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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Beating the Heat at TreeHouse

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Oh, who am I kidding?  There’s no beating this heat.  After a solid week of temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, animals and volunteers alike at TreeHouse are pretty desperate for some relief.  Thankfully, the main building at TreeHouse, which includes our education center and our indoor rehab facilities, is air conditioned.  But of course, most of our animals live outside, and volunteers are out in the heat taking care of them.  Also, although we’ve temporarily suspended work on cage construction, we’ve been hard at work over the last couple of weeks raccoon-proofing our outdoor rehab cages.  Still, at least our human volunteers can always take a break in the AC.  Our animals have to find other means of beating the heat.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days carting ice out to the various outdoor cages.  I started out by putting some ice in Einstein’s water bowl, and he was so delighted with it that I decided the other animals would probably enjoy it was well.  Belle and Bobbie seem to particularly like it–each time I’ve brought them ice so far, they’ve both headed straight for the water as soon as I opened their gate, and they’ve been soaking in it before I even walk away.  As hot as it’s been, though, regular ice cubes don’t cool the water off for long, so I’ve started freezing milk jugs full of water.  In the picture below, one of the coyote pups investigates a jug of ice.  You can also see a video clip of him playing with it here.

The coyotes have shade in parts of their cage, but the foxes and bobcats are lucky enough to have pretty dense shade for most of the day.  For the most part, they seem content to curl up for a nap in a shady corner.

Bobbie seems largely unfazed by the heat.  He (or she) is still an inquisitive and playful kitten that spends most of her (or his) time looking for mischief.  Belle, meanwhile, seems to spend most of her time passively keeping watch from above.  You can see the most recent collection of video from the camera in their cage here.

As for the birds, their cages are mostly in the sun, but we considered all kinds of weather when we were building the cages, so they all have shady places they can go.  Spartacus, our Barn Owl, is always pretty intolerant of the sun, and since this heat wave rolled in she’s pretty well spent her days tucked into the darkest corner of her nest box.  Mocha, our Short-eared Owl, has a cool nest in a shady corner of her cage.  Short-eared Owls nest on the ground in prairie-land, and Mocha has built herself a wonderful nest in the grass that is growing up in her cage.  If you visit TreeHouse and have difficulty finding her, that’s probably where she’s hiding.

Nearly all of our animals are native to this area, so they’re at least reasonably well-equipped to deal with the heat.  Socks, however, is a Rough-legged Hawk, a species that will often travel into Illinois during the winter, but which nests in the far north.  Socks loves to be showered with water from the hose.  When we mist his cage, the other hawks will typically flap around agitatedly, trying to get away from the water, but Socks will bask in it with his wings outstretched and his face upturned.

The heat and drought also mean that we have to be especially sure to release animals in a place where they’ll have a reliable source of water.  As creeks and wetlands dry up, animals converge at the larger bodies of water.  Earlier this week when Adele took a couple of kestrels to release near Horseshoe Lake, she said the lake was packed with hundreds of Great Egrets, drawn there by the fish trapped in the shallows.  A small group of Little Green Herons also seems to be making a home at TreeHouse’s pond.  But even though this weather might afford some interesting wildlife viewing opportunities, I think we’re all ready for it to end!

Fluffy Little Monsters

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A couple weeks ago when I was writing about our serendipitous discovery that one of our kestrels will act as a foster parent, I was having a great deal of difficulty staying on topic.  I kept wanting to write about the morbidly fascinating behavior we see these lovely little birds displaying every day.

As you can probably imagine, the people who visit and work at TreeHouse tend to be pretty big animal lovers, and sometimes it’s hard for them to see the freezers full of dead mice, rats, chickens, deer—whatever we have on hand at the moment.  It’s important to understand, though, that some animals eat other animals, and you will never convince a hawk to turn vegetarian.  We care for a lot of carnivores at TreeHouse, and we want to give them as wild and natural a life as possible.  It would be totally impractical to provide our permanent residents with live prey regularly—for one thing, many of them have injuries that impede their ability to hunt.  Still, we try to feed them as naturally as is feasible.

For anyone who is particularly sensitive about this sort of thing, it might be wise to avoid the kestrel enclosure around feeding time.  Kestrels are beautiful birds, and their small size gives them a deceptively delicate appearance.  But when they hunt—and when they eat—they turn into little killing machines.  Personally, I find it fascinating.

Hawks kill their prey with the talons of their powerful feet.  Kestrels, however, as falcons, catch their prey with their feet but kill by breaking the neck with their beaks.  When one of our kestrels gets a mouse, its first move is always to carry it to a perch and begin tearing at the neck with its beak.  Then it rips the head off.  Actually, to be more precise, it tears at the neck until the head is just dangling by a thread.  Then it proceeds to eat the brain.  I’m not really sure why they go for the brain first.  Maybe it tastes good.  I’ve also heard anecdotally that the brain will decay more quickly than the rest of the body, so maybe it has to do with eating it while it’s still fresh.  In any case, this leads to one of the more disturbing things our kestrels do: they don’t usually eat the whole head; instead, they leave the facial bones and flesh intact.  Then, often, they leave the faces on the platform where we feed them.  I don’t know if they’re trying to make some sort of statement or if it’s just convenient—probably the latter.  Either way, it’s super creepy.

Braaaiiins!!!

Once the kestrel is finished with the head, it moves on to the rest of the meal, gleefully ripping out entrails and chunks of meat.  If it’s really hungry, it will eat the mouse whole, later coughing up the fur and bones in a pellet.  Other times, it might be pickier.  Being “pickier” means that along with the face, we might find the spine, with tail still attached, lying on the platform.  Maybe I’m just weird, or maybe any 80s or 90s kid would have the same response, but when I see that, the “spine rip” move from Mortal Kombat always pops into my mind.  I think if a kestrel could play video games it would probably like Mortal Kombat.

If the kestrel really isn’t hungry, it might not be able to finish a whole mouse.  In that case, it will save its leftovers for later.  Our kestrels save their leftovers by hanging them in the Christmas tree.  Like ornaments.  To explain, the Christmas tree came with the house when we moved to our new location.  We wanted to find a use for it, and we thought that it would be perfect for the kestrels, as it would contribute to the diverse, naturalistic habitat we were trying to create for them.  And apparently it has.  They sometimes roost in it, and they frequently drape pieces of their food in it.  Like tinsel.  It’s a little bit gross, but mostly interesting.

Trimming the Christmas tree.

Ultimately, if hippos are the killer clowns of the animal kingdom, I’m pretty sure kestrels are the psychotic serial killers who keep trophies of their victims in the basement.  Though they say it’s always the quiet ones, and kestrels are anything but quiet.  Really, they’re just wild animals—predators that are supremely well-adapted for the niche they fill in nature, catching birds in flight and other small, fast things.  When I’m driving down a country road and I see a kestrel shoot through a flock of sparrows and grab one out of the air, I feel a twinge of pity for the sparrow, but mostly I’m delighted to witness nature in action.  It’s the circle of life!

Foster Father of the Year

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Yesterday, we admitted a young kestrel—our first this year.  She was transferred to TreeHouse by a private rehabber with whom we often work, after being found in a parking lot standing on someone’s car. The kestrel is a brancher. “Brancher” is a term used to describe juvenile raptors at the age when they have flight feathers but have not yet learned to fly.  At this age, they will hop around from branch to branch and down to the ground as they explore their surroundings, but they normally remain fairly close to their nest, as their parents are still feeding them.

The brancher sits on top of a post in the outdoor cage.

The kestrel we admitted yesterday seems to have no physical problems, but she is still too young to feed herself in the wild.  Since she was found in the middle of a parking lot, she had evidently strayed farther from her nest than is usual.  The location of the nest was unknown, so we brought her to TreeHouse until she is old enough to hunt on her own.

Although she is not yet hunting, she is old enough that she will pick food up on her own, so we placed her in our outdoor cage with our three permanent resident kestrels.  It is important to place juvenile birds with adults of the same species whenever possible, so that the adults can serve as behavioral role models and prevent human imprinting.  This particular kestrel is past the age at which human imprinting is a serious concern, but it is still beneficial for her to be with others of her species.

When Adele and I placed the kestrel in the outdoor cage yesterday, we were lucky enough to witness a very cool interaction between the brancher and one of the resident adults.

In most bird species, the chicks have a distinctive food-begging cry to which their parents respond instinctively.  When an adult hears this feeding cry, it is impelled to find food and bring it to the chick. This instinctive drive is what makes it possible for us to use non-releasable adults as foster parents.  An adult bird will typically respond to the feeding cry even if the young bird begging for food is not its own offspring.  Still, it usually takes a few days after a chick is introduced for the foster parent to adjust to the change and start actually caring for it.

In the case of our brancher kestrel, we were not expecting the adults to act as foster parents.  None of them had any previous experience fostering chicks, and the brancher is old enough to pick food up for herself.  But shortly after we placed her in the cage, she started the food-begging cry.  This in itself was not surprising.  Kestrels are notorious among wildlife rehabbers for the migraine-inducing clamor young orphans will make as they constantly demand food.  What did surprise us was the reaction of one of the adult residents.

This is Quincy, the adult permanent resident who adopted the new brancher.

As soon as the brancher started begging, one adult turned to watch her.  Within about a minute, he flew to the Christmas tree where the kestrels like to hang pieces of mice and picked one up in his talons.  (As an explanation about the Christmas tree food storage, I’ll have to follow up soon with an article about the kestrels’ normal feeding behavior—it’s pretty fascinating.  They’re like tiny feathery psychopaths.)  He then flew to where the brancher was perched and handed her the piece of mouse, from his beak to hers.  She picked at it for a few moments, then, like a toddler making trouble, dropped it on the ground and started crying again.

The adult watched her for a minute, looking back and forth from the mouse on the ground to the trouble-making brancher, and then he hopped to the ground, picked up the mouse, and brought it to her again.  This time she picked at it a little longer before dropping it on the ground, and she didn’t start crying immediately afterwards, so she must have had enough.

Of course I don’t have any pictures or video of this interaction—I never have my camera when something that interesting happens.  Now I just have an excuse to camp out next to the kestrel cage until I see it happen again.  Witnessing this sort of behavior really is my favorite thing about working at TreeHouse.  I could never get tired of observing wild animals and their behavior, and it seems like every day I see something amazing that I’ve never seen before.

Quincy and the brancher. In kestrels, unlike most of the raptors we have at TreeHouse, it is easy to distinguish between the sexes. Males are vividly colored, while females have more muted coloring.

‘Possum Soup

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I’ve already written one post about how much I love opossums, but today we got our first orphaned opossum babies of the season, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share another example of how great they are.

At TreeHouse, we don’t take very young opossums, with their eyes still closed.  This is because, as marsupials, opossums are born at a very early stage of development.   Neonates are essentially embryos.  Inside their pouches, female opossums have thirteen tube-like teats that the babies will latch onto and remained attached to for around two months.  It is around that time that their eyes open.

Because they remain latched onto a teat as long as their eyes are closed, neonates do not have a suckling reflex.  For this reason, orphans at this age cannot be hand-fed via syringe, as squirrels and many other baby mammals can be.   Very young opossums must be fed through a tube that is inserted in the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach.  Unfortunately, this is a very delicate and tricky procedure.  The babies’ tissues are so fragile that it is incredibly easy to cause severe internal injury when inserting the tube.  Since TreeHouse relies on a large force of devoted but frequently changing volunteers for animal care, it was decided long ago that we could not accept patients whose care is so difficult.

Once their eyes open, however, baby opossums can be coaxed to drink formula from a dish.  When they are a little older, they have absolutely no problem drinking this way, but when their eyes are just barely opened, they are very unsteady on their feet and don’t yet see well.  This is when we get to see what Adele calls “’possum soup.”

'Possum soup.

At feeding time, we place the babies in a container with only a cloth covering the bottom and a wide, shallow dish of warm formula in the center.  We set the baby opossums around the dish and basically dip their noses in the formula so they know it’s there.  From that point, it becomes pretty chaotic, as some babies will dive right into the formula—literally—while others stagger around in circles, huddle together in the corner, or just fall over sideways while trying to walk.  Watching from above, the person feeding makes sure that none of the babies get stuck or chilled, but otherwise it’s pretty hands-off.  The ones that go swimming in the formula dish inevitably manage to drink some, and when they get out the others will pile around and lick the formula off their fur.  It’s absurdly cute.

It generally only takes two or three feedings for the babies to get the hang of lapping formula out of the dish, but we always get a few that prefer to swim in it.  So, we get to see more ’possum soup.