How to save a squirrel: The Abbotsford woman who has devoted decades to saving small animals
Elizabeth's Wildlife Recovery Centre takes in birds and small mammals injured in the wild and looks after them until they heal.
It’s a bird-hit-window world out there. Cats grab squirrels. Cars hit rabbits. Risks abound for many of the small animals that make their homes in nearby forests.
For wildlife who need to flee predators and find food, even smaller injuries can be fatal. But Elizabeth Melnick has spent more than 30 years making that world a little less dangerous for the wounded birds and small mammals who end up on her doorstep in Abbotsford.
Melnick, a nurse and wildlife rehabilitator, started Elizabeth’s Wildlife Centre in her home in 1986. She has run it for nearly 40 years. Elizabeth talks to FVC about the recovery process for the wildlife she looks after and the future of the centre.
FVC: What injuries do you see most often when an animal shows up at your door?
I'll be honest with you, the most common injury of all is cat-caught. That's the number one reason for animals to come in… After that you have your window strikes, hits by cars, toxicities—but those are a little bit hard to unravel.
(When humans are poisoned detailed blood work can be done, Melnick said. But for small wildlife, it’s not always possible to completely confirm toxicity.)
FVC: How do animals usually wind up in your care? Do the owners of the cats bring them in?
No, not necessarily. It can be, yes, for sure. But it's a combination of people [who bring animals in]. We get lots of referrals from vets, because if someone calls the vet, the vet will tell you to phone here.
FVC: You mentioned medical or veterinary interventions before, what kind of things can you do at the centre? And what do you have to bring to a veterinarian?
Well, we don't have X-rays here. That's number one. So if something needs an X-ray, we take it into the vet to do that. Sometimes we need consultation with the vet [for other injuries], and we’ll ask ‘what do you think about this or that?’ Then that's done right away and the vets are very, very good about that.
FVC: What's the first thing you do for one of the rescues when they arrive?
First of all, we take a history. We’ll ask [the person bringing in the animal] “So what do you think happened?” And they’ll say “Oh my cat got at it, or it hit my window, or I found it in the middle of the road.” After that you check them over. Does it have a broken wing? Are its eyes functioning? Can it grip with its legs?
It depends on the species, but you do the full medical assessment and then go from there. If it was hit by a car or even if it was cat-caught, generally we give them an anti-inflammatory, just to help them along. The number one treatment for a cat-caught animal is antibiotics, whether it's a bunny, a squirrel or a bird.
FVC: Once those first steps are done, how long do animals often stay in the care of the centre?
It really varies. Sometimes if they hit a window, we give them a few days of an anti-inflammatory and they are good to go—and they want to go, and they show you they want to go. They're kicking around and they're anxious to go. But some can be in care for months.
FVC: When you've got an animal with a really long stay like that, and it's still the goal to release them back into the wild afterwards, is there anything that you try to avoid?
[Lots of human contact], that’s number one. We don't cuddle our wildlife. We don't make friends with them. We feed, clean, and give them their medication. We do what you have to do in order to maintain their health. We monitor them and keep an eye on them. But we don't coddle them.
FVC: Has there ever been a case where you've had an animal that you couldn't release back into the wild?
Yes, and if there is, they need to be euthanized. The government permits are very strict on that. It's tough, but the government regulations allow nine months to rehab [an animal]. And if that doesn't work, they can't be returned to the wild. And then that's what has to happen…[An indefinite stay] isn’t fair to the animal. When you have a goose and the other geese are honking overhead, either they're coming back or they're leaving, it breaks your heart, actually, to see them not be able to join the club.
FVC: I've heard you've got a grand opening coming up the Saturday after next.
The ribbon cutting will be at two o'clock on Saturday, Sept. 30. The open house will be both days, Saturday and Sunday, from noon.
FVC: What's the new building like? Can you tell me a little about it?
It's really nice. It’s in place of the three wooden [buildings] we used to have. And they were so deteriorated. I mean, gosh, it was horrible. You could see daylight through the walls. This [building] is made of insulated concrete forms.
FVC: Has your capacity to take in new animals increased with the new building?
I've never refused anybody…I've been doing this—this coming February is 38 years straight. And I've never said “Oh, that's it, we're finished. We're at full capacity.” Because animals rotate from clinics and cages to flight cases and other things until they’re released.
FVC: What’s it like when you finally get to release an animal? Is it a big cause for celebration?
No, we try to keep it very, very quiet, and just let them go. And there has to be the appropriate habitat, you can't just take an animal and throw them wherever you think would be a good place. There has to be others of its own type in the area. There are a lot of considerations. For example, is there food and water around for them? It depends on what the species is, of course. You know, if it's a duck, there needs to be lots of water.
This interview has been mildly edited for concision and clarity.
Elizabeth’s Wildlife Centre is holding an open house to showcase its new building in Abbotsford from noon until 4pm on Saturday, Sept. 30 and Sunday, Oct. 1.