Back to the Wild

By Kate MacNeil, Education Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Last week we introduced you to the story of two orphaned river otters. We left off with the realization that we were going to make every effort possible to reintroduce them back into the wild. We gathered a great deal of information from others who had experience with river otters, from a captive breeding program in England to a reintroduction project in New York State.

It became clear the key would be finding the perfect release site with the right foster family, where the otters could transition back into the wild. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Thanks to a newspaper story we had 55 calls from interested people. After going over the care requirements with potential foster families we were left with a handful of possible sites. The next couple of weeks were spent visiting the potential sites from Val-des-Monts to White Lake, and although they sounded good on paper, none were proving to be a viable option. Our hopes were starting to fade.

One of the last sites we visited was outside of Perth, and as we drove down the road leading to the 250 acre property we could hardly contain our enthusiasm, this looked like a winner. Further exploration revealed the property’s perfection. It consisted almost entirely of natural area, with ponds and creeks leading into Big Rideau Lake. We had found our needle!

Things fell into place quickly with the construction of an elaborate cage. It included two large chambers, one at the top of the embankment and another chamber in the water where the otters could swim and perfect their fishing skills. The two areas were attached with a 15ft tunnel.

In May of 1999, the otters made their big move from our Centre to their transitional cage. A month later the cage was opened for the first time and the otters were able to explore their environment. They left no stone unturned and were as curious as they were cautious. They remained close to their cage and to each other. Each day the time spent out of their cage was extended and they would be lured back in with food for the night. Eventually the cage was left open for them to come and go freely. They returned at night for a while until they moved their den site to a nearby riverbank.

Their return to the wild went better than we could have expected, the male would return occasionally but the female could only be seen from a distance with her new family. We were glad we did not listen to the advice of finding a captive situation. They were back in the wild, where they belonged.

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Crash Course in Otter Care

By Kate MacNeil, Education Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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It has been 13 years since I met my first river otter and it was love at first sight. From the moment the Centre’s first pair of otters passed though the door things were never quite the same.

We had a lot to learn and fast! What do they eat? How long do we keep them? When should we introduce them to water? The answers only seemed to lead to more questions. Where do we find an endless amount of free, live fish? What do you mean they cannot be released back into the wild? What can we do to make sure they do not get pneumonia from getting a chill while swimming?

While we were busy finding out answers to these questions the pair of river otters chortled their way into the hearts of everyone they met. Talk about having personality to spare!

Our fish shortage was solved by a gentleman who heard about the otters and started bringing live fish every few days. I would carefully fillet the fish for the otters.
One day I brought in some walnuts in the shell, thinking they could play with them and eventually maybe eat them. The female put one carefully in her mouth, and then chomped down, breaking it into tiny pieces. It was at this point I stopped filleting their fish! They could eat a foot long walleye and leave nothing behind.

We used to say the otters had two speeds on and off, there was no half way. Whether they were performing perfectly timed, synchronized swimming manoeuvres in their tiny pool, or happily grunting “what, what, what” to each other they were spectacular to watch and captivated all who saw them.

They were so much fun that even when they caused mischief you could not help but laugh. One evening they broke out of their cage and had the party of the decade. The staff that saw the room the next morning thought the Centre had been vandalized. Stuffing ripped out of chairs, hoses on the floor full of holes, every last thing knocked off shelves. When they were discovered hiding in a pile of rubber boots they let out a low growl, as if they were mad to be sent back to their room! Needless to say they were in the off position for the rest of the day, sleeping soundly. I am sure they were dreaming of their adventure.

The longer they were at the Centre the more determined we all became that we had to give them a chance to live in the wild, even though the advice we kept getting was to find the best captive situation we could. Check back next week to find out how things turned out for this spirited pair of otters.

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Orphaned Fishers

By Kate MacNeil, Education Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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In the spring of 2002 we got a call about a dead adult fisher on the side of the Thomas Dolan Parkway, near a bridge by the wetlands. The caller had seen it the night before, but this time as they passed by they thought they saw two smaller ones near the body. They were unable to stop and would not be back in the area until that night. Luckily a colleague and I were nearby and were able to check it out.

After about an hour of searching the two young fishers were found and with a bit of skill and a lot of luck we got them into carriers.

This would be only the second time the Centre cared for young fishers. In 2000 we received our first orphaned pair. It was exciting to witness and learn up close about these amazing animals.

After their rescue the fishers settled in quickly, although their shy and wary nature always shone through. Even though they loved their formula, they still had to be coaxed out from under their blankets at mealtimes. Once out, they would happily sit on your lap and eat their formula from a syringe. As soon as their tummies were full and their faces were washed they would scurry behind their large carrier for a little wrestle and play time with each other. They grew very quickly and within a few weeks were ready for their large outdoor cage. Their climbing ability amazed us all as not only were they fast but their agility was unbelievable.

Twice a day we would enter their cage to feed them, each time they would hide in their nesting box until we left, then they would take their food, dish and all, inside. When we returned later we would find the empty dish that had been tossed out. Even when we had to handle them for vaccinations, they still just wanted to get away from us.

Of course when people heard we had fishers we got all kinds of gasps. More that one person called them vicious creatures. This was not our experience at all. Fishers are very intelligent animals. They are amazing hunters that eat small mammals, birds, occasionally porcupines and sometimes pets. Fishers are about the size of a house cat, weighing around 10-18 lbs.

It is important to remember that we share our spaces with other species and it is good to be proactive in our approach to co-existing with them. With fishers this means taking measures to keep our pets safe, instead of blaming wildlife for simply trying to survive.

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Surviving Against the Odds

By Karyn Jones, Former Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre,
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Karyn worked at the Centre first as a Wildlife Intern and then as Coordinator in the mid-90’s. This is her story.

When the coyote pup was brought to the Centre, we were very worried she wouldn’t survive. She had been found, along with a sibling, by two young boys who had selfishly kept them hidden for over a week until one of them died. Only then did they attempt to find help for the remaining frightened and malnourished pup.

Suffering from a severe case of sarcoptic mange, a parasitic skin infection that often leads to death, we painstakingly shaved the tiny coyote and started a course of treatment. Not surprisingly, she also had several types of intestinal worms. Treatments were difficult because she had obviously been roughly handled and was terrified of being touched.

While her recovery was slow, eventually our diligent care began to show results, her skin improved, the distended, bloated abdomen disappeared and her fur started to grow back. Despite her improved physical health, we were concerned about how nervous and stressed she was in what we knew would be a lengthy rehabilitation period. Several volunteers offered to spend time gently talking to her each day which helped to reduce her stress and make the medical treatments more comfortable.

Once she was ready, arrangements were made to continue her rehabilitation at another facility. Audrey Tournay, at the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, with her usual compassion and generosity, readily agreed to take her as she was already caring for two orphaned male coyote pups.

On arrival at Aspen, we placed her carrier just inside the large outdoor enclosure where the other two coyotes were eyeing us from behind tall grasses and shrubs. We opened the door of the carrier and left her alone to become accustomed to the smells and sights of her new home.

We checked in a few hours later to find our once frightened pup in the middle of a game of chase with her new found coyote friends. She glanced at us with a look that I am sure meant, “Please don’t take me away, I like it here”. I watched her romp with the boys for a while before walking to my car with a feeling of pride.

The coyote pup that had beaten the odds showed us that all of our efforts had paid off in a healthy and well-adjusted wild coyote. The three coyotes would be over-wintered and released together in the spring when food supplies were more plentiful.

Footnote: Coyotes are wonderfully intelligent and social animals that make a critical contribution to healthy ecosystems. See for more information.

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Motherhood for Squirrels is a Demanding Job

By Donna DuBreuil, President,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre,
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The female squirrels that were seen resting on the fence rail at the Wildlife Centre during June were looking pretty tuckered out. It was no wonder, after caring for up to five babies over the late winter and spring months.

The eastern Grey Squirrel has her babies as early as March and in our climate that presents a real challenge. The female must find a secure spot when her newborn babies are only as big as your thumb and subject to be preyed upon by crows. The typical tree nests or dreys afford no protection at that time of year due to the lack of leaf cover.

A second litter is born in July and August when the weather is less harsh but still female squirrels are looking for safe spots, such as a soffit or shed that offers protection from predators and the elements when babies are most vulnerable.

There are fewer babies born during the summer. We speculate it is because they are born to adults who were themselves born late in the season the year before. The care of the young is the sole responsibility of the mother, and she is very devoted.

We would sometimes get calls from people concerned about squirrels with hair loss. When it was confirmed that the hair loss was around the squirrel’s shoulders and upper back, we were able to assure people it was quite natural. Mother squirrels will pluck their hair and use it to line the nest as warm insulation for tiny babies.

You can always tell a mother squirrel with ‘teenagers’ because her hair will have started to come back in and the short new growth will often be a different shade. It appears that the squirrel is wearing a dark ‘vest’ with lighter ‘pants’.

Most likely the squirrels you see around your property at this time are females with babies close by. Trapping and relocating adult squirrels is never humane as they don’t do well in a new territory. It is also a death sentence for the babies that are left behind to suffer and die of starvation.

The babies mature quickly; developing hair by three weeks. Their eyes open by four weeks and by nine weeks, they are venturing out of the nest with mother. By 12 weeks they are quite independent although the summer litter will often den with their siblings over the winter.

If squirrels have taken up temporary residence in a soffit or attic, once they leave in mid to late September, you can do the animal-proofing. Check out for detailed help.

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The Rabbit and the Whipper Snipper

By Donna DuBreuil, President,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –

We remember well the animals we cared for when doing wildlife rehabilitation, particularly the ones that had a run in with one of our human contraptions and lived to tell the ‘tale’.

In this case it was an ‘ear’. The three little Eastern Cottontail rabbits that arrived at the Centre were very traumatized as was the homeowner who brought them to us. Unknown to him, the baby rabbits had been in a nest in tall grass at the back of his property. In cutting the grass with a whipper snipper, he was shocked to hear a piercing cry. Realizing they were injured, he quickly gathered up the babies and nesting material and brought them to the Centre.

One of the rabbits had lost most of its ear and was bleeding profusely, another had a deep cut on its neck and the third had abrasions on its back. Fortunately, after stabilizing them, all three responded to treatment. The veterinarian was able to suture the remaining portion of the one rabbit’s ear and stem the bleeding while the other rabbits’ cuts were cleaned and closed.

We wondered whether a rabbit with one ear would be at greater risk in terms of not hearing a predator approach but that concern was soon put to rest. Once the group were housed in a large cage, they all adopted the wariness that rabbits possess. In fact, it seemed to us that the one-eared rabbit was the sentry, keeping a watch over the others.

When they were old enough, they were released back at the original site, at the homeowner’s request.

Because rabbits, like many wild animals, seek safe spots close to our homes and away from predators when their babies are most vulnerable, it is not at all uncommon to have them around our property. They build their nests by digging a shallow indentation in a garden, under a hedge or in tall grass. The female lines the burrow with her fur for insulation for the newborn babies and covers the area with grass or other vegetation.

As the female only visits a few times a day, mostly at night, to nurse the babies so as to not attract predators to the nest, there is little indication of activity.

So, when digging in your garden or mowing your lawn, please keep an eye out for a possible nest. If you find one with babies, replace the nesting materials if you have disturbed them and leave it alone. Keep dogs and cats away for the short period of time it takes for the babies to mature and leave the area.

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Our Own Little Bear

By Kate MacNeil, Education Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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The call came one Friday afternoon from a young lady who said she found a bear cub. An adult had been recently killed on the road near by. She said she had picked the cub up and walked home with it. My first thought was, could this really be a bear cub if she just picked it up? Given the lateness of the season cubs would not really be happy to be scooped up. I thought perhaps she had a young groundhog and just thought it was a newborn bear cub (they are only the size of a hamster when they are born). When I asked her why she thought it was a bear, she replied, “because it looks like a bear”. Good answer! I must admit that I was still a little bit skeptical that it was in fact a bear cub. Regardless, I went over how to keep the bear secure and safe during transport and not to handle it further.

When I hung up with her I put up on the intake board: bear cub with a question mark and the time it should arrive. It did not take long for word to spread with Centre staff and volunteers and everyone anxiously awaited its arrival.

I tried to caution them not to get their hopes up, as it may not be a bear, but sure enough, it was a bear cub that arrived. It was dehydrated, emaciated, weighed under ten pounds, with a severe case of mange. To say that it was skin and bones would be an understatement and it was as weak as it was thin- it had not been doing well since mom had died.

First thing was to give sub-Q fluid to help re-hydrate him. Next up was some food. We made a mixture of fruit baby food and formula, which looked like a milkshake. We put the shake in a 30cc feeding syringe. I went into the cage, sat down and slowly moved towards the cub. After a bit of pawing at the ground and jaw popping on the part of the bear, and a bit of nervousness on my part, all was good and feeding time progressed very well. In fact, blueberry shakes turned out to be his favourite. Once the cub was stabilized we began treatment for mange. After a few weeks he was a new bear, his fur was shiny, his eyes were clear and he was moving about.

Our bear was now ready to move to another sanctuary to spend the winter. With more room and even some friends for him it was the perfect place to learn, play and grow. He was returned to the wild where we like to hope he still roams today.

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Special Lunch Guests

By Kate MacNeil
Education Coordinator, Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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The spring of 2000 was a record year for the number of fawns we received at the Centre. Due to the special requirements of fawns and the limited space at the Wildlife Centre they normally went to a foster volunteer as soon as they were stabilized.

But, in 2000, we had 2 fawns that spent over a week at the Centre while receiving medical treatment.

The first arrival was a male that came back from foster care because he was not eating and was lethargic. He weighed just under 10 lbs. Due to lack of space, we had to get creative. The fawn spent his first night at the Centre in a large dog crate in an office. While he settled in we got busy rearranging and moving animals and erecting an 8ft x 6ft cage that would accommodate him.

Before we knew it, a second fawn arrived, another little male that weighed about 13lbs. He had an eye injury that needed attention. Another cage was set up across from the first.

Although their cages were large enough to house them temporarily, they still needed exercise.

We accomplished this by letting them stretch their legs in the library after their bottle feedings. They would take turns chasing each other, almost as if they were playing tag, they would even chase each other around our conference table. When they would stop suddenly they would slide on the carpet, we called this the Bambi on ice manoeuvre. They also seemed to enjoy their visits with the squirrels who were caged in the library, sniffing around almost as if to say hello.

Before we knew it, both fawns had recovered and were brought to the foster family for the remainder of their care. We were lucky to have an exceptional fawn foster volunteer. The property had barns for the fawns and a large fenced area that encompassed a meadow as well as forest area.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the fawns in their new home prior to their release. As amusing as it was to see them running around the library, it did not hold a candle to the sight of them running around the meadow. This was where they belonged. So although lunchtime was not quite the same without them, we knew they had moved on to better things.

Remember, this is the wildlife birthing season. If you have an animal around your home or garden, please be patient, as it no doubt has young nearby. See for detailed information.

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One Tiny Skunk

By Kate MacNeil, Education Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Baby skunk - click to enlargeAlthough we no longer do wildlife rehabilitation, the animals we have cared for are never far from our minds. We hope by sharing their stories, you will come to have a new appreciation for local wildlife and the rich biodiversity we enjoy in this region.

On an evening many years ago in mid May we received a call about a baby skunk. The caller had seen the mother moving her babies, carrying them one by one in her mouth across their backyard. During one of her trips mom was startled and dropped one baby.

Not sure what to do they called the Centre.

Knowing mom would do a much better job of raising the baby and having had success in the past, we decided it was worth trying to reunite. The baby was warmed up by placing it on a hot water bottle and then it was put back where it had been found in the hopes that mom would return.

Unfortunately, mom did not return and the skunk was brought into the Centre for care. The baby was a little female with her eyes still closed, weighing only 60 grams. She easily fit in the flat of my hand. Although she only had a small amount of fuzz, her black and white coloration was already clearly visible.

She took to her bottle feedings like a fish to water and before we knew it she was growing like crazy. One day we noticed she was favouring a hind leg. A vet trip and x-ray revealed a break in the leg. It was thought since she was so small when she came in that the formula did not have sufficient calcium, resulting in weaker bones. Since she was growing so rapidly and her bones were so fragile the leg could not be splinted. A calcium supplement was added to her diet, but there was nothing more we could do but leave it and hope it would heal on its own.

Her injury did not seem to slow her down and she continued to grow and to our relief the break quickly healed. She was then mixed with other skunks about her age. She would play and chase even the larger skunks around. It was wonderful to see this skunk that was so tiny when she came in, now running around and stamping her front feet at her cage mates. She would walk around with the typical skunk wiggle. It was easy to forget her rough start.

Before doing any animal-proofing, remember that baby skunks will not be coming out of the burrow until the first to mid-July.

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The Woodchuck and the Teddy Bear

By Donna DuBreuil, President,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Baby Groundhog

Well-known Canadian naturalist, Barry Kent MacKay, refers to woodchucks (Marmota monax) as the little ‘Mennonites of the Meadow’ because they are pacifists that live a peaceful life and do no harm to others. Sadly, though, they are often maligned simply because they have the audacity to want to share the planet with us humans.

Sometimes called groundhogs, the woodchuck’s only crime is digging. However, we need to keep in mind that its burrows serve an important purpose. They supply shelter for other wildlife such as foxes and skunks that are critical in keeping mice and insect populations in check. In nature, everything is connected and everything serves a purpose.

When the Centre did wildlife rehabilitation, we would receive two to three dozen orphaned baby woodchucks each year. Most resulted when the mother was killed by a car or trapped and relocated. There would be three to four babies from a family that came in together.

On one occasion, though, we received a single youngster found by the side of a road. The rescuer searched but could find no other members of its family. The woodchuck was so tiny that it fit into the palm of the man’s hand. It was also very frightened, burrowing its head in the hope that we wouldn’t cause it harm.

Because she appeared so forlorn and alone, as we often did with single orphans, the staff gave the little woodchuck a teddy bear for comfort. It was love at first sight. She quickly became known as ‘Teddy’ for she clung to the bear at all times. Even though she was soon paired up with other baby woodchucks, she remained loyal to her teddy, carrying it around everywhere. She only put it down to dig or to eat.

One of her ‘roommates’ obviously decided she was getting too big for her ‘security blanket’ and we’d watch as he would wrestle it away from her and toss it with disdain in a corner. However, she’d soon retrieve it.

Eventually, the woodchucks were moved to a large outdoor enclosure on a foster volunteer’s property that had a wonderful meadow with plenty of dandelions. We wondered, when it finally came time for their release, whether Teddy would take her bear with her but she didn’t. I guess she finally outgrew it.

Remember, this is the wildlife birthing season. If you have an animal around your home or garden, please be patient, as it no doubt has young nearby. The family will all soon move to a more natural area. See for detailed information.

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