One Smart Little Fox

By Donna DuBreuil, President,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Having the privilege of getting to know wild mammals when we did wildlife rehabilitation has reinforced our commitment to giving the community a better appreciation of them.

The little red fox (Vulpes vulpes) was found in a ditch, close to where his mother had been killed by a car. The vixen had been hit while moving her offspring but, save for several scrapes, this tiny fox had been lucky enough to have been thrown clear.

Terrified and shaking with fear, he would lunge making threatening noises but which sounded more like a feeble sneeze. We knew we had to overcome his fear and meet his need for warmth, food, and a sense of security – the primary needs of all young animals including the human animal – to ensure normal social development.

Barely four weeks old, it was fascinating to watch his early development and learn just how much a fox’s behaviour is instinct – bred in the bone so to speak. His play routines involved sneaking up and jumping on an old sock, wrestling it into submission or grabbing some treasure and frantically searching for a place to cache it.

Observing the differences in his response to my husband, Gary, and me taught us about the relationship between the kits and their parents – the dog or male fox and the vixen. It is in late January that red foxes (often monogamous) mate. After a gestation period of approximately 52 days, the kits are born.

The average litter contains five helpless babies weighing less than a quarter of a pound, the vixen staying with them constantly, acting as a thermal blanket in the still frozen ground of March. During this time, the dog fox brings food to the vixen and continues to share parenting responsibilities until well after the young are weaned and foraging on their own.

This early bond between the kits and parents explained the attachment this little fox developed with me. He would emit a strange melodic greeting call when he heard my voice. It would be followed by an exuberant welcome where he would circle around me, crouched low to the ground, tail moving furiously, ears flat back and a facial expression resembling a lopsided grin before attempting to nudge the corners of my mouth with his muzzle. He would then roll over on his back with legs up in the air, part of the food-begging and submissive behaviour shown by young foxes to their parents in the wild.

He was soon joined by a pair of smaller orphaned foxes and they quickly became a family, going onto the next leg of their rehabilitative care. But that is another great story for another time.

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Porcupine mother gives birth

By Donna DuBreuil, President,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Porcupine mother and baby - Click to enlargeThis is the tale of a special porcupine that arrived at the Centre one Christmas Eve when we did wildlife rehabilitation.

A concerned homeowner had observed the porcupine in an open field where it had barely moved for nearly a week. He knew something was very wrong so he brought it to the Centre. Our initial assessment indicated the porcupine was experiencing weakness in its hind end but there were no clues as to what was causing the problem.

So, it was off to the vet where x-rays showed, to our relief, that there were no breaks or fractures to be found. Feeling puzzled as to why the porcupine was unwilling to climb, yet forever optimistic in the possibility of second chances, we continued to care for the porcupine in a large indoor cage for the duration of the winter.

Still determined to give the porcupine more time, once spring came, we set her up in an even larger outdoor cage with several trees and fresh branches thinking this might inspire her to rise to the occasion and begin to climb.

To our dismay, she still wouldn’t climb. So after months of getting to know this wondrous creature, it was with heavy hearts that we had to make the difficult decision to have her euthanized. A porcupine unable to climb a tree clearly could not be released.

On the eve of April 23rd, the night before her scheduled vet appointment to be euthanized, fate took an unexpected twist when the porcupine gave birth to a beautiful 595 gram baby. To witness such an extraordinary event and see mom caring for and nursing her little one was very moving.

But, even more of a miracle was the fact that one morning a week later, both the mother and baby had climbed one of the trees and were perched together with the baby softly murmuring as the mother cleaned its face.

We waited for several months to make sure that the mother’s climbing ability remained strong before releasing them together on the large wooded property of one of our foster volunteers.

Months later, we heard a possible explanation for the adult porcupine’s inability to climb. Sciatic nerve pain during pregnancy due to the pressure placed on it by the growing uterus can lead to pain, numbness and weakness in the legs, explaining the porcupine’s unwillingness to climb. The baby’s timely entry into the world not only saved its life but the mother’s life as well.

This is still the height of the wildlife birthing season. Always check the website before taking any action that you may regret.

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A little beaver with a big attitude

By Kate MacNeil, Education Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
Photo by Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary
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Beaver, click to enlargeAlthough we no longer do wildlife rehabilitation, the animals we have cared for over the years 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.

No bigger than a minute, this little bundle of attitude arrived at the Centre covered with punctures, likely mauled by a dog. This was my first look at a baby beaver, and there are no words to describe how delightful this little creature was. An immediate vet trip was in order, where his wounds were treated. They were not as bad as we had thought but he did end up with a very bad haircut! With some antibiotics and care he would be just fine.

Little beaver seemed to be running the show from the get go. All other animals at the Centre had a feeding schedule, when it was feeding time they ate. Well not little beaver! I took him home for late night feedings. I would try him at 11:00 pm – not hungry; 12:30 am, nope not yet; 1:30 am eureka –he ate. I quickly realized little beaver’s feeding schedule was “whenever little beaver wanted to eat!” I now joke that this was good practice for motherhood.

Next came his post dinner swim. Sometimes he would splash and play, other times he would just enjoy a leisurely swim. When he was finished he would put his tiny paws on the edge of the plastic tub, look over at me and let out a little whistle. It reminded me of a little bell you would ring for the butler to come. He never let us forget who was in charge.

After all of his hard work came a well-deserved rest. Sometimes he would even fall asleep in my arms while I was drying him off. What a wonderful gift it was to sit and hold this little bundle of fluff with the soft webbed feet.

After a month little beaver was feeling much better, even his funny haircut was starting to grow out. This meant he got to go to another facility to be raised with other beavers. I was a bit worried about how little beaver would adjust to his new environment. Who was I kidding, this little bundle of attitude did just fine. We got updates on his care and he was successfully released back into the wild.

Remember, this is the wildlife birthing season – check out the website before taking any action as well as for tips on coexisting with beavers.

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Tough Start for these Baby Raccoons

By Donna DuBreuil, President,
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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We hope by sharing some of the stories of animals we cared for when doing wildlife rehabilitation, you will develop a special appreciation for local wildlife.

It was mid-August one year when we received a call from a homeowner about baby raccoons. Initially, we didn’t believe they were babies, as raccoons give birth in April or May.

It turned out that the family had trapped and relocated an adult raccoon on their property and a day later heard tiny cries coming from behind a fence. They could see the young kits but couldn’t reach them because the fence backed onto their neighbour’s shed. After three days of unsuccessful rescue attempts and weakening cries, they had to dismantle the shed to get the babies out.

On arrival at the Centre, the four raccoons were understandably very weak, dehydrated and frightened. They were just four weeks old, a male and three females. First, they had to be rehydrated and stabilized. They were given fluids subcutaneously and warmed, after which they began to recover.

The little male raccoon was the strongest and it wasn’t long before he was ready for formula, grabbing the nursing bottle like a fierce wee tiger cub. His sisters soon also learned to master a nipple although it wasn’t quite the same design as their mom’s.

Each of the raccoons had a distinct personality. The male was definitely the leader, assuming a spread eagle position at the front of the carrier to protect his siblings. The smallest of the females remained shy, another was quite bossy, always challenging her brother for dominance while the remaining female was full of mischief and fun, jumping on the others when they least expected it.

They grew into a healthy and robust crew, spending the winter in an insulated nesting box in a large outdoor cage at the Centre. They were released at a wonderful site located on a lake the following spring where there were few people and no traps.

The family that had caused these young raccoons to be orphaned called regularly to check on their progress. They felt very guilty, having learned the lesson that an adult animal around your property often signifies that newborn babies are nearby. Wildlife seek out spots on our property during the spring and summer months because being closer to humans affords more protection for their young, when they are tiny and vulnerable to predation from other animals.

So, please give wildlife a grace period during the birthing season and remember to check out before ever taking any action.

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Flying Squirrels – Pixies of the Forest Night

By Donna DuBreuil, President,
Ottawa Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Although we no longer do wildlife rehabilitation, the animals we have cared for over the years 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.

The young man who arrived with three infant flying squirrels was very distressed. He had been hired to take down a large spruce tree that was overhanging a house and had no idea that a cavity in the upper part of the tree was home to flying squirrels.

The squirrels, two females and a male, were only 2.5 weeks old, eyes still firmly closed and weighed less than 20 grams each. These were Northern Flying Squirrels where adults weigh between 75-130 grams. Compared to the more typical Eastern Grey Squirrel, weighing up to 700 grams, you can see how really small Flying squirrels are.

Few of us have the privilege of observing Flying squirrels in that they are nocturnal and most active between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. They have huge black luminous eyes – a characteristic of night animals – and exceptionally soft, silky, dense grey-brown fur.
Most interesting is the large fold of skin, called a patagium, that extends from their wrist to their ankle that, once extended, allows them to glide effortlessly up to fifty yards. The tail which is broad and flat serves as a rudder in banking and braking.

These physical characteristics were evident when ‘the flyers’ were babies. Having taken to their formula immediately, they would cling to the feeding syringe with tiny feet that were attached to this large umbrella-like fold of skin, making them appear like little old ladies wearing a shawl.

Flying squirrels are very sociable. While they would snuggle in a soft warm heap in their nesting box during the day, they would always welcome a visit and rouse themselves to investigate, gently nibbling a proffered finger. Looking up at you, their huge eyes and perfectly round pink mouths, added to their enchanting quizzical expression, leading some to call them ‘pixies of the forest night’.

While in care, the ‘flyers’ would come out around dusk to check out the daily menu offering, chasing each other for the choicest morsels before gearing up for their amazing acrobatic feats. Released on a large wooded property, the homeowner would report seeing these ‘imps’ on occasion, gliding from a nearby tree to his bird feeder.

Remember, this is the height of the wildlife birthing season. Please check before taking any action that you may regret.

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Living With Wildlife – Gardening Tips

By Donna DuBreuil, President
Ottawa Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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The nicer weather brings out the gardener in all of us. At the same time, wildlife is becoming more active after a long winter, leading to potential turf wars with our four-legged friends. But, this year, you can gain the upper hand.

The key is to start early and be consistent. Fresh new shoots on ornamental shrubs serve as a great attraction for a multitude of animals from squirrels to groundhogs and rabbits, when their natural vegetation is still not plentiful. It is much easier to use a number of deterrents at the beginning of the season before a problem develops, than to break animals of a bad habit once started.

Use plastic garden mesh to protect plants when they are just starting to come into leaf. There are also a number of taste and smell deterrents that will keep wildlife away from flower and vegetable gardens. It is best to use a number together. For example, by sprinkling blood meal fertilizer on the soil (dig in lightly) around your plants or by placing dog hair in the toe of a nylon stocking that is tied to a stake placed a foot high around the plants, you are letting animals know that a predator is nearby.

Taste deterrents can be applied directly to the plants. Talcum powder mixed with water and sprayed lightly on leaves, vegetables and flowers will serve to discourage most animals as they don’t like the gritty taste. It doesn’t show on the plants and you can wash it off vegetables before eating. Some other tips to keep in mind:

Before taking down a tree or removing branches, check to make sure there aren’t leaf nests or cavities that would be home to babies that would be too young to escape.

If you find a nest of baby squirrels or raccoons when cleaning out a shed or garage, put it back intact exactly as you’ve found it and give the mother a few days to relocate her young.

A nest of baby rabbits in your garden should also be left alone as the mother only returns during the night or at dusk to feed her young.

If your barbecue hasn’t been used for a while, check it out thoroughly before lighting as red squirrels and mice will sometimes have a nest of babies under the grill.

There are lots of other tips at for dealing with wildlife concerns. Remember, this is also the height of the wildlife birthing season so don’t take any action until you check out this helpful site.

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Getting to Know Wildlife – One animal at a time

By Kate MacNeil
Education Coordinator, Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
Photo credit: Sally M. Hansen
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When we did rehabilitation of orphaned and injured mammals we found it was the individual animals that people were able to connect with. This makes sense when you think of it, a population of a species, or a concept about biodiversity or habitat does not sound very interesting to many people, but a story of a fox that overcame being hit by a car and needing to have a hind leg amputated is.

Much of the work we currently do at the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre is aimed at getting people interested in wildlife. We work to help people recognize that urban wildlife are a vital part of our landscape and that when wildlife and people share habitat, there will be potential for conflicts so people need to be given the tools to coexist. We work to educate people that we are part of nature, not simply an outside observer who can manage and manipulate it.

So, while some of the stories we tell could be viewed as anthropomorphic at times, we are trying to focus on the similarities we have with wildlife as opposed to our differences in an effort to better understand and appreciate why wildlife do the things they do. For example, raccoons are not getting into our garbage to drive us crazy, but rather because they are hungry and garbage can often be an easily accessible and tasty snack. Kind of like that chocolate cake that calls your name from the kitchen at 9:00 at night. We know we shouldn’t but sometimes we cannot resist the temptation.

We should also state that when we did wildlife rehabilitation, the goal was to raise the animals so they could be successfully released back into the wild. While they were very young or injured they needed and even welcomed our care, but once older or better they were happy to have nothing to do with us and that was our goal.

In Ottawa we are very fortunate to have a rich diversity of species living in and around our city. We will talk about a variety of these animals, including some of the typical urban wildlife species such as raccoons and squirrels but also about some animals that some people may be surprised to learn we share our spaces with such as fishers, bears and foxes. We hope you enjoy hearing about these animals as much as we enjoy sharing their stories with you.

We will also occasionally focus on tips for coexistence, but in the meantime if you are having a problem with wildlife, detailed information can be found on our website

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Getting To Know Wildlife

By Donna DuBreuil, President
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Too often we extol the virtues of ‘exotic’ wildlife in other countries, while taking for granted and sometimes even showing disdain for those animals that live in our own backyard. Maybe this is just part of our human tendency to not place value on what we already have.

But, frankly, once you come to know more about local wildlife, you will find
they are every bit as fascinating as those found in a tropical rainforest.
Besides, urban wildlife has shown the resilience and adaptability that is need
ed to live with us. No mean feat. These animals are very much part of the
mosaic that supports biodiversity, our life support system, in this region.

Last year, through this column, we brought you some interesting facts about
local wild species, their natural history along with tips on how to better
coexist. This year, we will be sharing with you some of the personal
experiences we have had with different species and individual animals when
doing wildlife rehabilitation.

For anyone involved with wildlife, you walk a fine line when talking about
experiences. Certainly, the Centre avoided contributing to anthropormorphic
views in assigning human characteristics to animals. We have all seen those
‘cute’ photos, for example, of a rescued baby squirrel cuddled up with the fam-
ily dog or someone handfeeding a Canada goose. These depictions always made
us cringe, not only because of the likely negative outcome for the animal but
because it conveyed that we humans are not comfortable with wildlife being
wild, unless we can somehow tame or domesticate it. And, that is sad.

On the other hand, we also deplore that wildlife are, at times, depersonal-
ized and treated only as a population to be used as a ‘resource’. No doubt it
is easier to justify doing what we want to animals if we can avoid treating
them as individuals and as sentient creatures.

Our experience in rehabilitating wild species, however, showed us that
these animals’ basic needs were not that much different from our basic needs.
That is after you strip away all our non-essential i-pads, cells phones and big
screen TVs. What we both require is shelter in the form of a den, nest or
house, the protection, nurturing and training of our young, a food source and
habitat or a neighbourhood to live in.

So, we will be sharing with you over the coming season in this column
some of the personal stories of individual animals we cared for when doing
wildlife rehabilitation for many years. We think it will give you a new
appreciation for local wildlife while celebrating our similarities and our

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Giving Wild Things A Chance

By Donna DuBreuil, President
Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre –
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Extra caution needed during the birthing season

Every year, thousands of baby animals are left to die when people trap and relocate a nursing mother, block her access to an attic or soffit or remove her babies in the hope that she will take them some place else.

The spring is a challenging time for a mother – cold, rain, high winds and predators force females to seek out shelter closer to our homes as a safe spot to have their young when the newborn babies are most vulnerable.

Those leaf nests that squirrels normally occupy high up in trees would offer little protection against either the elements or predators. It explains why females, come March, are so desperate to get into an eave or attic or, for a raccoon mother to choose a chimney. Skunks and groundhogs will select holes under steps or sheds because they too need to find a safe spot for their young.

Remember, the good news is that it is a TEMPORARY situation. The safest and most humane option during the birthing season from April to July is to give a brief grace period until the babies are weaned and coming out with mother, when the family will move to a natural area. You can then undertake the necessary animal-proofing.

It is also in a homeowner’s best interest to resist taking wildlife problems into their own hands as abandoned hungry babies in an attic are often in inaccessible areas and can fall between walls, requiring expensive drywall removal or, if they are under steps, die and cre- ate bad and long-lasting smells.

Never risk barricading an animal as they can cause damage in trying to get back to their young or in trying to escape. Do not smoke an animal out of a chimney. Babies would not be able to escape and you could cause a chimney fire.

Even wildlife removal companies that say they offer a humane service can give you no guarantee they won’t end up creating orphans and, with limited help available for wildlife, it is wise not to take this risk. Besides, it is illegal under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act to relocate any wild animal beyond 1 kilometer from where it was found which makes trapping quite pointless.

Research all your options before taking any action. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to wildlife concerns. Take advantage of the experienced advice at and keep this site handy for all your wildlife questions throughout the year.

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New series launched

This year’s “Getting to Know Wildlife” series was launched in April 2011, a partnership between the EMC and the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre to celebrate local wildlife. This series connects us to stories about individual animals. Last year’s “Living With Wildlife” series provided the natural history of the species and tips on solving human-wildlife conflicts. There have been more than two dozen columns to date on eighteen different species of mammals, showing the rich biodiversity we have in this region. Click to view the full set on the OCWC website.

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