What a bear cub, an obese squirrel, and a toothless otter have in common

A year at a Langley animal rehabilitation centre finds drama, cuteness—and humanity.

By Tyler Olsen | July 25, 2022 |5:00 am

Drama is everywhere at an animal rehab centre.

Injured mammals struggling to heal, young animals trying to learn vital skills, obese squirrels trying to shed a pound: stories abound.

That’s just what author Nicholas Read was looking for when he started following the staff and animals at Critter Care in Langley. He wanted to capture the drama of such a facility. And he also wanted to explore more serious ideas about how humans and wildlife interact (and sometimes clash).

Read spent all of 2020 with the folks of Critter Care, exploring an otter’s potential dentures, a squirrel’s flab, a mole’s new home, and how the government cares (or doesn’t care) for the BC wildlife it says it prizes. He also got a bonus treat: an “avalanche of cuteness.”

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A growing organization

Critter Care began more than 30 years ago when Gail Collins and her late husband started taking injured and orphaned wildlife into their Langley home. There were relatively plentiful wildlife rescue centres for birds, but facilities for mammals were harder to find. The Collins quickly moved beyond their spare bedroom into a leased Langley property, and Critter Care was born

Then it grew. And grew. And grew.

By the time Read showed up in January 2020, the facility was taking in hundreds of animals from an ark’s worth of species each month. It’s the stories of those animals that Read wanted to tell when, drawing on the playbook of the popular Knowledge Network show Hope For Wildlife, he embarked on his project.

“They become like characters,” Read said. “You get to know them as characters in a book, with personalities of their own and their own stories.”

Read wanted those stories to help personalize the broader issue of how BC and its residents protect the province’s wildlife, while also appealing to younger readers.

As any movie director knows, it helps when the stars of your show are attractive. And Read, once he started visiting Critter Care, found that wasn’t going to be a problem.

“There was this avalanche of cuteness,” Read said, chuckling, more than a year later. “Cute everywhere. You’ve never seen so much cuteness in one place in such a short period of time.”

An elderly otter who needed dentures was initially seen as a perfect teacher for Critter Care's array of baby otters. 📷 Critter Care
An elderly otter who needed dentures was initially seen as a perfect teacher for Critter Care’s array of baby otters. 📷 Critter Care

The Otter Who Needed Dentures

The longest-running character in Read’s book is an elderly Otter named Dame. She had such bad, worn-down teeth that she could only eat “the otter equivalent of baby food.”

Critter Care took the animal to a dental specialist, who considered the possibility of building Dame dentures.

“If dental surgeon Dr. Loic Legendre can anchor a set of artificial canine teeth in Dame’s mouth, she would be able to eat and catch the food river otters are supposed to eat—namely fish,” Read writes. Dame would also have become the first river otter in river otter history to get dentures.

That was all in January, the first month covered by Read’s book. To give away her full story would spoil the story—one that had a soap opera’s worth of storylines (including potential murder) crammed into nine months of otter life.

An obese squirrel named 'Meatloaf' was considered for a tummy tuck. 📷 Critter Care
An obese squirrel named ‘Meatloaf’ was considered for a tummy tuck. 📷 Critter Care

The Tremendously Overweight Squirrel

Over the summer, Critter Care was entrusted with the care of two grossly overweight squirrels that had been reared by a couple that fed them a diet of peanuts, trail mix, granola and other junk food.

Brought to Critter Care after their owners left the province, one of the squirrels was so fat and unhealthy, that she died soon after arrival. The other, named Meatloaf, weighed around three pounds—about twice the weight of a normal large squirrel.

That diet worked, but left the squirrel with massive flabs of excess loose skin

“She looks more like a flying squirrel than a terrestrial one,” wrote Read.

That left Critter Care’s staff to consider whether a tummy tuck might be the best course of action.

Baby moles are tiny and require hourly feedings to survive and thrive. 📷 Critter Care
Baby moles are tiny and require hourly feedings to survive and thrive. 📷 Critter Care

Mole School

In April, a tiny mole, the size of a thumb, arrived at Critter Care after a gardener accidentally unearthed it and its siblings.

Of the three, one survived the trip to Critter Care. Its arrival shone a light on the efforts of the student interns who provide much of the labour at the organization.

Baby moles, apparently, consume only around 24 drops of milk each day. The problem is, those drops must be distributed one at a time, every single hour. Feeding the moles fell to interns like Sally Brad, a university student from England.

“These people are so dedicated,” Read told The Current. The interns fly into Vancouver from around the world. They travel to Langley and Critter Care, where they live in dorms on the property. And that’s where they spend almost every minute of their time in Canada, Read said.

“It really is fantastic that there are people in the world who are willing to do this.”

The interns spend their time both on grunt work like feeding, but also on teaching animals how to be animals, and getting them ready to survive in the wild.

Moles, for instance, can be released within a couple months of arrival at Critter Care. And when the baby mole grows large enough to return to the wild, workers use a spade and toilet roll tubes to create a tunnel network to get it started.

Other staffers train otters to swim and raccoons where and how to defecate.

It’s not always a glamorous job.

The Bigger Picture

Critter Care is licensed by the government and interacts with the Conservation Officer Service. As such, Read says, the organization is careful not to criticize how the province manages wildlife in British Columbia.

Read, a mostly retired journalist who has spent decades covering the interactions between BC’s residents and its wildlife, is less circumspect.

“I am a private citizen and I don’t work for Critter Care, so I’m at liberty to say whatever I like. And I think that the government is awful,” he told The Current.

“I think the province does a dreadful job of managing our wildlife…. We are lucky here in BC that we still have a lot of wilderness left, but that wilderness is always under threat, and here we’re still cutting down old-growth forest and we still have no formal protection for endangered species.”

He pointed to the numbers of bears killed each year by conservation officers, and the lack of time and money spent on alternatives when an animal becomes a nuisance to people.

“Critter Care would say that they’re working hard with the conservation office to modernize things and change things for the better,” Read said, while adding that he sees little progress on that front.

Read has written a series of children’s books about animals, and previously authored a book about wild animal sanctuaries around the world. He hopes his nearest book, which is written for both children and adults, helps give a sense of the stakes involved.

“I hope that by telling some of these stories, by personalizing some of the animals involved that I got to meet, that people will realize that something needs to change and something needs to be done,” he said.

Read said he would like to see the end of what he describes as a war waged by human institutions against the natural world and wildlife.

“They can’t fight back. They’re always the losers. And I’m still naive enough to hope that will change one day.”

Avalanches have power, after all. Even avalanches of cute.

Caring for Critters is available in many bookstores and online. It can also be bought directly from Critter Care. Doing so ensures half of the book’s retail price goes directly to the non-profit organization. Read says he also donates his royalties to animal charities, including Critter Care.


Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

Get FV Current in your inbox.

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By filling out the form above, you consent to receive emails from Fraser Valley Current. You can unsubscribe at any time. View our privacy policy here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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