg of deer that she’s been chewing on–we sometimes get fresh roadkill to feed out to our animals.  I imagine the deer meat must be a real treat for her.  Bobcats will occasionally take down deer in the wild, but it is rare for them to go after such large prey.

We are hoping to be able to move her outside next week.  In the outdoor cage she will have even more space to move around and she will have the chance to climb and leap onto different platforms and shelves.  This will give us the opportunity to better assess her condition and determine the outlook for her release back into the wild.  First, though, we have to finish building the cage!  It was originally intended for Tigger, but although he passed away just a few days before we admitted this bobcat into TreeHouse, we are still rushing to complete the cage so that we can use it for her rehab.

Bobcat Status: Week 2

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The bobcat that was hit by a car in Belleville last week seems to be well on the path to recovery.  She’s been increasingly wild and aggressive, which we take as a very good sign.  We’ve been hanging towels over half of her cage so that she has a dark place to retreat into during the day, and she’s taken to pulling the towels inside the cage every time we put them up.  Every time we have to change her bedding, she presses herself into the corner with a degree of strength that’s fairly astonishing for an animal of her size, and she snarls and lunges at us so that moving her to the other side of the cage has become quite an ordeal.  Often when someone goes into the room where her cage is, she will begin growling and settle back on her haunches as though she is preparing to pounce.

At this point, we are optimistic about her prospects of re-release into the wild.  As far as we can tell in the relatively limited space she is currently confined to, her vision seems fine, although we will be able to tell more once she moves to a large outdoor cage.  With brain trauma, there is also the chance of other neurological problems–such as seizures or loss of motor function–becoming apparent after a delay.  So, we certainly need to keep her under observation awhile longer before we can make any definitive decisions.

A Pelican in the Greenhouse

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While I was working on this post, I was having some difficulty thinking of a title.  Finally, I remembered a couple of books of short nonfiction stories by Jean Craighead George that I read when I was little.  Jean Craighead George grew up in a family of naturalists and always had unusual animals living in her house, and the stories had names like “An Owl in the Shower” and “The Skunk in the Closet.”  So, I decided to take my cue from one of my favorite childhood authors, because right now, at TreeHouse, we have a pelican living in the greenhouse.

The pelican demands fish.

This American White Pelican is one of my favorite animals that’s come to TreeHouse since I started working here.  He was left behind at Riverlands when the pelicans migrated through in the fall, and after he had been spotted walking along one of the roads in the sanctuary, we picked him up during the same trip as the trumpeter swan we released a couple of weeks ago.  It turned out that he was missing the tip of one wing, and was therefore unable to fly.  He was evidently doing OK, but we were concerned that if the lakes where he was spending most of his time were to freeze, he would be unable to feed himself and would be very vulnerable to predators.  Had we not been able to place him in a new home, we most likely would have returned him to the wild and let nature take its course.  Fortunately, the Saint Louis Zoo agreed to add him to their flock.  There is a mandatory quarantine period for any new animal at the zoo, however, and they are currently renovating their hospital building and so will not have quarantine facilities available until April.  So, we are keeping him in the greenhouse until then.

The reason that he’s my favorite has nothing to do with his personality—he’s actually quite pushy and a bit mean—or the ease of caring for him—he makes a huge mess and the whole building smells like fish if we aren’t careful.  It’s just that he’s so much fun to feed!  He gets a pound and a half of smelt each day, so whoever has animal care duties for the day gets to go into the greenhouse and toss the fish to him one by one and watch him catch them in his ridiculously over-sized bill.  If you have really good aim, the fish will just slide right down his throat and all he has to do is close his mouth!

Turkey Vulture Boot Camp: Part V

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This weekend, Lisa the bird behaviorist came back to TreeHouse for her second session working with Einstein.  We’ve spent the last few weeks practicing the behaviors we started working on the first time she came—getting him to go to one particular perch before we enter his cage and then “targeting” to various locations around his cage.  We’ve also worked a little bit on “eagle,” which is asking him to spread out his wings.  In order to teach him this behavior, we wait for him to do it naturally (usually when he is trying to regain his balance on a swinging perch) and then mark the behavior by clicking the clicker and saying something like, “Good bird! Eagle.”  He has now done the “eagle” behavior on command a few times, but it is something we’ll have to continue to work on in order to get some consistency.

During this session with Lisa, our plan was to work on getting him to go into a crate of his own accord.  If we can teach him to crate up on command, volunteers will be able to go into his cage to clean without worrying about him harassing them, and we will be able to pack him up to go to events like booths and educational programs while eliminating the stress that accompanies being captured and forcibly placed in a crate.  The door of the crate will be modified with a magnet to hold it closed, and, ideally, we will eventually train Einstein to swing the door shut himself.

When Lisa first introduced the crate into Einstein’s cage, his reaction was totally unexpected.  In the past, he has shown a high level of curiosity about new items in his cage.  But as soon as Lisa set the crate down, Einstein reacted with what we can only interpret as terror—he immediately fled to his highest perch, and from there proceeded to fly around the cage, crashing into the mesh that creates a barrier in front of the glass and only barely avoiding flying out the door of his cage.  (Interestingly, it appeared intentional that he did not fly out the door—he veered to the side at the last second.  He definitely knows his boundaries—more about that later.)  I had never seen him panic like this.  Some of the other birds do regularly fly into the mesh on their cage walls, but not Einstein.  He knows where his cage ends, and he seems to realize that trying to get through is futile.

The intensity of his reaction to the crate leads us to believe that he has had some kind of strong negative experience with a crate.  Most likely, the people who kept him as a baby (and on whom he imprinted) kept him in a crate like this.  Even if he wasn’t really mistreated, if he was kept in the crate and rarely or never let out, it could create the kind of strong negative association we saw.  Turkey vultures are highly intelligent animals with long memories.

We spent the rest of the session trying to get Einstein acclimatized to the presence of the crate.  After seeing his initial reaction, Lisa cautioned that we may ultimately find that our original goal of teaching Einstein to shut himself in of his own volition may be untenable.  Still, we certainly weren’t ready to give up yet.

Marcie trying to get Einstein to come closer to the crate.

At first, Einstein wouldn’t do anything.  We tried to work on his old exercises, but he just stayed on one perch, watching the crate out of the corner of his eye.  He actually wouldn’t turn his back on it, but he wouldn’t really look directly at it, either.  Finally, Marcie, the woman who originally contacted Lisa, got Einstein to target to her on the floor by holding out a treat very near the base of the perch on which he was standing.

After that, it was a gradual process of bringing the target progressively closer to the entrance of the crate.  Eventually, we were able to crouch on the side of the crate and hold the target stick right in front of the crate’s opening, and Einstein would come right to the edge of what he evidently saw as some horrible dark abyss to take the treat.  Still, immediately after grabbing it, he would beat a hasty retreat back to the opposite corner.

We also attempted to reassure him that the crate was not a threat by touching it to show that it wasn’t dangerous while saying things like, “It’s OK, Einstein.”  As a human imprint, Einstein, at least to some extent, takes behavioral cues from humans, so if we show him that we are not alarmed by the crate, he may see that it is nothing to be afraid of.  For now, we are going to be leaving the crate in his cage for a few hours every day to allow him to get used to it without stressing him excessively by its constant presence.

At the end of the session, while all the vulture handlers were standing outside Einstein’s cage talking, he did the funniest—and coolest—thing I’ve ever seen him do.  We had left the cage door open and had not yet taken the crate out of the cage—we wanted to see if he would investigate it if left to himself.  After a few minutes of poking around, he came to the cage door.  We often leave the door open when working with him, because we go in and out of the cage many times.  He never crosses the threshold.  As I mentioned earlier, he knows his boundaries.  There is a metal track for the sliding door, and I’m not sure whether he’s afraid of it, or it hurts his feet, or what exactly the reason is, but he never crosses it.

This time, though, he really wanted to be a part of the gathering that was happening outside his cage.  After standing there for a moment watching us, he started tugging at the rug that’s outside the door.  He’s done this before, so I didn’t really think anything of it—until he pulled the corner of the rug over the threshold and used it as a bridge.  He then stepped into the middle of the rug and looked around at all of us as if to say, “I’m here—what are we all doing?”  He never stepped off the rug, but after a couple of minutes he started tugging at my jeans, and Lisa marshaled him back into his cage.  The whole thing was pretty unbelievable.

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It’s likely to take a while before Einstein is actually willing to enter the crate.  If we try to force him into it, we’ll only undo all the work we’ve done.  Still, it will be worth it, and anyway he’s so fascinating to work with that none of us mind the extra time we spend with him.

Bobcat Status: Saturday

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The bobcat seems to be feeling somewhat better today.  When Pam tried to give her fluids this morning, she started hissing and growling and fighting her a little bit, so Pam decided that rather than doing it by I.V. today we would put a big dish of water and a bowl of food right outside her nest box to see if she’ll start eating and drinking on her own.  No one has seen her eat or drink yet, but when I went to check on her a few hours ago the food bowl had been tipped onto its side, so at least she must have been investigating it.  She was also holding her head up a little more than I have seen so far, so we’re hopeful that she is on the road to recovery.

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