Why You Should Never Attempt to Keep Wildlife

January 27, 2022

A gopher tortoise and four raccoons were among the forty-nine animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include a northern gannet, a northern flicker, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a hooded merganser, a red rat snake and a big brown bat.

Karen Coney Coplin, a realtor with Downing-Frye Realty, Inc., called the von Arx Wildlife Hospital for assistance after finding a gopher tortoise in a bathtub at a property in Estero.

The tenants at the property were evicted three weeks prior, so the tortoise had been in the bathtub for at least three weeks with no food or water.

As a long-time supporter of the Conservancy, Karen knew the tortoise’s health was compromised after going so long with no food or water.

Upon admission, the tortoise was dull, dehydrated, not attempting to move and she was keeping her head tucked into her shell. There was an audible wheeze when the tortoise breathed. Radiographs were taken as part of the admissions process. Staff placed the tortoise in a large recovery space with a supplemental heat source for basking and a large, shallow water source to soak. The tortoise stayed in the soak for close to two hours before staff removed her from the soak, offered her a diet, and placed her at the edge of her basking light to rest for the night.

Recovery has been slow, but staff is monitoring every aspect of the tortoise’s behavior. The tortoise continues to spend a good deal of time in her daily soak; every day she is showing slight improvements in her health and behavior.

Gopher tortoises are a threatened species in Florida meaning tortoises, their eggs, and their burrows are protected under state law. It is illegal to capture or possess a gopher tortoise. The intentional cruelty and animal abuse this tortoise endured when the tenants abandoned her in the bathtub without food or water makes this case especially heinous.

Attempting to keep a wild animal as a pet typically dooms that animal to a life of stress and poor health. Wild animals do not do well in captive situations and the average person does not have the knowledge or ability to provide for a wild animal’s specific nutritional and husbandry needs. 

If you find an injured or orphaned animal you believe is in distress and needs help, contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitator. Professional wildlife rehabilitators have the skills and training necessary to analyze situations involving wildlife and can determine the appropriate course of action.

  • von Arx Wildlife Hospital is open 365 days a year, from 8 am – 8 pm. Call 239-262-2273 for assistance. Located at 1495 Smith Preserve Way.

Four Raccoon Kits Marked with Nail Polish

The details surrounding the litter of four raccoon kits prior to their admission to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital was unknown yet raised concerns.

The rescuer said he had seen the four babies in his yard the prior week. Then, the night before he brought them in, he saw the babies huddled behind his air conditioning unit. He placed the kits in a plastic storage bin to keep them from wandering off with the hope the mother raccoon would come to retrieve her babies. When the babies were still in the bin the following morning, he brought them to the wildlife hospital for care. 

Questions arose while performing physical exams on the kits; each kit’s ears were marked with nail polish in a way that would identify each one. One kit had nail polish on its left ear, one had its right ear marked, one had both ears marked and one had no marks. Obviously, someone marked each baby so they would know who was who; many rehabbers use a similar identification method when caring for a litter of baby animals that look identical. When asked, the rescuer had no idea why the kits’ ears were marked.

Four orphaned raccoons peer out from their recovery enclosure.

The raccoons were in poor condition. They were thin, pale, dehydrated and had obvious gastrointestinal upset; their feces was liquid mucous and discolored. They also had feces matted in their fur. Staff provided electrolytes and started all four kits on an antibiotic. Initially staff offered oral fluids and a dilute milk replacement formula specifically designed for raccoons – the babies had little to no interest. After several feedings were offered throughout the day and evening, the kits finally began to eagerly nurse. 

Each day the ratio of formula offered was slowly increased to avoid further GI issues. Constant monitoring was required to ensure all four babies were responding positively to the antibiotic and our treatment plan. The four raccoon kits finally gained weight and showed a noticeable improvement in their behavior after several days of intensive supportive care.

Please, never attempt to raise orphan wildlife. Inappropriate home care can have fatal consequences. Receiving inappropriate food and inappropriate amounts of food can be life threatening for an orphaned animal. If these orphaned raccoons hadn’t received professional medical attention for their gastrointestinal issues, they could have died. 

All wildlife, especially orphans, have specific dietary requirements needed to grow up healthy and strong. The average person has absolutely no idea what they are doing and information found on the internet is typically inaccurate.

Another concern in this situation is that raccoons, as well as several other species of wildlife, are high-risk rabies vector species meaning there is a risk that they can carry the rabies virus. Rabies is transmitted through a bite, scratch or open wound. There is a potential for exposure if proper protective equipment isn’t used when handling a rabies vector species. 

In a typical admit situation involving a rabies vector species, hospital staff would contact the Collier County Department of Health, so they could speak with the people involved to determine if there was any exposure through a possible bite, scratch or open wound. In this case, we don’t know who handled the baby raccoons; there is no way to ensure public safety.

If you find an animal in distress, call the wildlife hospital for guidance before taking action and always utilize protective equipment to ensure your safety.

Recent Releases

An Anhinga, a red-shouldered hawk, a blue jay, four grey squirrels and a burrowing owl were released this past week.

Opportunities to Help

Please visit our website to learn about the work done by staff and volunteers at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Get involved; your volunteer time, memberships and donations are vital and help us continue our work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future.

Joanna Fitzgerald is Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Call 239-262-2273 or see conservancy.org.