On my first day as a volunteer at the Savannah Wildlife Rescue Center, I hopped in the car around 8:15am to go help during the breakfast shift.
Since quarantine shut the world down, I think all of us have been anxious to go out into the world, some arguably more than others. We’ll probably see a new wave of social anxiety baked into this upcoming generation, which will only be exacerbated by the smartphones plugged into their wrists like an IV drip of stay-at-home dopamine hits.
Anyways, I was clearly anxious to start my first shift as an intern during a pandemic. But as I turned the car on, the first song that popped onto the radio was ‘West End Girls’, so I smiled and thought that today would be a good day.
I was the first intern to arrive, besides one of the Team Leaders who was in charge and had interned the previous season. Once I signed in on my sheet (which I now realize I never signed out when I left for the day), the team leader took me around the building to give me a tour of the space.
I had already had a tour last spring when I had brought in the baby opossum that my dogs found in our backyard, so I was familiar with the setup. I put my personal belongings on a shelf in the bathroom/laundry room/storage room and went to find out what I’d be doing for my shift.
The next Team Leader, Caitlin, arrived and showed me how to prep food for the baby raccoons that we would be feeding this morning.
“Have you ever made rice before?” Caitlin asked me. After nodding yes, she continued. “Making baby formula is the same measure – one part formula to two parts water. We’re going to double that to make two batches.”
I grabbed the scoop out of the five-gallon bucket of baby raccoon formula and added two cups of powder and four cups of water into a mixing bowl. Once it was whisked to perfection, we separated the mixture into glass pyrex measuring cups that we would use to pour the mixture into baby feeding bottles with little plastic nipples on top. The nipples are sized: preemie, 1, 2, and 3.
Then she led me into Room 2, the raccoon room, where I was introduced to the roughly thirty baby raccoons. Caitlin started showing me the ropes. Each cage, similar to the ones that cats are kept in at the Humane Society, holds between 2-4 raccoons. Some are grouped according to age or when they were admitted, if they were brought in as a group and are related to each other, or if they have medical issues and need to be quarantined. Each cage has its own clipboard labeled 1-9, and each raccoon has a medical form associated with it on the clipboard.
It was a very smooth, medical operation.
We pulled out the large plastic bins from under the rows of cages. Their corresponding lids had the centers cut out of them and wire mesh inputted within it to create air holes. We opened the first cage and tried to gently place the first batch of baby raccoons into their bin, but mostly they just clawed and fell off the edge of their cage, bumping to the bottom of the container.
The longer we were in the room, the louder the baby raccoons became. Since we were on the breakfast shift, the babies hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before, and they were ravenously impatient for food.
We grabbed lap towels from a tall black shelf and went to sit down. Next to our chairs were tables holding our measuring cups of baby formula, heating pads, and thermometers where we would be heating the mixture and making sure the temperature was just right for the babies – between 98 and 102 degrees.
Once the temperature was just right, we consulted the clipboard to see which babies needed what amount of formula. The amount of food they are given is based on their body weight at the time. To tell the raccoons apart, their ears are painted with a different color nail polish. My first girl was marked with Red and needed 46ml of baby food, so I filled the bottle with the correct amount of formula and gently pulled the red-eared girl from the bin at my feet. Her nails immediately snagged on my pants and my lap towel.
Caitlin showed me how to hold the baby raccoon and the bottle so that she wouldn’t ingest any air bubbles, which can make them bloated and gassy. After trying unsuccessfully for a few minutes, little Red finally found the nipple and latched on with her tiny mouth. Their suction mechanism is incredible. This thin, red membrane in her mouth attached to the nipple, and she started chugging down the formula.
After watching intently for a while, the baby looking up into my eyes as she ate, I looked over at Caitlin and said, “this is probably the closest to breastfeeding I’m ever going to get.”
She laughed and agreed, as did the other intern Becca, as we discussed our lack of desire to have children.
“We’re animal people, not kid people,” Becca said, taking the words right out of my mouth.
“I’ve got three kids at home already,” I said. Caitlin looked at me, confused because I had just said that I didn’t want to have any human children. I clarified, “I have three dogs at home, and that’s enough for me.”
They were both cat people and started discussing the similarities between cats and the baby raccoons that we were holding.
After my girl finished eating, I made notes on her chart of the date and amount of food she had eaten versus what she was given. She had eaten all of it.
Then Caitlin showed me how to ‘potty’ the babies, which is something that raccoon and cat mothers have in common. The mothers use their tongues to lick their babies ‘potty area’ to stimulate them to go to the bathroom. We simulated this by using warm diaper wipes and holding their little bodies over the trash can as we rubbed in a circle, trying to get them to go potty.
We continued this cycle of feeding and pottying each raccoon while cleaning out the dirty towels, hammocks, blankets, and plastic baby toys from their cages.
There’s a white fawn named Rebecca in room 3. She has the skinniest, tiniest body I have ever seen. Her little legs are still learning how to move and support her body at the same time. She also had to be fed from a baby bottle, but hers was much larger than the raccoons. Rebecca is very skittish, and to make matters worse, her big ears hear the smallest of sounds, and the louder sounds really give her a fright.
Unfortunately, her roommate is a very noisy otter named Cora, who screams whenever you peer over the side of his crate.
At the end of my shift, I went back to the baby raccoons and sat on the floor next to the oldest group. The oldest raccoons are still only 5 weeks old, but they are much bigger and more playful. They throw their bodies around the cage, playing with balls and running into one another. They swing in their hammocks and bite the ears and stomachs of their brothers and sisters to get them to play around, too.
I put my finger at the edge of the cage where the door unlocks, and they all stuck their paws out to grab my finger with their tiny hands. The group from the next cage over did the same, and I had 8 baby raccoons grabbing for my finger at the same time.
The rescue I volunteer at mainly accepts orphaned baby wildlife.
Their parents may have been hit by cars, they may have fallen out of their mother’s pouches, or some other stressful event happened that resulted in their parents abandoning them. On rare occasions, the director of the rescue will accept adult animals that have been injured, like the opossum in the back fenced area that is recovering from being hit by a car. But the adults are harder to care for, especially if they require surgery because the stress of the surgery alone can be enough to kill them.
It is traumatic for the wildlife and for the vets that have to operate on them, only to see them die. That’s why the rescue focuses on orphaned baby wildlife because they can be cared for until they are strong enough to be released into the wild.
When the babies grow up, they will relearn their instinctual habit to be afraid of humans. This is a good thing because once they are strong enough to be released back into the wild, they’ll have to make it on their own.
Humans can’t be trusted to care about other species. This wildlife rescue center is an anomaly in a world where humans generally care about themselves, and only themselves. Maybe that care is extended to family and close friends. Maybe that care is spread to people who look, think, and act like them. We can come together in mass to care about the whole of our species for a short burst of time, but then the factions start separating and drawing their swords, and we are left on our own again.
If you have any questions about volunteering at a wildlife rescue, let me know in the comments and I will answer them for you!
For more information about the Savannah Wildlife Rescue Center and to make a donation, visit www.savwildliferescue.com.
NOTE: All photos used in the this article are from the Savannah Wildlife Rescue Center facebook page. I am not allowed to photograph the animals while volunteering at the rescue per the state of Georgia health department codes.