Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Saving wildlife one animal at a time

Wildlife rehabilitator Kristen Fletcher’s grocery list is far from typical. She spends about $7,000 each year buying insects to feed the birds and bats she often cares for, and her freezer usually holds several bags of frozen mice. When an injured crow is delivered to her home for care, it’s not uncommon for her to prepare the bird a delicious meal of scrambled eggs and mice, with a side order of chopped grapes, blueberries and dry cat food.
            “They need to eat,” she said. “They’re already freaked out by being in somebody’s house. You need to offer them as much food as they would want, a menu they would choose themselves if they could.”
            A Portsmouth resident, Fletcher has been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for more than 20 years and the executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island since 2003. A self-described “animal person,” she became interested in caring for wildlife when her children brought home a baby squirrel knocked out of a tree during a hurricane.
            “It was difficult to find the right information on how to raise him properly, and I didn’t
Baby squirrels being rehabilitated (WRARI)
know there was an organization for this kind of thing back then,” Fletcher said. “I managed to raise that squirrel and release him, and I felt pretty good about it. But I also knew I didn’t do it the best way.”
            So she enrolled in a class offered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to become a wildlife rehabilitator. After working with a mentor for more than a year and later taking additional training classes, she achieved the highest level of licensing available in the state. She is now qualified to care for any animal that shows up on her doorstep, from rabbits and turtles to gulls and snakes, and everything in between.
She almost always has a bevy of birds of many species in cages in her daughter’s former bedroom or in a large aviary in her backyard, and she has several playpens that serve as hospital beds for injured or orphaned mammals and larger birds. Fletcher is also the only rehabilitator in the state that cares for injured bats. She rears 20 to 30 bats each year, and when they are healthy enough to test out their wings before being released, she sets up a specially-made flight cage in her garage.
“You have to come up with the best set-up for whatever the particular patient is,” she said. “A couple years ago I got a surf scoter [a duck] that was very stressed. During the day, I kept him in a soft-sided container, but to let him swim, I put my husband’s inflatable boat in the garage and filled it with water.”
Fletcher said she has a “caregiver personality,” so her goal is to make every animal as comfortable as possible while she corrects whatever problem it is facing. And then she releases it back into the wild.
“It can be hard to release an animal you’ve spent a long time caring for,” she said. “As I release them, I’ve taken to telling them ‘be safe,’ because it’s not an easy life for a wild animal out there. The odds of them getting hit by a car or dragged in by a cat or having their nest tree cut down is pretty high.
“But it’s an honor to provide care for them and get them back into the environment,” Fletcher added. “These are not animals that people typically have close contact with. I try to fix whatever is wrong with them and get them back out there again.”
Unfortunately, only about half of the animals that find their way to Fletcher or other wildlife rehabilitators in Rhode Island survive. That’s a common ratio among rehabilitators nationwide. Often she must euthanize an animal that is injured too severely.
“Sometimes it’s a clear decision because of the trauma they have, but even then it’s still not easy,” she said. “It’s never a happy decision. But it’s another form of release. It’s not my preferred form of release, but it’s a release from suffering.”
The work of wildlife rehabilitators is seemingly never finished. Fletcher has missed family funerals, weddings, parties and other important events because she often has baby birds in her house that require feeding every 15 minutes.
“You can’t leave them,” she said. “So life gets put on hold. It takes a crazy commitment to do what we do on the scale that we do.”
And for Fletcher, the time commitment is even greater. She quit her full-time job managing a group home to accept the volunteer position as director of the rehabilitators association. She is responsible for fundraising, recruiting and training new rehabilitators, and overseeing the operation of the clinic in North Kingstown where injured animals get veterinary care before being transferred to rehabilitators for long-term care. And when the clinic closes at 4 p.m., Fletcher answers all of the calls from people who find injured animals.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and it’s going to shorten my life for sure,” she said.
But she also has no plans to stop. There is a nationwide need for more wildlife rehabilitators because so many animals have unfortunate run-ins with humans and their pets. About 5,000 animals are cared for by rehabilitators in Rhode Island every year – mostly squirrels, rabbits and songbirds. About 60 people enroll in the initial training course each year, but once they realize the time commitment involved, only about one or two become licensed.
Several wildlife rehabilitators live in Newport County. Two women in Jamestown focus on rabbits, squirrels and opossums, a couple in Little Compton cares for rabbits, and another in Tiverton specializes in waterfowl. The newest member of the group, Jody Giddings, will soon open Wild Newport, to rehabilitate animals in Middletown.
If you find an injured or orphaned animal on Aquidneck Island, call Fletcher at 401-465-2460.

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Newport Life magazine.

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