People often ask “Can I be a wildlife rehabilitator?” The short answer is “Yes, with some hard work”. There is a very specific process to become a wildlife rehabilitator in Massachusetts. Most interested people first take a course on rehabilitation that usually is about 20 hours of instruction and costs around $400. New England Wildlife Centers in Weymouth and Barnstable offer these courses in Spring and Fall. You can follow them on Facebook to see when the course is being offered next. This covers all species of wildlife and includes animal husbandry, illnesses, injuries, medication, natural habitats, rehabilitation rules and regulations and permitting. It helps you prepare for the exam that must be passed prior to being a rehabilitator. These exams are given by the Massachusetts Dept of Fish and Wildlife on a regular basis. There is a small fee to take the exam. Once you pass the exam you are permitted to care for most mammals, reptiles, and non-migratory birds , of which there only 8 species in Massachusetts. To care for any other birds that are migratory, you need to then apply for and obtain a federal permit.
That covers the nuts and bolts of how the process works to become a rehabilitator. What is equally as important is to find out if this is a good choice for you. Almost everybody starts with “I love animals”. It is important to have a deep passion and respect for all wildlife in order to be a successful rehabber. Many think that rehabbing involves a lot of cuddling with cute babies. This is far from the truth. There are cute babies but they don’t get cuddles or any handling unless they are being fed or having a necessary treatment. The main goal is to keep them as wild as possible and not habituate them to humans. It is a hard urge to resist but critical if that animal is to be successful in the wild. There must be a place in your home specifically set aside for animals you are rehabbing that is away from living spaces and people and pets. Setting up this space can be costly. An incubator may be needed along with other sizes cages and enclosures, special formulas and feeding syringes, linens, scales etc. A wildlife veterinarian will have to be contacted to be your vet of record to help you with all medical decisions. With so many different wildlife species, many licensed rehabbers choose a specific species to work with. Working with any mammals that may carry rabies comes with extra precautions.
You must be rabies vaccinated, and must keep these species isolated from all others, including their supplies. Birds need a type of aviary they can learn to fly in. Baby birds need to be fed about every 20” during the day. Many species of orphaned mammals may need to be fed every 2-3 hours round the clock when they are young. It is a very labor intensive process. Reptiles require aquarium tanks, lights and special diets. Before you decide on what you want to rehab, you want to make sure to do your research. Large mammals will eventually need large outside enclosures, and sometimes neighbors may not be on board with it. Different orphan species require different time commitments. Large mammals are with you for 5-6 months, birds usually only 5 weeks, bunnies 4-5 weeks, reptiles take a very long time to heal and can only be released when the weather is warm enough.
It is important to remember rehabbing can take a toll emotionally, and can result in compassion fatigue. By the time most injured and orphaned wildlife is found and captured, they are typically, already in a critical state. Losing animals is heart wrenching and can lead to self-doubt and guilt. It is also important to remember to know your limits and set boundaries, both for yourself and the animals that you already have in care. It’s always hard turning down an animal that needs help. This year there are many animals in need, and rehabbers have quickly filled up and are unable to take all the cottontails, squirrels, birds and raccoons that have needed placement. This is why there is such a need for more qualified, licensed rehabbers.
Being a wildlife rehabber is an incredibly rewarding experience, but during baby season (March-September) it is a full time commitment. Most rehabbers have other jobs and families, and it can be a lot to juggle. As a rehabber, you will have to not only help animals, but people as well. Since you are publicly listed as a rehabber, you may be contacted both night and day. You will deal with people who are angry, who are crying, and who are demanding. You need to help the first to be able to help the animal. Rehabbers should have a support system in place: your vet of record, other rehabbers to talk to, the Wildlife Rehabilitators of Massachusetts (WRAM) are all good. WRAM can also help you with getting the continuing education credits you need to keep your license up to date.
If you think being a rehabilitator is a good choice for you, please pursue it. Each year there are more animals that need help and not enough rehabbers and wildlife hospitals. Working with wildlife is truly a privilege but you need to be able to make difficult decisions at times, and always put the animal’s quality of life first. The goal above all others is to get them back in the wild; being able to hunt for food, find a mate and raise families, find shelter and to be wary of humans. When you finally get to release an animal you saved by raising it, and it runs away from you to be in the wild, the feeling is magical.
To learn more about the Cape Wildlife Center or help in their mission,
visit www.capewildlifecenter.com or call 508 362-0111.
Caryn Ritchie is the volunteer coordinator for the Cape Wildlife Center and holds both a Massachusetts wildlife rehabilitator’s license and a federal permit to rehabilitate migratory birds.