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.

Chuckles Moves to Dow


We hit a landmark in the move from Brighton to Dow this week—TreeHouse’s Internet celebrity, Chuckles the red fox, finally came to our new facility.  Her cage is not totally completed yet, but it is operational, and we were anxious to bring her over because she acts as a foster parent for any orphaned foxes we admit.

We currently have two young foxes that were ready to move outside, and they joined Chuckles in the new cage today.  As any of our current animal care volunteers at Dow can attest, these two REALLY needed to get outside.  They’ve been so rambunctious and playful that their freshly cleaned cage would be torn apart before we could even leave the room.

The new cage is much more spacious than Chuckles’ old cage at Brighton was, and she seemed pretty delighted by it.  We gave her a little while to get used to her new surroundings before we introduced the two kits.  The two are near the same age, but they are not siblings, and they have very different personalities.  The first one we admitted, which you can see here, is very bold and constantly in motion.  As soon as we opened the crate we had used to carry them outside, he darted out and started running up and down the length of the cage.  The minute he saw Chuckles, he ran up to her and greeted her as though she was his long-lost mother.

The older kit tries to get Chuckles to join in the fun.

The second kit is much more timid by comparison, and it was a few minutes before he left the crate.  Still, when he did, he too began running around and around throughout the whole cage.  The two kits always got along reasonably well, but the shyer one, who is slightly older, sometimes would be obviously annoyed with the younger one’s antics—the younger one never gave him a moment’s peace.  But when they were both running around outside, chasing each other and playing, all I could see was pure joy from both of them.

For hours, they ran and ran—around logs, up the ramps and onto the shelves, into the den box, around Chuckles.  When I checked on them just before dark, they were still at it.  For the most part, Chuckles just watches them, though every once in a while one of them will try to get her to join in.

You can see a video of Chuckles and the two kits here.  If you come out to TreeHouse, you will be able to see them, although as long as we have orphans getting ready for release in there with Chuckles, there will be a fence around the cage to give them a wider perimeter.  Visitors can view them from outside the fence, though, and Chuckles is always worth paying a visit!

The youngest fox plays with a tee-ball.

Belle & Bobbie: Week 5 Video

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The latest collection of pictures and videos from our bobcat cam is now up on YouTube.  Due to technical difficulties (a dead battery, actually) we do not have a week 4 video, but I think week 5 is well worth the wait!  Bobbie has grown significantly and has become much more active and inquisitive.  In the video, you’ll see her first couple of excursions outside the den box–as well as her first ridiculous failure of an attempt to get out of the den.  Belle is obviously a very attentive mother, keeping close tabs on her baby at all times.  It’s so exciting for all of us to watch Bobbie grow and to have the opportunity to observe a wild bobcat rearing her kitten.  I hope you enjoy the footage as much as I did!

More TreeHouse Babies

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This baby red fox was admitted to TreeHouse a couple of weeks ago after being found trapped under a deep freeze in a basement.  He is doing well, but we have to be careful to limit our interactions with him, as it is easy for young foxes to get overly habituated to humans.  You can see a video of him on our new YouTube channel.

This young barred owl was found on the ground after one of the recent storms.  The location of its nest was unknown, so we have placed it with a foster parent and two other owlets at TreeHouse.  Placement with a foster parent helps ensure that the young owls will imprint on their own species, instead of on humans.

This coyote pup was brought to TreeHouse after it was found in someone’s yard.  We don’t know why she was on her own in the open–we’re speculating that her den was nearby and she crawled out after something happened to her mother.

Belle and Bobbie are still doing well.  The baby has not yet ventured out of the den box, but it is becoming increasingly visible in the pictures and videos taken by the trail camera in the cage.  You can see the latest collection of videos here.  This photo, which shows Belle nursing her infant, is the only close-up we have of the two.

Surprise! A Wild Bobcat Kitten


Two weeks ago, TreeHouse experienced a very exciting first.  The bobcat we admitted in March after she was hit by a car in Belleville gave birth to a kitten.  The baby, which we have decided to call “Bobbie”, seems to be perfectly healthy, but we are adopting a totally hands-off approach and allowing the mother (“Belle”) to care for the baby entirely on her own.  For this reason, we do not even know Bobbie’s sex—it would be too stressful to both mother and infant for us to take the baby away for an examination.

Belle and Bobbie are just the sixth and seventh wild bobcats TreeHouse has ever admitted.  It seems that the population of bobcats in southern Illinois is growing, as all have been admitted since 2005.  Prior to that point, we had received a few bobcats that were confiscated from people illegally keeping them as pets.

Belle was admitted to TreeHouse on March 7, and Bobbie was born, by our closest estimation, on April 16.  The gestation period for bobcats is around 62 days, so Belle would not yet have been half-way through her pregnancy when she was struck by the car and brought to TreeHouse.  She had full-body X-rays taken at that time, but even under magnification the radiographs show no sign of a developing fetus—it was simply too early in the pregnancy.

As Belle progressed in her rehabilitation from the head injury she sustained in her accident, she remained very secretive, only leaving her den box when no one was around to see her.  For this reason, although we believed that she was recovering well, we were reluctant to release her until we could verify that she was not experiencing any lingering neurological effects, such as problems with balance or diminished eyesight or hearing.

One of our first glimpses of Belle exploring her surroundings.

As a means to observe Belle’s movements without disrupting them, we obtained a trail camera with an infrared flash that would be able to take still pictures and video whenever Belle moved past it, day or night.  It was while the camera was being installed in the cage, on April 16, that we first heard the kitten mewing from inside the den box.

Belle was extremely defensive of the den at this point, showing her teeth and growling menacingly at anyone who approached her cage.  As we began to suspect the presence of kitten, we were cautious of causing any unnecessary stress to the mother, so it was not until the next day that we actually caught a glimpse of Bobbie—at that point basically a dark blob curled up by Belle’s stomach.  We immediately began to take measures to reduce any noise or disturbance in the vicinity of the bobcat cage, erecting a privacy fence around the cage and strictly limiting the number of people who would enter the cage to feed.

Our apologies to anyone who came to TreeHouse in the last two weeks and were told that the bobcat was unavailable for public viewing because she was a candidate for release and needed to remain isolated from humans.  This is true—we hope to be able to release both mother and young back to the wild once Bobbie is old enough—but the presence of an infant made complete privacy even more imperative, for multiple reasons.

Belle guards her den against anyone who approaches.

Although wild felines are typically very good mothers, if conditions are unfavorable for rearing a litter, they will abandon their young.  Unfavorable conditions can mean poor habitat, inadequate food supply, or a stressful environment.   Belle seems perfectly content with her den, and she is certainly receiving enough to eat, so our primary concern is limiting stress.  Being stared at all day by strange humans can be incredibly stressful for wild animals, so it is for this reason that she will not be available for viewing.  The presence of hormones associated with stress can even interfere with the production of hormones necessary for lactation, so if Belle becomes too stressed she could become physically unable to care for her baby.

If this were to happen and it became necessary for us to intervene in order to save Bobbie, we would do so, but it would be better in every way for the bobkitten to be raised by its mother rather than being hand-reared by humans.  It will grow up much more wild this way, and since we hope to release it to the wild, it is important that the kitten not become too accustomed to humans.

So, the reason we delayed releasing the information about Bobbie’s birth is that we needed to find a way to share this exciting story while also protecting Belle and Bobbie’s privacy.  The animals always come first at TreeHouse, and during this time the most important thing is for Belle to feel comfortable and secure.  Instead of subjecting her to the stress of having a stream of people come out to see her baby in person, we therefore will be uploading pictures and video from the camera in her cage to our new Youtube page.  Check for a new video each week, as we follow Bobbie’s growth and Belle’s daily movements.

‘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.

It’s a Baby Otter!

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I’m so excited right now that I am literally bouncing on my desk chair.  Today, we admitted a baby river otter.  I’ve just realized that there is nothing in the world quite as adorable as a baby river otter.

I think of all the puppies and kittens I've ever seen, and then I have to accept that nothing else can ever be this cute.

After over 30 years of wildlife rehabilitation, it isn’t often that TreeHouse gets something completely new, but in all that time, we have never admitted a river otter.  They are around in this area, but much like bobcats they are rarely sighted.  According to a biologist at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, most otter sightings in and around the refuge come in the form of road-kill.  Otters live along the banks of secluded rivers and streams, feeding primarily on fish and crustaceans, like crayfish.  They are found throughout North America, from Florida in the south to northern Canada, and from Newfoundland in the east to the Aleutian Islands in the west.  Despite their broad range, their population has been dramatically reduced from historical numbers by habitat loss and heavy fur trapping.

I love otters.  They are highly intelligent, inquisitive, and playful.  In fact, many would argue that of all animals (besides humans!), otters show the best evidence of true play.  That is, they demonstrate behavior that does not seem to have any adaptive value, either in terms of survival, attracting a mate, learning skills for use in later life, or any other practical purpose.  They slide down mud-banks on their bellies.  They have been observed repeatedly pushing a pebble into the water, then diving down after it to catch it on the top of their head and bring it back to the surface, like a kid with diving sticks at a swimming pool.  They will even bring these “toys” back to keep in their dens—smooth stones and other objects that they play with in the water.

The otter we admitted today came from a couple who live off the Great River Road just a few miles from TreeHouse.  Her mother was found dead (cause of death unknown), but fortunately for the baby, the couple found her after hearing her whimpering coming from a drain culvert.  They dried her off, warmed her up, and brought her to TreeHouse.  Just to note, I keep using the word “her”, but we’re not sure of the sex yet.  I think it might be female, but determining the sex in otters is not actually as straightforward as it is in other mammals.

She was fairly lethargic when she first came in—she was curled in a tight little ball and wouldn’t uncurl—but after taking some warm fluids and a little bit of food, she perked up quite a bit.  She started nosing all around the counter where I was feeding her, pushing bottles and jars over as she explored her surroundings with her whiskers and staggered around on unsteady baby legs.

Like any toddler, as she began to liven up, she made an increasingly huge mess of herself.  She dipped her whole face into her water bowl and blew bubbles at the bottom through her nose, repeatedly lifting her head up for breath, then going back down to blow more bubbles.  She basically dove headfirst into her food bowl.  So, before she could go back into her cage in the nursery, she needed a bath.  I put her into a shallow pan of warm water, and she took to the water about as gleefully as you might expect a baby otter to do.  She swam all around the pan, going underwater as much as the shallow water would allow.  She is not a strong swimmer yet—it was likely her first time swimming on her own—but she looked more comfortable in the water than she does on land.

Fortunately, although we have never rescued an otter before, we have a lot of great information resources we will be utilizing, and we hope we will be able to raise this orphan for release back to the wild.