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.

CRITTER CHATTER: This is the month for releasing the young

Young raccoons ready for release.

by Jayne Winters

Due to unexpected circumstances, I’m not able to prepare a new column for September. I feel it is appropriate, however, to submit an article written by the late Carleen Cote which was published in September 2005 and is as applicable today as it was 15 years ago:

“Ah, sweet September! This is the month for releasing the young critters we have cared for since spring. Some will remain at the center until next May – the younger fawns and raccoons. The months have passed quickly; it seems as though we have just received the first baby raccoons of the season.

The formulas are no longer mixed, the bedding boxes have gone to the dump, and the clothesline remains empty of laundered bedding for days. The raccoons have been in their outside pens since July. Instead of washing bedding towels, I spend my afternoons cleaning pens and picking up poop. The raccoons are becoming restless; some are taking advantage of an unlocked gate to run out onto the lawn or to climb a tree.

They are ready to start exploring and begin life on their own. A raccoon that remains with its mother in the wild will probably spend the winter denned up with her. Will the ones we release disperse or spend the winter together? We don’t know. Only four to five raccoons are released at each site, always with the ones they bunked with in our pens.

Our gratitude can’t be expressed enough to the landowners who have allowed us to enter their properties to release critters. To protect their privacy and the animals, we do not reveal where any of the critters are released. Without the landowners’ generosity, finding appropriate sites would be difficult, maybe impossible.

For the mink and skunks who are usually released in August, we always find a source of water: marsh, beaver bog or stream. The mink scurry into the water, diving and splashing, swimming away with nary a look back. The skunks immediately start grubbing, looking for their natural food of slugs and insects.

Now we have the raccoons. The release sites we have selected are deep in the woods, away from people. We never know how close we will be able to drive into the site; in many places, a trek by foot is needed to arrive at a source of water. So, a wheelbarrow is tied onto the cap of the truck to use for transporting the raccoons, safe in a dog kennel, through the woods. We learned early on that carrying a kennel with four or five raccoons weighing 10-15 pounds each was a task we didn’t want to repeat! The trek could be through water, brush piles, and over fallen trees – quite an obstacle course. The beauty and serenity of being alone in the woods, listening to the singing birds and rushing waters from a nearby brook is spoiled only by the buzzing, biting mosquitoes and deer flies. We soon reach our destination and prepare to say farewell to the raccoons we have cared for over the last five months. The coons continuously emerge from the kennel. Some stop to look around, others dive into the water or start climbing a tree. We leave three to four days’ supply of food and say, “Good-bye and good luck!” This scenario is carried out until we have said good-bye to all the coons that were big enough for release.

As happens every year when we have made the trek into the forest to release the last of the raccoons, I say to my husband, Donald, “Do you know what I’m thinking?” He says, “Yeah! What will we get next year?” He’s right!” – 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 CORRECTION: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER: The tall (tail) of two foxes at Duck Pond Wildlife Care Center

Three foxes, two males and a female, back, peer out of their pen before attempting their escape.

by Jayne Winters

I love chatting with Donald Cote at the Duck Pond Wildlife Center. He always has a story (or two or three) to share and I never know what little critters I’ll find harbored in his living room and the area that used to be strictly for his late wife Carleen’s doll collection.

My July visit left me almost speechless, which doesn’t happen very often! I’m always expecting to see a couple chipmunks or squirrels recuperating in their respective cages, and as spring has turned into summer, various kennels with young raccoons and porcupines. However, on this particular day his living space was filled with kennels and carriers, many stacked upon each other. He had no less than 25 raccoons, four baby skunks, six porcupines, a young fisher, and several chippies and squirrels. I didn’t even count the outside enclosure inhabitants, but foxes at various ages certainly outnumber any other species.

Don told me at our first meeting that foxes and fawns are his favorite critters; I enjoy listening to him reminisce and last month he told me about a recent incident involving three fox kits. Young foxes are kept in a 4 x 4 x 8 pen and this particular litter had a female which was a little larger than her siblings. She was enticed into a carrier at mealtime to eat separately so the other two would get their share, but at one of the feedings, a young male scooted into the carrier first, followed by his larger sister. In an attempt to get the male out, Don tipped the carrier and the kit accidentally hit the latch on the pen, giving him the opportunity to run free with his female partner in crime right behind him. She left the area immediately, but the male hung around the enclosure. Don spent hours trying to coax him back into the pen, using a flexible wire, a 100-foot extension cord and rope in his efforts to pull the latch/door closed if he was to enter, but the kit was wary and wouldn’t get closer than 12-15 feet from Don. Unsuccessful at recapturing him, Don finally went to bed at 3:30 a.m.

The next morning at feeding time, Don and the little male fox played cat-and-mouse between the evergreen trees shading the enclosure. “No matter how tame you think they are, once they get the taste of freedom, it’s a different story,” he explained. Finally, that evening, Don put the remaining third litter mate into the kennel and placed it at the end of the pen where the little male could see her and the dinner dishes. Sure enough, he cautiously entered the pen, Don pulled the cord, and set the latch! The morale of the story: latches can open and need to be checked, secured and repaired on a regular basis. Don called this story, “You win some, you lose some.” Although he successfully recaptured the male, the larger female maintained her freedom and was never seen again. There are never any guarantees for survival when an animal is released, but Don felt that her chances were good as she had learned how to hunt and scavenge for dead mice which he had tucked into the pen’s hay or hidden in small logs, to acclimate the foxes from dependence on the feeding dishes to a more natural seek and hunt process. And what’s happened to the little male? The escape artist got out of the pen two more times, taking advantage of that split second when Don’s hands were carrying food dishes and that small space between his feet offered an opportunity to explore. He’s been recaptured both times (the last time with a Havahart type trap) and now awaits summer release into the wild.

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 CORRECTION: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.

CRITTER CHATTER: Heartbreak at the wildlife care center

A deer being returned to the wild following rehabilitation at the Duck Pond Wildlife Center. (contributed photo)

by Jayne Winters

Donald Cote and his late wife, Carleen, have operated the Duck Pond Wildlife Center for over five decades. Five decades of 24/7 devoted care to nature, large and small, furred and feathered. While we naturally prefer to hear about the successful stories, the “feel good, happily-ever-after” anecdotes, there are certainly sad outcomes which are inevitable in this type of rescue work.

My visits with Don are never boring; he’s a wonderful story-teller, animated and at times, quite out-spoken in expressing his opinions. An hour passes quickly and I must admit, it would be easy to stay longer to chat except for the nagging thought that I’m preventing him from many chores. One story he has wanted to share for some time is about three deer that wandered into a junkyard through a gate which had been left open.

Following an urgent call about a doe and two youngsters, likely her yearling and new fawn, being confused and trapped by the yard’s fencing, Don met with an employee and the town’s Animal Control Officer (ACO) to assess the situation and hopefully rescue the deer. An attempt to encourage the deer to move out of the enclosure by slowly driving a truck to “herd” them resulted in their jumping into a 100-foot x 50-foot, six-foot deep, lined pond which was on site to catch vehicular oil. The local fire department was contacted and responders were able to encourage the deer to get out of the pond; two deer left the area by an open gate, but the smallest one – about six months old and 75 pounds – remained and in a panicked state, just kept running along the fence line. The decision was made to leave it alone overnight in the hopes it would calm down and find its way out.

The next day, however, the fawn was still there, butting its head into the chain link fence in its attempt to get out. Don met several volunteers at the site and the deer was ultimately cornered and put into a trailer for transport to Duck Pond for observation. He was transferred to a large pen, given food and water, and closely monitored. Two days later, he appeared to have a seizure, likely from the repetitive head butting into the junkyard fence. An anti-inflammatory injection often used for prevention of seizures was given, but without any real change in behavior; sadly, the fawn suffered another episode a couple of days later and was found dead shortly thereafter. Although it was obvious that the stress of the previous few days, along with a probable head injury, caused the deer’s death, Don still wonders if it was by seizure(s) or possibly a heart attack.

Despite the best efforts of many caring people, outcomes are not always positive and there may not be definitive answers as to why. Helping wildlife is certainly not an easy task, but the reward of seeing a rehabilitated animal released into its natural habitat again far exceeds the disappointing losses.

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 CORRECTION: thewildlifecarecenter@gmail.com.