Injured wildlife are not the most cooperative of patients. Most think we’re trying to eat them, not help them, and react accordingly.
Wildlife rehabilitators have an arsenal of equipment and techniques we use to protect ourselves. Gloves (some lined with Kevlar), goggles, facemasks, helmets, body padding, nets, poles … the list goes on. In a perfect world, we’d capture our target without breaking a sweat, transfer it safely to a crate, take care of its injuries without mishap, and have our feet up in time for cocktail hour. But life is not perfect.
“I had a Pileated Woodpecker who used to jab at my hand whenever I needed to rewrap her bandages,” says Maureen Eiger, providing a perfect example of a single rehabber struggling to hold and wrap at the same time. “Finally I got some fingerless padded baseball gloves.”
“I was bitten by a juvenile Masked Booby,” says Michele Walker-Harmon. “I was working at the Coastal Wildlife Rescue Center here in Alabama, and he had either been blown in during a storm or caught a ride on a ship. We were working on his enclosure when he sliced my arm with his serrated bill! No need for stitches, but it took awhile to heal.”
“I was bitten by a Ring-billed Gull, and it got infected,” said Donna Nespoli. “And I was pecked in the eye by my pet chicken, does that count?”
“I went into a cage of young Great Horned Owls one night carrying thawed rats,” said Linda Hufford. “I stepped in without looking down first, and saw a snake where my foot was going. When I threw my arms out for balance it apparently set off a life-like movement of rats, which one of the GHOs couldn’t resist. She struck me behind my head, and one of her talons slid off my glasses and stabbed my eyelid. Seriously painful, but no permanent injuries. I regularly check for snakes before entering cages now! That particular one was just a hog nose, but we have rattlers, copperheads, moccasins, and corals. Even worse, we have… (shudder)… June bugs!”
“My parrots have nailed me harder than any wild bird,” said Jodi Swenson. “But I had an American Crow with injured feet who was a really cooperative patient, until one day she decided she’d had enough. She grabbed me by the septum, and it was eye-wateringly painful. I think when I howled it only made her squeeze harder in pure revenge joy.”
“Here’s a photo of me after a Cooper’s Hawk decided it was time to leave the crate,” said LouAnn Partington. “One talon really close to the eye, and a scratch on the forehead.”
“Mine was the Red-tailed Hawk we called Rasberry, because my husband said I should just give her some raspberry kisses,” says Lisa Beth Acton. “Yeah right! She had bumble foot, and she was fast and angry. We felt so bad for her. She footed me several times, even through a glove. She left her mark.”
“A Bald Eagle took a chunk out of my jaw,” said Vonda Lee Morton. “I knew he was going to be trouble. I was wearing the lead x-ray apron and heavy raptor gloves, so I thought I was protected. But he was out for blood, so he whipped his head around. My vets wanted to send me to the ER immediately, but I said ‘Forget it, I’ve got the damned bird restrained so I’m not letting go now!’ I told them to clean it with an alcohol wipe and push it back into place with a Band-Aid. Healed nicely, with only a small scar to show after the bruising and swelling went down. And the eagle was released a few months later!”
“Red-tailed Hawk put a talon through the meaty part of my thumb,” said Michelle Wellard. “All the way through – and a brand-new volunteer had to pull it out! Right now I have a nice hickey on my arm from a Canada Goose. Good thing he didn’t get me on the neck, or I’d have some explaining to do.”
“Years ago I was handling a Barred Owl without gloves (I’ve since learned my lesson), my attention slipped, and one of his talons went through the webbing between my second and third finger,” said Tracy Anderson. “It didn’t really hurt until my co-worker pried him off and the talon came out of the hole. When I flushed it out, it was as close to fainting as I’ve ever come. Another time I was wearing gloves, just as I should have been, and an adult raccoon bit through them and took a divot out of my middle finger. I had to drive through town with my middle finger stuck up and wrapped, en route to stitches in the ER.”
“Turkey Vulture ripped a flap off my lip,” said Sharron Montgomery, showing what a ‘stiff upper lip’ means to a rehabber. “It took seven sutures to put it back on.”
“I had a Red-tailed Hawk attached to my face,” said Eileen Hagerman. “I was new, and not prepared. He got me in the upper lip and under the chin. Luckily for me someone was there to help remove the talons, and someone else to hold each talon as it was removed so it didn’t happen again. Still, not as bad as my Red-eared Slider, who nailed me when we were removing her shell wrap after a car hit her. Turtle bites hurt!”
“I had a Red-tailed Hawk attached my hand for almost an hour before she let me go,” said Letitia Labbie. “I was by myself, and I removed a glove to give her a shot. I gave her one shot, she gave me four. LOL!”
“I went into my flight cage to feed a Red-shouldered Hawk,” said Elizabeth Eschete. “As I was leaving he came flying after me and touched down on my head. Nothing hurt but my feelings. They don’t love us like we love them, right? And speaking of learning lessons, I won’t be sticking un-gloved hands into a Screech Owl cage ever again. How can something so small hurt so dang much?”
“I was trying to give a Brown Pelican subcutaneous fluids with a 60 cc syringe and an 18 gauge needle by myself,” says Stephanie Whitbeck Kadletz. “I had been doing it for two days because he had botulism. Needless to say the pelican jerked and the needle went straight through my thumb and stuck out the other side. Did I mention I was seven months pregnant?”
“I’ve been working with eagles and raptors for over 40 years,” says Marge Gibson. “And the only scar I have is from a Double-crested Cormorant who turned his head and bit my wrist when I released him.”
“Most of mine are small mammals,” said Denise Hunter. “But there was a Northern Cardinal who bit and held on, seriously, that hurt. He knew right where to bite, too – the skin between the thumb and first finger. I laugh about it now, but then I laugh about all the car wrecks I’ve been in.”
On to the micro-dragons: songbirds. “I swear, some of them are like crocodiles wearing feathers,” said Debbie Lefebre.
“I was in the aviary feeding a fledgling Black Phoebe,” said Veronica Bowers. “She was VERY excited about mealtime and flew toward me to get the mealworm on the hemostats I was holding in the air. She missed her mark, landed on my face, and gave me me a good scratch on my right eyelid – ferocious little flycatcher!”
“How about trying to catch five fledgling Eastern Phoebes who are circling your head like little parachutes, then having one perch on your lower eyelid with her hallux (backwards facing toe) locked?” asked Johanna Walton. “My ophthalmologist said it was one of his ‘top three professional lifetime bizarre stories.’ I wonder what the other two were?”
“My worst bite was from a baby bobcat,” says Geri Wynn. “It was playing with a cat toy and managed to get a string wrapped around its foot, and when I went to untangle him he went into crazy attack mode and bit my wrist above the glove. He must’ve hit an artery because blood started spurting, but finally it clotted. It was swollen and sore for two weeks.”
This photo may look like the work of a baby bobcat, but actually it was one of two squirrels Kim Cassidy overwintered. “He was fine, then one day I was walking past him and he jumped on my shoulder and started biting me,” she said. “I threw him off and ran for a broom. From then on any time I came near him, his ears would flatten. He was released, by the way.”
“I was sprayed in the face by a hose-wielding snapping turtle,” said Lisa Kelly. “My pride was hurt and I was soggy, but no scar to show.”
And Monte Merrick gets the last word. “A Great Horned Owl taloned me through my left palm on Christmas Day, 2000,” he said. “I thought it would have been funnier on Easter, but the owl was like, ‘This #@%* is always funny.’”
First and second photos by Maureen Eiger; third by LouAnn Partington; fourth by Sharron Montgomery; last by Kim Cassidy.
You all are saints and no amount of praise is enough for the amazing and lifesaving work you do at great personal risk. Thank you so much for persevering and helping injured and ill critters!
Thank you, Meredith!
Wow, I never thought about that. Thank you all for all your important (and dangerous!) work.
What amazing love stories! The fact that you all keep doing this work is incredible and a testament to your dedication. Stay safe, the wildlife and us humans need you!
Thanks, Karen! Love that you call them love stories.