May 13, 2009

Rainbow Wildlife Rescue in the News - Wildlife

Abilene Reporter News:
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Leave the mothering to nature
Experts say young animals who appear to be abandoned often are in parents' care
By Angelia Joiner
Special to the Reporter-News
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Spring is just around the corner, and as the new season arrives so do the offspring of a variety of wildlife.

Kindhearted humans sometimes find -- and try to take in -- young birds, squirrels, fawns or rabbits that appear to be abandoned.

Roy Johnson, Taylor County game warden, said most of the time this is not the case.

"Mother Nature has a way of taking care if itself," Johnson said. "If you see a fawn, I promise you the mama has not abandoned it. She will come back and take care of it."

He said the same is true for other animals.

Johnson said the exception is when someone sees a dead mother. The fawn will not leave it, and in that case, the fawn should be taken to a licensed rehabilitator -- but those are hard to find.

"There are no rehabilitators in Abilene. The closest is Breckenridge or Baird," Johnson said. "I've encouraged four people to get a license, but they don't follow through because it is extremely difficult to obtain and it's at their own expense."

Johnson said to find someone in the area, go to -- but be prepared to drive to them or to meet them somewhere.

Sometimes, he said, fawns can be seen lying on or near the road. To keep them from being injured, they can be moved and placed over a fence.

"It's a rumor that a deer won't come back to its baby once it's been touched by humans," Johnson said. "That's not true."

Birgit Sommer, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in Erath County, said the same is true for most animals. The human touch myth is "just an old wives' tale." And if a baby is found, it's best to try and reunite with the mother if possible.

Sommer specializes in caring for squirrels, but also cares for other wild critters and all kinds of domesticated animals.

She said February is the time of year when young squirrels are often knocked out of their nests. The best policy she said is to place the baby squirrel in a shoe box at the base of the tree where it was found. Because they chill easily, a plastic bottle can be filled with warm water and wrapped in a T-shirt to keep the young animal warm. Sommer said to avoid using terry cloth in the box because the tiny claws will become snagged.

If the baby squirrel could be in danger from predators, such as dogs, tie a basket to the tree.

Most likely, the mother will come back for her offspring if she feels safe to do so; it is best to observe from a distance.

It's a different matter for baby squirrels found during the evening hours.

"Squirrel mothers will not come back at night, so try putting it out first thing in the morning," Sommer said.

Squirrel feeding is difficult, so it's best to take the young to a trained professional because they aspirate easily, she said.

Sommer also has raised opossums successfully. She noted that opossums often are often struck and killed by automobiles.

She said that if an animal is hit, it's good to check the pouch for surviving babies.

"These are the only marsupials in North America and often times, the infants will still be alive -- protected by the pouch," Sommer said. "And they are not known to carry rabies, either."

Baby birds

Young birds are commonly found on the ground, she said.

"Fledglings may look like they are unable to be on their own, but the parents are still caring for these fledglings and keep track of where they are. So the baby bird you see may be a fledgling that is being taken care of by its parents still."

Sommer said that if the bird is not fully feathered, the best thing to do is to put it back into the nest.

"A baby bird might need to eat every 20 minutes in daylight hours depending on its age and species," Sommer said. "The parents can take care of it so much better than you can."

Sommer cautions that if people find wild baby bunnies during the day, "leave them alone." Many folks think they have been abandoned and most times they have not, she said.

Rabbits don't feed their young very often and usually only nurse for about five minutes a day, returning to the nest only once or twice in a 24-hour period.

"If the babies' bellies look plump, then they've been fed," Sommer said. "If a nest has been destroyed, you can rebuild it within 10 feet of its original spot."

Sommer said that if you know for certain that the mother rabbit is dead, locate a rehabilitator because infant rabbits have a high mortality rate, especially cottontails.

Following the law

Johnson, the game warden, said it is against the law to keep any live game animal and that should be considered when someone is contemplating keeping a baby animal they've found.

Before she gained her license, Sommer said, the Erath County game warden fined her $150 for caring for baby squirrels and the action prevented her from obtaining the license for one year.

She said the licensing process is incredibly difficult and because of the expense of buying formula and building shelters, etc., she believes this is why there are so few licensed rehabilitators.

For more information on animals or guidance in acquiring a license, contact Sommer at

Rainbow Wildlife Rescue in the News - Squirrels

One woman’s mission, one baby squirrel at a time

Special Contributor
Published: Monday, February 16, 2009 8:58 AM CST

Some folks in Erath County may call her a nut, but when it comes to squirrel rescue, Birgit Sommer knows her stuff. As a licensed rehabilitator and founder of Rainbow Wildlife Rescue in Stephenville, Sommer has worked with dozens of squirrels endangered by natural disaster, injury or who have become separated from their parents.

“There are many key mistakes that people make when trying to rescue a baby squirrel and I want to help set the record straight,” Sommer said. “Although these tiny babies are adorable, they are not domesticated and do not make good pets. As a matter of fact, it is a Class C Misdemeanor in the State of Texas to possess a squirrel without the necessary permits.”

She described a typical scenario: A pile of leaves, crushed by February’s gusty winds and winter frosts, suddenly becomes a temporary home for a fluffy baby squirrel that has fallen from its nest and lies still in wait for its mother to find it. Slowly the baby starts getting chilled and with mom nowhere in sight, the chances for this baby’s survival without proper human intervention are slim.
Sommer suggests some useful advice when dealing with this type of scenario.

First, attempt to reunite the baby with the mom. If you think the mother squirrel may still be in the area and you have a good idea where the nest is located, first, give the mother the opportunity to retrieve the baby or babies.

Sommer cautioned that baby squirrels cannot only carry parasites such as fleas and lice, but they can also bite if they are old enough to have teeth, so they should never be handled without gloves.

Place the infant squirrel in a small box on an old T-shirt (no terry cloth where the little toenails can get hung up) at the base of the tree where it was first found. If there are dogs in the area, place the baby in a basket and tie the basket to the tree out of the dogs’ reach.

If the baby appears healthy and warm, allow 2 hours for the mother to reunite with her young while you observe from a safe distance. Even on hot summer days baby squirrels can get chilled quickly. A soda bottle filled with lukewarm water and covered with a sock can be placed near the baby. Make sure it can’t roll onto the baby and suffocate it by placing old shirts or rags around it, she suggested.

What happens when the mother does not return for her young or if the baby is visibly injured?

Bring the box containing the baby inside and place it in a dark, warm and quiet place away from children, pets, and loud noises. Limit handling the baby to the absolute minimum and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. Veterinarians will not treat wildlife but usually will refer you to a local rehabilitator instead. Sommer explained she receives regular referrals from area vets.

In her experience, dehydration is very common when animals first arrive, and almost every orphaned baby is dehydrated to some degree. Unflavored Pedialyte, found in the baby aisle of the supermarket, is the best hydrating solution. Homemade rehydration fluid is made by combining 1 teaspoon salt with 3 tablespoons sugar in 1 quart of warm water. Microwaving the fluid is not advised.

Administer the fluid orally with a small 1-cc syringe or a rubber nipple if available. A syringe larger than 3-cc increases the risk of aspirating and drowning the squirrel baby, she explained.

Holding the baby in an upright position for feeding and rehydrating (never on its back), she feeds the baby 1-cc or ml of the hydrating solution every two hours, for up to 12 hours if necessary.

Sommer noted a few important safety tips to be observed when feeding squirrels in this way. Liquid coming out of the nose, indicating that the fluids have entered the lungs, could endanger a nursing baby squirrel. If this occurs, stop feeding immediately and allow the baby to clear its lungs by encouraging it to sneeze, because pneumonia will set in if the fluid is not expelled.

She also advised to never feed cow’s milk to a squirrel baby. Most baby animals, wild or domesticated, can’t handle the lactose in cow’s milk and develop diarrhea as a result. Most animals in need of human care are already in a compromised health condition and many won’t be able to survive additional digestive problems.

In addition to rehydrating a squirrel baby, it needs to be kept warm. No matter what heating source you use, make sure you give the baby enough room to get away from the heat. Always use the lowest setting of an electric heating pad.

“If you come across a squirrel with common ailments such as external parasites, visible injuries or obviously sick, it is critical that you speak with a rehabilitator immediately,” Sommer emphasized.

For animal rescue emergencies in Stephenville and Erath County, contact Birgit Sommer at the Rainbow Wildlife Rescue at 254-968-4626 from 8 a.m.- 8 p.m.

The Rainbow Wildlife Rescue is a non-profit organization working with local animals, wild and domestic alike, and is funded entirely by donations of food, supplies, and contributions from the public.

For additional information on how to deal with orphaned wildlife, or to find licensed wildlife rehabilitators outside of Erath County, please visit or or e-mail

Rainbow Wildlife Rescue in the News - Rabbits

Know your neighborhood wildlife - rabbits
Special Contributor
Published: Monday, March 2, 2009 9:26 AM CST

Most folks living in Erath County have encountered rabbits. Coexisting with these furry, fertile creatures is not difficult once you understand them.

The most common rabbit species in Texas is the eastern cottontail, identified by its 2-3 lb. body, brown or gray coat, white belly, and distinctive white tail. They are common in brushy areas from southern Canada to South America.

Cottontails are an important part of the food chain, preyed on by more species than almost any other animal. Their amazing fertility is Mother Nature’s way of compensating to ensure their survival as a species.

Cottontails feed in the evenings or at night. Their diet consists of a variety of green plants, barks, buds, and grasses. Unlike the jackrabbit, which are actually a larger and more muscular member of the hare family, cottontails are true rabbits. This distinction is important, as hares are born virtually self-sufficient - eyes open, body fully furred, and with the ability to hop around only moments after birth - whereas rabbits are born hairless, blind, and helpless.

The eastern cottontail’s nest is a saucer-like depression three or four inches deep and about eight inches across, lined with mouthfuls of soft, dead grass mixed with hair from the mother’s breast. A covering of grass and hair is used to hide the nest and keep the young “kits” warm and dry.

Rabbit mothers, called “does,” nurse their babies for approximately 5 minutes a day. The milk is very rich and the babies fill up to capacity within minutes. Mother rabbits do not sit on the babies to keep them warm as do some mammals and birds. They will be in the nest early in the morning and then again in the evening, which gives the impression that the kits have been abandoned.

Most baby cottontails that end up in human care do not survive despite the honorable intentions of their kind-hearted rescuers. If you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and the doe is nowhere in sight, please do not disturb them. By removing them from the nest you are greatly reducing their chances of survival. Individuals raising orphaned babies must not treat them as pets.

There is a 90 percent mortality rate with orphaned baby rabbits in human care, especially cottontails. This number increases if the rabbits are very young and their eyes still closed. They are extremely hard to save. There is little substitute for the nutrients their mother’s milk provides. Often they die of bloat, improper feeding or overfeeding. Many die even when people have done everything right.

Baby rabbits are cute and it is natural to want to handle them. However, they are very easily stressed by handling and noise. Any undue stress can cause them to have heart failure. They are wild animals. So before you pick up a baby rabbit with the kind-hearted intention to help the little creature, remember the following guidelines:

If you see a cottontail with its eyes open wandering around, leave it alone. It is exploring outside the nest and learning to forage for food. The nest is nearby and the baby will be able to find it. A juvenile cottontail is at least four weeks of age (about the size of a tennis ball) and no longer requires the nurturing of its mother or the protection of the nest. Do not touch the rabbit and keep pets and children away.

If your dog or cat captures a baby cottontail and you don’t know the location of the nest, follow the instructions for preparing a substitute nest and contact a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. Contact with cats is frequently fatal to young animals, even when no injury is apparent. Contact with dogs is usually less serious and a baby bunny could be returned to the nest if there has been no injury.

Rabbits will still care for their babies even if they have been touched by human hands. If you find a nest that has been destroyed, you can move it or rebuild it in a safer area within 10 feet of its original location. Try to lay twigs around the nest so that you can see if the mother is returning.

If you know for certain that the mother has been killed or the babies are in need of urgent help, contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately. If the babies cannot be returned to the nest, you can take a few simple steps that will help them survive until they can be transferred to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Use a box or bucket with a lid. Punch a few holes in the container for air. Create a cup-like nest using rags, towels or paper tissues. Place the babies in the substitute nest and affix the lid securely. Even very small bunnies can escape from an open box. Place the container in a warm, quiet place, away from household sounds, odors, children, and pets.

Place half of the cottontail’s container on an insulated heating pad set on low (to insulate the pad, wrap it in a towel) or apply an overhead light. Check the container (do not touch the animal itself) every few minutes to avoid overheating. Alternatively you can fill a soda bottle with warm (not hot!) water, wrap it up in a T-shirt or towel and place it near the baby. Make sure the bottle is secure enough so it cannot roll onto the baby.

Do not attempt to feed babies whose eyes are sealed shut. These infants require a carefully developed formula delivered at the proper strength and amount, and feeding them anything else could compromise their survival.

An older baby whose eyes are open may be offered clean grass and clover (pulled from an area void of pesticides and herbicides), a bit of fresh apple, dry oatmeal, and a shallow dish of water. Do not hand-feed or force-feed a baby cottontail.

Cottontails of any age usually become very stressed in captivity. Do not handle or pet them and keep the container covered at all times. Being confined in a limited space with an open top or sides may cause the cottontail to panic and literally traumatize itself to death. If using a cage or other see-through housing, cover it completely using a sheet, towels, or newspapers.

Do not hold, pet, or talk to the cottontail. When confined, older cottontails may appear to be calm and tame; in reality they are scared to death, frozen in fear. Cottontails have also been known to suffer heart attacks due to the trauma of confinement and handling.

The Rainbow Wildlife Rescue, a non-profit organization in Stephenville, is working with local animals, wild and domestic alike. We accept squirrels, opossums, rabbits, raccoons and some birds. We do not accept skunks, deer, bats, foxes, coyotes, or reptiles.

Contact Birgit Sommer, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, at 254-968-4626 if you come across an orphaned or injured wild animal.

For additional information on how to deal with orphaned or injured wildlife, or to find licensed wildlife rehabilitators outside of Erath County, please visit or e-mail

Rainbow Wildlife Rescue in the News - Opossums

The opossum is often misunderstood
Special Contributor
Published: Monday, March 30, 2009 9:00 AM CDT

Among the mix of Erath County wildlife is an unassuming creature that once roamed with the dinosaurs 70 million years ago.

Hard to believe, but the lowly opossum, most commonly encountered as road kill along county roads, is an enigmatic and remarkable animal. Knowing their habits and history helps promote a peaceful, mutually beneficial coexistence with these humble and sometimes misunderstood “first citizens” of wildlife.

According to Stephenville wildlife rehabilitator Birgit Sommer, these furry foragers are actually one-of-a-kind wonders. Opossums are the only marsupials in the entire United States, a cousin of the kangaroo and koala. They have more teeth than any other land mammal (50-plus). Opossums also have a robust immune system virtually impervious to the venom of rattlesnakes, vipers, cottonmouth snakes, and spiders.

Their extremely low body temperature of 94 to 97 degrees F is an inhospitable environment for survival of the rabies virus and other common wildlife diseases. In fact, there have been only five confirmed cases of a rabies infected opossum in Texas since 1962.

Solitary and nocturnal (active at night), the opossum has a brief life span for their size (2 to 4 years). If encountered unexpectedly, they can appear very intimidating with their sharp teeth exposed, growling and hissing with the appearance of an oversized rat, but, in reality, they are not aggressive and prefer to be left alone. However, they will defend themselves when cornered and may bite.

Sometimes, when frightened or trapped, they may fall into an involuntary shock-like state for up to four hours (“playing possum”). Always give the benefit of the doubt when approaching an apparently dead opossum, Sommer advised.

These unique creatures are at home in trees. Opossums use their prehensile tail to help stabilize their position when climbing. (Contrary to common belief, they do not hang by their tails.) Their omnivorous diet includes snakes, insects, snails, rodents, carrion, eggs, corn, berries, over-ripe fruit, grasses, leaves, and other vegetables. They do not actively hunt and are not predatory.

Opossums are beneficial to Erath County by eating the harmful, unwanted pests around our homes such as snails, slugs, spiders, cockroaches, rats, mice and snakes. They do not dig holes with their delicate human-like hands nor are they destructive. If you encounter such damage, another culprit is usually to blame. Opossums are well known as “nature’s little sanitation engineers,” Sommers said.

If you do not wish to have these useful critters around, bring pet food and water indoors at night, close all doors and windows (including pet doors), and tightly secure garbage cans.

Opossums have many predators such as people (with cars), along with dogs, cats, owls, and other wildlife. It is popular with some people to joke about dead ‘possums on the highway but in some cases many other unseen lives are at stake.

Sommers advises that if you see an apparently dead opossum on the road and it is safe to pull over, move the body to the side of the road and (if a female) check the pouch for any live young. She may be carrying up to 13 babies, or “joeys.” Make sure you wear gloves or use a rag or towel for protection. If there are babies present, carefully extract them from the pouch and place them into a box or bucket lined with cloth. Joeys cannot survive long outside the pouch environment.

A word of caution: if the apparently dead opossum is not dead but injured, please be very careful. Injured animals are already frightened; approaching them will have self-defense as an automatic response and you could get bitten or scratched.

The worst dangers to the orphans are chilling and dehydration. The best way to warm up an opossum baby is to wrap them in cloth and hold them against your body. Alternatively, you can use a disposable plastic bottle filled with warm water. Wrap the bottle in an old T-shirt and place it inside a box or plastic container with the baby. Make sure that it will not roll around, possibly hurting the animal. Do not use a towel or else there is a danger of the threads getting caught around toes or tails. T-shirts, sweatshirts, or blankets cut into small squares work great.

If the babies are well furred, you may try to give them fluids to keep them hydrated before you transfer them to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. Pedialyte or clear Gatorade will work. Dilute either with distilled water 1 part to 2 parts, warm it to body temperature, and offer it slowly with a dropper. Even small infants have the ability to lap.

Be careful that the baby does not inhale the fluid. Just one drop of liquid entering the lungs can mean a protracted death for the baby. Opossum joeys usually do not suckle.

Never feed cow’s milk to an opossum baby. Almost all baby animals are incapable of digesting the lactose and many die due to digestive problems.

If you come across an orphaned or injured opossum or other wild animal in Erath County, contact Birgit Sommer, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for the State of Texas, at 25-968-4626 or e-mail

The Rainbow Wildlife Rescue, a non-profit organization in Stephenville, is working with local animals, wild and domestic alike. They accept squirrels, opossums, rabbits, raccoons and some birds, but do not accept skunks, deer, bats, foxes, coyotes, or reptiles.