CRITTER CHATTER: Little stinkers at the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center

Contributed photo

by Jayne Winters

Over the past month, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure to see skunk families waddling along the side of the road. Just watching them makes me smile, so voila – the topic of this month’s column! I suspected Carleen had written about skunks in the past and sure enough, I found an article, some of which follows:

“Delightful to behold – but little stinkers, literally! We have cared for many skunks over the years. Most have been weaned by the time they arrive at the Center. They have come in various sizes, from some that could fit in my hand to mature animals. This year [1996] I received a little one that needed to be bottle fed and I made a mistake I will not repeat. (If a young one chokes while nursing, don’t pat it on the back or you will wear skunk perfume!)

We have been asked many times if young skunks can spray. Yes, they can, and yes, we have been sprayed. The skunk will give warnings before it sprays – stomping its front feet while backing up, hissing, growling or running away, if possible. When these tactics fail, then it will resort to spray: it contorts its body into a “U” shape so that its head and rear face the enemy, contracts muscles and out comes the yellow, oil, stinky mist.”

I did some research on-line and found there are four species native to North America: Striped, Eastern Spotted, Hooded and Hog-nosed. While related to members of the weasel family, the skunk’s closest relative is the stink badger. Tail included, they average 20-30 inches in length and weigh 6-10 pounds; their life span in the wild is usually 2 – 4 years, up to 10 in captivity. Skunks are adaptable as long as food and shelter are available and thrive in different habitats. They rarely travel more than two miles from their dens, typically settling down within a couple of miles of a water source.

Skunks are most active at dusk or night and are generally solitary except during mating season and when raising litters of four to seven kits, from April through June. The young are born blind and deaf, but open their eyes after about three weeks and are weaned after about two months; they stay with their mother for a year, when she’s ready to mate again. The male plays no part in raising the kits. Skunks have strong front feet and long nails, excellent for digging up grubs, worms and insects (including bees and wasps); berries, nuts, fungi, bird eggs, salamanders and snakes are also on the menu as seasons change. Although they have poor vision, their sense of smell and hearing are excellent. They don’t hibernate, but are inactive during winter, often gathering in communal dens (tree hollows, brush piles, abandoned burrows and underneath porches or garages) for warmth. A group of skunks is called a “surfeit.”

That sulfuric spray skunks are known for? It has a range of up to 10 feet, can be smelled up to 3-1/2 miles away and is powerful enough to ward off bears! They carry enough “chemical” for five or six successive sprays, requiring up to 10 days to produce another supply, and usually don’t spray other skunks except between males in mating season. Most predators learn to not attack skunks, but I found it interesting the great horned owl is an exception: in one case, the remains of 57 striped skunks were found in one owl’s nest.

I asked Don about Petunia, a skunk Carleen mentioned in her article. Petunia was blind and could not be released, so he resided at Duck Pond for about a year. Sadly, he developed a cancerous growth on his neck and had to be euthanized. There are currently three skunk kits residing in carriers in Don’s kitchen, all under two months of age with an expected fall release.

The Wildlife Care Center continues to receive greatly appreciated assistance from other rehabbers to help with summer admissions while Don and Amy deal with health concerns. We ask that you check these websites to see if there is a rehabber closer to you to help make critter care at Duck Pond more manageable: https://www.mainevetmed.org/wildlife-rehabilitation or https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/living-with-wildlife/orphaned-injured-wildlife/rehabilitation.html

Donald Cote operates Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a nonprofit state permitted rehab facility and is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989; Tel: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER – Mother Nature’s amazing genetics: piebald or albino

Piebald fawn (Photo from Don Cote’s archives)

by Jayne Winters

Facebook wildlife and rehab groups often share photos of interesting critters, but I don’t know how many readers have ever seen a piebald animal. My husband and I were fortunate to see a wild piebald deer in the Hancock area a couple of years ago and when I recently came across old photos of a piebald fawn, porcupine, and woodchuck cared for at Duck Pond Wildlife Center, I thought it would be a good topic for a column.

Most people are familiar with albino coloration, or lack thereof. There is no such thing as “part albino” – albinos are ALL white due to the absence of color pigmentation (melanin). Although typically recognized by their pink or red eyes (caused by blood vessels showing through the unpigmented iris), not all albinos have this dramatic-looking eye. Albinos in the wild are very rare in any species. Because they stand out and are easy prey, most die at a young age, and their poor eyesight contributes to their difficulty in finding food and avoiding predators.

Albinism is often confused with “leucism” which is another genetic condition that occurs during an animal’s embryo development. Leucism is the partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white, pale or patchy coloration of skin, hair, feathers, or scales. Leucistic birds have fully white plumage, but unlike albinos, have normal colored eyes, legs, feet and bills. While leucism does occur naturally in wild birds, it is typically seen in captive or exotics deliberately bred to encourage this type of genetic mutation.

More common than a complete absence of pigment cells is the “piebald” effect, which are localized, irregular patches of white on an animal that has otherwise normal color patterns. The word originates from “pie” (as in the black and white plumage of the magpie) and “bald” meaning white patch or spot. Although I knew “piebald” is used to describe white pigmentation, I didn’t realize how varied it can be.

A pied animal has a pattern of unpigmented (white) spots on a pigmented background of hair, feathers or scales; the skin under the white background is not pigmented. The ratio of white to normal-colored skin can vary considerably between generations, as well as between siblings from the same parents. Piebaldism is a recessive trait, so both parents must carry the gene to produce piebald offspring. In addition to the rare coloration, it will likely have a “Roman” nose, short legs, overbite with short lower mandible, and scoliosis (arching spine). This condition is very rare and affects less than 2 percent of the white-tailed deer population.

We more often see piebaldism in horses (called “pintos” or “paints”), as well as in cattle, dogs, cats, foxes, squirrels, pigs and snakes. Dogs that may have a spotted or multicolored coat are often called piebald if their body is almost entirely white or another solid color with spotting and patches on the head and neck. The beagle’s tricolor is actually caused by the piebald gene – we learn something new every day! So, the next time you see a wild or domestic critter with white patches or spots, just think about those behind-the-scenes gene work that created it – a true gift of nature

As noted in April, Donald and Amy are dealing with health issues, so the Care Center is receiving assistance from other rehabbers to help with admissions. We ask that you check these websites to see if there is a rehabber closer to you to help make critter care at Duck Pond more manageable: https://www.mainevetmed.org/wildlife-rehabilitation or https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/living-with-wildlife/orphaned-injured-wildlife/rehabilitation.html Thank you.

Donald Cote operates Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a non-profit state permitted rehab facility & is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER: The difference between animal control officer, and animal damage control officer

A caged mink at the Wildlife Center. (photo by Don Cote)

by Jayne Winters

When Don and I talked about a topic for this month’s column, he suggested letting readers know what the differences are between an Animal Control Officer (ACO) and an Animal Damages Control Agent (ADC). Although the titles of “Animal Control” and “Animal Damage Control” are often used interchangeably, they represent two different areas of specialty. Simply put, Maine Animal Control Officers handle domestic animal complaints, while Animal Damage Control Agents deal with wildlife issues. Both must be licensed or certified by the overseeing state agency and successfully complete continuing education or training; both are required to have a current Maine trapping license.

Animal Control Officers are licensed and regulated by the Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry under its Animal Welfare Program. According to semi-retired ACO Patrick Faucher, of Oakland, municipalities are mandated by the state to have Animal Control Officers, but due to limited budgets, often hire and share an officer to cover several towns in the area.

According to the National Animal Control Association (NACA), Animal Control Officers “work to maintain public health standards by making communities safe for both people and animals.” Most entry-level ACO positions require a minimum of a high school diploma, but agencies often require additional training and education related to animal or veterinary sciences, and/or law enforcement. Typical duties include investigation of complaints; working with the public, animal shelters, and potentially dangerous animals; maintaining records and preparing incident reports; monitoring dog licensure; capturing and possibly quarantining loose or stray animals; issuing warnings or citations to pet owners for appearance in court; and trapping/rescuing/transporting injured or sick animals. They also need to know the appropriate, safe practices and use of various equipment used in animal handling. In addition to having the physical abilities required to perform field work, they also need a valid driver’s license and must be certified as an ACO at the time of hire or within six months. Maine ACOs must fulfill mandated 8-hour training requirements annually; failure to do so results in Phase I (core competencies) and Phase II (practical instruction and exercises) recertification. Many training options are currently provided on-line due to Covid-19 restrictions until regular in-person training can be safely held.

Conversely, Animal Damage Control Agents are licensed and regulated by the Dept. of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, but operate as independent contractors. Pat Faucher noted that because the state has no standard or base fees, agents can charge whatever they want, often for each animal captured. Common nuisance species include raccoons, skunks, squirrels, mice, opossums, or weasels seeking shelter in or under a house, garage, or shed. They may occupy an area sporadically, using the site for a few days until food sources are exhausted, or to give birth and raise their young. If an animal doesn’t pose a problem to you, your family, pets or other animals, you may choose not to have it removed. However, sometimes animals make noise, chew or destroy property, create odors or present a potential health hazard. Pat Faucher told me that if there is a health hazard, the town is required to respond. Due to liability issues concerning health or safety hazards, such as a potentially rabid animal or relocating a mother animal and her young, an Animal Damage Control Agent should be utilized.

Pat stated trapping is not as simple as the general public may think: wild critters, especially raccoons and squirrels, are very smart. The individual trapping must have knowledge of what type of bait to use, where and how to place it, e.g., loose or wired to the cage. Agents do not handle domestic animal calls unless they are also a licensed ACO for a given town. Some Agents specialize in certain species, such as beavers or bats, so be sure you choose a person with the right expertise. If you have questions, you should contact your town or the local wildlife biologist, game warden or rehabber. State wildlife offices do not really have the staff resources to provide animal removal services, but can provide the names of individuals and companies that do.

As noted in April, Donald and Amy are recovering from recent health issues, so the Care Center is receiving assistance from other rehabbers to help with spring admissions. We ask that you check these websites to see if there is a rehabber closer to you to help make critter care at Duck Pond more manageable: https://www.mainevetmed.org/wildlife-rehabilitation or https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/living-with-wildlife/orphaned-injured-wildlife/rehabilitation.html. Thank you.

Donald Cote operates Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a non-profit state permitted rehab facility & is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER: The best of intentions

by Jayne Winters

When visiting at the Duck Pond Wildlife Rehab Center in March, I asked Donald Cote what we should submit for the April column. With no hesitation, whatsoever, Don said spring is the time to remind people that not all young animals that appear orphaned need rescuing. That makes this month’s column easy for me as I can use the late Carleen Cote’s words of many years ago, and it gives me pleasure to pay homage to her years of rehab work by doing so:

“With the return of warmer days, our feathered friends are returning from their southern hiatus and native wildlife are becoming more active. This is an appropriate time for a reminder about whether or not young wildlife that appear to need rescuing really need human intervention.

“White-tail fawns are often rescued when they should be left where they were found. A very young fawn will not move until given a signal from its mother. It has no odor, so if it is found by a dog, coyote or other potential predator, it’s by accident, not from a scent. The doe does not remain with her fawn(s) at all times; she leaves to feed herself and may not return for several hours.

If you’re walking in the fields and woods and spot a fawn, don’t immediately assume that it needs to be rescued. Mark the spot where it was seen and leave; return after a few hours or the next day. If the fawn is in the exact same spot, it’s probably safe to assume something has happened to the doe. Contact a game warden or rehabber and follow the advice given.

“If you find a young bird on the ground and no nest is found, make a substitute from a berry box or basket; be sure there are holes for drainage and hang it in a tree close to the spot where the bird was found. The adults will respond to the feeding calls of their youngsters. If cats are prowling or stalking birds, especially when there may be young birds in a nest that can’t survive without being fed, the cat should be confined rather than removing the birds. Fledglings – young birds that are feathered and out of the nest – need time to master the art of flying. Though they may spend time on the ground, this is not necessarily an indication they need human intervention. Observe whether there are adult birds flying around as they could be the parents, bringing food to the young or coaxing them to take their first flight.

“Of course, there are times when rescue is necessary, such as when an adult female has died, but her young survive, or when young animals have been observed for some time with no adult arriving to care for them and lead them to safety. If you do rescue wildlife, as cute as they may be, bring them to someone who has the necessary permits and knowledge to give them a greater chance of survival. If you’re in doubt about the need to rescue any bird or animal, or have questions about the critters we enjoy and for which we are concerned, please call a local rehabber or warden.”

The past couple of months have been particularly difficult for the Duck Pond Center as Donald and one of the volunteers with almost 20 years’ experience have had unexpected health issues requiring hospitalization (both are now home). This upcoming spring and summer will require the assistance of other rehabbers to cover the anticipated volume of admissions, so we ask that you check the following websites to see if there is a rehabber closer to you to help make the work more manageable at Duck Pond: https://www.mainevetmed.org/wildlife-rehabilitation or https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/living-with-wildlife/orphaned-injured-wildlife/rehabilitation.html. Thank you.

Donald Cote operates Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a non-profit federal and state permitted rehab facility & is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER – Opossum: America’s only marsupial

Baby opossum. (photo by Jayne Winters)

by Jayne Winters

A recent chat with Donald Cote, at Duck Pond Rehab, was about opossums, as I couldn’t help but notice a large adult snoozing in a pet carrier in what used to be Carlene’s “doll room.” I’ve never seen one in the wild, although sightings in Maine have become common. My research provided conflicting information as to when they began to expand their range from the southeast, with one article stating they began to appear in New England about 300 years ago and another citing the early 1900s. Suffice it to say, they’ve been moving north and populations are becoming well established.

Don believes it’s possible they hitch rides at truck stops. Attracted to food in these areas, they can easily climb onto the truck frames, like mice and squirrels do under the hoods of vehicles. The vibration of the moving trucks scares the opossum so it stays put, eventually disembarking several hours and many miles later, often further north. They don’t hibernate and have no fur on their ears, tail or feet, which makes these parts susceptible to frostbite. However, Don thinks their bodies will eventually adjust to our cold temperatures. I wonder if their acclimation to living up north might be enhanced by our milder winters.

Opossum admissions to Duck Pond began sporadically about 10 years ago, but they’re now frequent residents for rehab. Last summer, a female with open wounds on both of her hind legs, was treated for several weeks. In addition to hands-on medical care, she was carefully monitored for infection which can be caused by flies/maggots. During her convalescence, she surprised everyone with a delivery of nine babies!

Although their appearance may resemble a rat, opossums are not rodents. In fact, they’re America’s only native marsupial and, like kangaroos, carry their young in a pouch. When babies are born, they’re so small 20 can be held in a teaspoon! Females usually have two litters a year of 8-10 young. Contrary to myth, a female opossum never carries her young on her tail.

Adults are the size of a house cat or small dog, about 2-1/2 feet in length, a third of which is the round, scaly tail. The head is conical and tapers to a long snout with a pink nose. The face is light gray to white; the fur from neck to rump is grayish white. They prefer to hunt at night when their vision is better and they can hide from predators, but will forage during the day if food is scarce or their nest has been disturbed. They have a prehensile tail to grasp tree limbs (they don’t hang upside down by their tails when sleeping), as well as opposable “thumbs.” They have 50 teeth – more than any other mammal.

Despite a popular belief that opossums are aggressive, they prefer to avoid confrontation. If threatened, they may hiss or bare their teeth, but bite only when defending themselves or their young. When extremely frightened, an opossum will go into a catatonic state; it will open its mouth, curl back its lips, and secrete a foul-smelling substance from its anal gland to mimic the smell of death. The term “playing ‘possum” comes from this ability to “play dead” and often a predator will walk away. Opossums have a high mortality rate at all ages; it’s estimated only 10 percent survive more than one year due to predation, exposure, starvation, vehicles, and shooting/trapping.

Their low body temperature and strong immune system make them resistant to diseases like rabies and Lyme disease, but they can’t avoid the dangers of habitat destruction, road development, and other kinds of human-wildlife conflict. They sometimes raid trash cans, pet food containers, birdseed, and grain, so these items should be stored inside the home, shed or garage. Opossums commonly use chimneys, attics, and spaces under houses, porches and sheds as den sites, so close potential entries with mesh hardware cloth, boards or metal flashing and seal holes in foundations.

These shy critters eliminate disease-carrying ticks and clean up our ecosystems by eating rotting plants and dead animals, as well as cockroaches, snails, slugs, grubs and small rodents. Opossums are nature’s pest control and essential clean-up crew. Did you know that one opossum can consume around 5,000 ticks in a single season?

Of concern for horse owners is a parasite carried by opossums that can cause equine myeloencephalitis, an infection of the central nervous system which results in dizziness, weakness and muscle spasm. Horses can ingest the parasite by eating grass or hay which has been contaminated by opossum feces. Unfortunately, it can live outside a host and remain infectious for as long as a year. The disease is treatable, but there’s no vaccine at this time. Proper storage of hay and feed, the control of “barn cats” and prompt disposal of animal carcasses are important deterrents. Don stated that he never releases opossums near farmland where horses are kept. He stressed that he respects and accommodates the wishes of property owners by releasing only those species they want on their property.

Donald Cote operates the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a non-profit federal and state permitted rehab facility which is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER – Helping animals in need: you can make a difference

Don Cote clearing the pathways at the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center, in China. (File photo)

by Jayne Winters

You might think that winter is a respite for Don Cote and the three “regular” volunteers at the wildlife center. While it’s true they don’t have admissions of new-born animals, the months after fall releases and before springtime births are hardly quiet.

There are still critters on-site that were not old enough or healthy enough to be released in October, as well as new admissions for animals injured by vehicles, predators, or human interaction. Dishes need to be washed, towels laundered, food prepared, kennels and cages cleaned, and tarps replaced, all of which become even more tedious with snow removal and thawing frozen water dishes. Many of us complain during the winter months about the shortened daylight, but feeding and cleaning chores at Duck Pond Rehab can’t be postponed or delayed just because it’s dark.

There is no question that the Center could use physical assistance, especially during the winter. Although Don has a snow plow, he can’t get too close to outside pens and shoveling is required, along with sanding slippery areas on the foot paths. Fencing, enclosures, and tarps often need to be repaired. Roofs need to be cleared of snow and ice. If you have any general handyman experience, are dependable and punctual and interested in lending a helping hand, please contact Don at the number, or Amy at the email, listed below.

While many well-meaning and caring folks would like to help as hands-on volunteers, there are health and safety concerns to be considered. As Carleen Cote wrote in a July 1997 column, each human caregiver presents a different scent and voice pitch and tone, which add stress to the animals, especially youngsters, so help in feeding is not in their best interest. Working with and around wildlife always presents the possibility of being bitten or scratched. The cost for a volunteer’s required rabies protection and other vaccinations can be prohibitive.

If you aren’t able or prefer not to provide light labor, there are plenty of items on the Wish List which are always needed: bleach, cleaning supplies, heavy duty garbage bags, newspapers (no shiny inserts), towels, dry dog and cat food (no dye), canned dog and cat food (no dye), paper towels, bagged shavings, frozen berries (no syrup), birdseed, and even apples (not from recently sprayed trees). Please be advised that leftover, torn or opened bags of pet food cannot be accepted.

Financial donations, whether as cash, check or gift cards (Hannaford and Walmart are visited weekly), are, of course, always appreciated to help support the Rehab Center’s work. Don told me he puts about 14,000 miles a year on his vehicle to trap, transfer and release wildlife. Food and medical expenses typically cost $30-35,000 a year.

There’s no denying these months of Covid restrictions have limited our in-person interactions with others, but they don’t limit acts of kindness. If you know of an organization or school that would like to support Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center, fundraisers can still be successful with money collected in donation jars, bottle returns, or a percentage of sales dedicated to the wildlife. All donations go directly toward the care of the animals.

Donald Cote operates the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a non-profit federal and state permitted rehab facility which is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER — Gray fox: in a class of its own

a gray fox brought to the shelter.

by Jayne Winters

Don Cote, of Duck Pond Wildlife Rehab, has a soft spot for foxes and although rehabs mostly reds, I sense he’s partial to the grays. When I visited a few weeks ago, he led me to an enclosure which housed a beautiful gray fox which will be released this spring and proceeded to explain the differences between the two species.

Maine’s red fox population is widespread, occurring in all 16 counties. Adults weigh 7-15 pounds and are red/orange in appearance with a white chest, black legs, and bushy white-tipped tail. The gray fox is most often found in central, mid-coast and southern Maine, although Don stated there is evidence they are moving north. They weigh about 10 pounds and are “grizzled” in coloration, with a mix of white, red, black and gray fur, often with a touch of red on the neck, ears and lower legs. They are easily discerned from reds by the black stripe down their tail with a prominent black tip at the end, with the tail making up almost a third of their total body length. The gray has fairly short legs, with an elongated torso in comparison to other foxes. Its eyes are oval-shaped, with a thick black stripe running from the inner corners down to its mouth.

Both species have excellent hearing and eyesight which prove particularly useful when hunting for prey hidden under the snow or ground. Both species are primarily nocturnal, but are seen during the day especially in spring and summer when hunting for their young families. They eat a wide variety of plants and animals, depending on the season, including small birds, eggs, mice, voles, rats, rabbits, insects, snakes, carrion, berries, apples, corn, seeds, and nuts. Foxes are found in diverse habitats and do well in a mix of fields and forest; the loss of natural habitat, however, has forced them to adapt and they’ve become quite tolerant of living near people.

Important to note, however, is that the gray fox isn’t simply a gray-colored red fox—it belongs to a different genus altogether. DNA testing reveals it isn’t closely related to other canines and is likely the oldest fox species in the world – more than 10 million years old! It isn’t really known why they’re so different, but one theory is that they may have been isolated to a particular area of the world and needed to develop certain characteristics to survive. Like a cat, its nails are retractable, making it the only member of the canid (dog) family in North America that can easily climb trees (reds climb, but not as well as grays) and jump from branch to branch. Their sharp claws give them the ability to climb as high as 50-60 feet, aided by forearms which can be rotated.

In doing further research, I found the gray fox has a body built for speed, easily reaching 28 mph. It loves to swim and utilizes ponds/lakes by chasing its prey into the water. Due to its build and stamina, the fox doesn’t tire easily, but the prey will become exhausted, making it vulnerable to drowning, after which the fox retrieves it.

Don told me they admit only one to four gray foxes a year and shared the sad story of two that had been hit by a car. Both were taken to the vet for evaluation and although neither had fractures, died of internal injuries within hours. Another gray that came to Duck Pond Rehab had come into contact with a porcupine, its mouth and snout filled with quills. For those who don’t know, porky quills are extremely painful and can be life-threatening. They have to be removed in one piece very carefully with pliers, as if broken or missed, can migrate to other parts of the body. Although Don and Amy, a longtime volunteer at the Center, removed the quills, the fox had to be tube fed until it could see the vet, but sadly died before the appointment. The gray fox currently in residence was admitted this past fall and will be released in the spring.

Donald Cote operates the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center, on Rte. 3, in Vassalboro. It is a nonprofit federal and state permitted rehab facility which is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER – Don’s pet peeve: Releasing exotic animals into the wild

Arctic fox

by Jayne Winters

When talking to Donald Cote at his Vassalboro Wildlife Center last month he mentioned one of his pet peeves: owners of exotic pets releasing them into the wild after they get bored with them or can no longer provide the care required.

Buying, breeding, selling, and owning exotics are a big – and often illegal – business; purchases can be made between states or overseas. If you have an animal without the appropriate license or permit, Don believes you’ll eventually be found out. Friends and family members know you have something “cool” and usually can’t keep it to themselves. Eventually, authorities will be notified, the animal(s) confiscated, and the owner fined. Sadly, it’s the animal that pays the ultimate price by being humanely destroyed or kept in a zoo or sanctuary. Species common to the trade include alligators, snakes, spiders, tortoises/turtles, lizards, birds, fish, small mammals and even big cats.

Maine laws regarding wildlife possession are among the strictest in the country and are intended to protect the wildlife, the public and our natural resources. Our pet stores are regulated and inspected by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry. Potential buyers should be wary of animals advertised for sale in newspapers or online; they may or may not be lawful in the state of origin, but illegal to bring into Maine.

Out of curiosity, I checked online for exotic escapes in Maine. I found several dating back to 2008: a Wilton man found a 9-foot- long python under the engine of his pickup truck; a Gorham woman found a reticulated python in her washing machine; the owner of a 4-foot-long ball python in Orrington reported it had escaped its enclosure and was missing; police removed a 3-1/2-foot-long python that showed up in a Fairfield apartment; a 10-foot-long snakeskin, likely that of a Burmese python or boa constrictor, was found in Westbrook; a ball python escaped its enclosure (again) and was “likely roaming around a nearby street” in Camden.

A biologist with Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife noted that snakes may be easy to handle when hatchlings, but reach 8-10 feet in length. A diet for an adult includes rabbits or chicks, which can become expensive and burdensome.

I also found that in March 2017 wildlife officials in Augusta confiscated five baby alligators more than a foot long that were accidentally released in a taxi after the container they were in fell over. They were being transported by a University of Maine student who was later charged with importing or possessing wildlife without a permit.

One article I found noted most gator owners are unprepared for the care of an adult that can reach 14 feet in length and live 80 years. They require a high nutrient diet, e.g., whole chickens or pork, costing about $150/month. Their bite can easily break through human bone; they need a large pool of water to thrive – bathtubs and kiddie pools aren’t good enough. In addition, they’re used to living in a warm environment, so owners may need to use heat lamps to maintain body temperature.

Don mentioned concerns about bacterial infections, such as salmonella, being transferred to people from reptiles such as iguanas. Again, buyer beware: as hatchlings, they’re about the size of a mouse and one of the least expensive lizards in a pet store. They grow up to 5 – 6 feet or longer and require a lot of space, in addition to special lighting. Although they’re the reptile species most often turned in to rescues, they are the least reptile adopted.

I asked Don what experience he and Carleen have had with exotics. Stating it was “only the tip of the iceberg,” he cited three snakes, two alligators, three arctic foxes, two tortoises, two iguanas, and two bobcats. He was particularly upset about an arctic and red fox that were released into the wild by their owner. They had been trained to walk on a harness and were “set free” – ropes attached. One of the snakes he met was a 14-foot albino that was confiscated, along with other animals, from an apartment that belonged to a convicted felon. Duck Pond Rehab typically transfers exotics to Avian Haven as its facilities are better equipped to care for them. Some of the animals have gone to the Trenton Zoo, others re-homed after approval from Inland Fisheries.

Bottom Line: A responsible pet owner should contact a local warden, animal control officer, or wildlife rehabber for assistance in relocating an exotic animal. Pets simply dumped to fend for themselves are frequently injured or killed by vehicles or predators, can contract and spread disease, starve to death, and/or negatively impact native species and Maine’s ecosystem.

Donald Cote operates the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a nonprofit federal and state permitted rehab facility which is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER – Fishers: important predators of the wildlife community

by Jayne Winters

Typically, one or two fishers are brought to the Wildlife Center each year for rehabilitation. I’ve only seen photos of them, so was interested in learning more after discovering one was in residence with Don Cote this past summer. And when I say “in residence,” I mean it literally as it was kept in a carrier in the living room for several weeks because there was no outside pen available. Discovered in the Bangor area without siblings or mother, the fisher wasn’t old enough to survive on its own. Don arranged transfer with the woman who found it and assumed its care on May 29.

Don Cote, of Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center, holding a baby fisher. (photo courtesy of Don Cote)

A member of the weasel family, fishers are comparable in size to house cats. They are native to North America, primarily in Canada’s boreal forests and the northern United States, although fossil evidence indicates their range used to extend farther south. Often referred to as a “fisher cat,” it’s not a cat at all, and despite its name, rarely eats fish. An agile climber and solitary hunter, it forages around fallen trees feeding on a variety of small animals (primarily snowshoe hares and porcupines), supplementing its diet with birds, insects, nuts, berries, mushrooms and road kill or carrion. I found it interesting that a Maine wildlife study documented 14 fisher-caused mortalities of Canada lynx from 1999-2011.

Fishers are active year around, most often at dawn and at night. They can become pests to farmers when they raid chicken coops and, although stories of them preying on cats and small dogs have been reported, a 1979 New Hampshire study revealed cat hairs in only one of over 1,000 stomach samples. Studies in New York and Massachusetts found no cat remains in 24 and 226 scat or stomach samples, respectively.

Adult males are usually 35-47 inches long and weigh 8-13 lbs.; adult females are 30-37 inches long and weigh 4-6 lbs. Their bodies are long, thin and low to the ground. Five toes on each foot, with unsheathed retractable claws, make it easy for them to move on top of snow. Coarse hairs between the pads of the hind paws give them traction for walking on slippery surfaces. In addition, they have highly mobile ankle joints that can rotate almost 180° allowing them to maneuver well in trees; they’re one of few mammals with the ability to descend head-first!

The reproductive cycle lasts about a year, with mating in late March/early April, but full development of the embryo is delayed 10 months before active pregnancy begins. Dens are typically in hollow trees and after about 50 days, females give birth to a litter of three or four kits. They can crawl after three weeks, but don’t open their eyes until seven weeks and are dependent on mother’s milk for two to three months. At five months, mom pushes them out of the den and within a year, they establish their own range of 3-5 square miles.

Fishers have few predators besides humans. They’ve been trapped since the 18th century and with pelts in big demand, were eradicated from several parts of the U.S. by the early 1900s. The fur varies, being denser and glossier in the winter after a summer molt, and males’ coats are coarser than females. Color ranges from deep brown to black, with patches of white or cream on the underside. Prices for pelts ranged from a high in the 1920s and 1930s of $450-$750 to a low of $27 in 1999. Habitat and species conservation measures allowed the species to rebound, but their range has been significantly reduced. Fur farmers weren’t very successful with breeding due to the long reproduction cycle and, when prices fell in the late 1940s, most farming ended.

Sadly, the young fisher in Don’s care didn’t survive. He stopped eating, likely due to blockage caused by chewing on the towel kept in the carrier as bedding. After conferring with the vet, Don administered a mineral gel used to eliminate cat hairballs, but the fisher passed only liquids. X-rays didn’t reveal any towel material, so surgery was performed. Unfortunately, strands of thread from the towel had worked their way throughout the fisher’s liver to the point it “looked like Swiss cheese.” Infection had begun and the humane decision was made to euthanize him in early August. Another example of how best efforts can sometimes be to no avail.

Donald Cote operates the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a non-profit federal and state permitted rehab facility which is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER: Time to release the raccoons

Contributed photo

by Jayne Winters

As a follow-up to the September article, I’m submitting another written by the late Carleen Cote, published in the fall 1999. As we prepare for colder weather, it seems like a good time to share some of her fond memories.

“Over the years, hundreds of raccoons have called our Center ‘home.’ When they start arriving in mid-April, our leisure time comes to an end for at least six months. From 6 a.m. to midnight, the hours are spent mixing formulas, feeding, keeping bedding clean and doing six to seven loads of laundry a day. Probably the most frustrating part of caring for the young coons is weaning them. Raccoons love to suckle and reluctantly give up their bottle. The milk is eventually replaced with a mixture of dog food, rice and boiled eggs blended into a consistency thin enough to be fed from a bottle. As they become older, this mixture is made thicker and attempts are made to encourage them to eat from a dish.

As the weather gets warmer, the raccoons are moved to outside pens. They are taken on walks so they can start exploring the feel of the ground and grass and do some climbing on fences and trees. Their diet will then include dry puppy food, bread, eggs and fruit. The daily routine then becomes keeping these outside pens clean; the feedings are reduced to twice a day.

There are lasting memories of some of the raccoons. The raccoon we called ‘Fatso’ for instance, that adopted a young fawn as his playmate. Fatso refused to be displaced from the deer house where he had lived alone before the arrival of an injured young deer. The deer and raccoon spent the winter playing together and became fast friends to the point that, when we moved Fatso to an outside pen in preparation for release, he became despondent and refused to eat. He was reunited with his friend until the time of release.

One raccoon is remembered for his coloration. He was a pure platinum color, except for his tail. Another of the raccoons, raised alone in the house, brought concern about what would happen to her when release time came. Would she adjust to being in the wild? Not to worry! When she emerged from the dog carrier, I attempted to give her one last stroke on her back. She immediately assumed a defensive posture, refusing to let me touch her and left with the other raccoons to explore their new world.

After our usual summer of long hours and little time for ourselves, the approaching fall finds us planning the release of raccoons back to the wild. This is when we experience the beauty and quiet of nature away from the noise and other disturbances we experience in our lives. To walk in the forests, hearing the chirping of crickets, the sound of the water in streams and brooks as it bubbles over rocks, flowing along twists and turns in the past to its next destination – these are welcomed times. Then there are the years when heavy rains occur as we near release time. When this happens, the once gentle flowing waters become rushing waters, restricting vehicle access to our favorite release spots. The muddy roads, streams and brooks overflowing their banks mean that our trek into the selected sites will have to be done on foot, pushing the wheelbarrow, with the coons secure in dog kennels, to their new home out in these beautiful Maine woodlands and forests.

After such treks, we return home, clean and sanitize all the pens and other paraphernalia used in caring for the raccoons, store it for the winter and wait to see what the next spring will bring.”

Donald Cote operates the Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center on Rte. 3 in Vassalboro. It is a nonprofit federal and state permitted rehab facility which is supported by his own resources and outside donations. Mailing address: 1787 North Belfast Ave., Vassalboro ME 04989 TEL: (207) 445-4326. EMAIL CORRECTION: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.