© 2020 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science, Environment

Wildlife Rescuers Scramble To Care For Baby Animals During Pandemic

Wildlife Rescue Center intern Katelyn Milbrandt feeds an orphaned Virginia possum. Wildlife rescuers in St. Louis have had to overhaul their work routines due to the pandemic during their busiest time of year.
Wildlife Rescue Center
Wildlife Rescue Center intern Katelyn Milbrandt feeds an orphaned Virginia opossum. Wildlife rescuers in St. Louis have had to overhaul their work routines due to the pandemic during their busiest time of year.

For Joe Hoffmann, spring is like the dinner rush at a restaurant. 

But instead of customers, there are rows of hungry baby birds, demanding to be fed.

“It’s just crazy,” said Hoffmann, executive director of Wild Bird Rehabilitation in Overland. “We're working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, constantly feeding them.”

Wildlife rescuers in St. Louis are gearing up for the springtime influx of orphaned animals, as baby birds, squirrels and rabbits begin arriving in droves. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing organizations to make major changes to keep staff and volunteers from getting sick.

Orphaned baby birds need to be fed constantly, sometimes every 10 minutes, to mimic how their parents would have cared for them in the wild.
Wild Bird Rehabilitation

Wild Bird Rehabilitation cares for more than 2,000 songbirds each year, eventually releasing them back into the wild. Spring and early summer, known in the rescue world as “baby season,” bring hundreds of orphaned birds, including dime-size baby hummingbirds that need to be fed every 10 minutes.

Normally, dozens of volunteers help care for the birds — but about two months ago, Hoffmann said they cut the in-house operation down to a core group of five staff members.

“We didn't want to endanger any volunteers,” Hoffmann said. “We went from always focusing on the individual birds and being a service to the public to making plans for the organization's survival.”

Volunteers are still helping from afar, answering phones and caring for some baby birds in their homes. Native bird species must remain at the facility due to permitting rules, but mourning doves and other non-native birds can be raised at home by trained volunteers.

Volunteers with Wild Bird Rehabilitators have been raising non-native baby birds, like this sparrow, in their homes to ease the burden on shelter staff. The facility is now operating with a core group of five staff members.
Wild Bird Rehabilitation

But baby birds aren’t the only animals arriving on the doorsteps of wildlife rehabilitators this time of year. 

In Ballwin, volunteers and staff at the Wildlife Rescue Center care for hundreds of tiny cottontail rabbits, opossums and squirrels every spring. 

It’s the “pinnacle of organized chaos,” said Kim Rutledge, the center’s executive director — adding that it made it especially challenging to rewrite all of their routines given the worsening outbreak. 

“It was disorienting, realizing that we were going to have to go through all of this literally leading up to the busiest time of year,” Rutledge said. 

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Wildlife Rescue Center, making up about 95% of its workforce. Last month, volunteers began working together in small teams, covering non-overlapping shifts, while caring for the more than 200 animals at the shelter.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Center intern Skylar Christensen feeds a baby Eastern gray squirrel. The center cares for hundreds of baby squirrels every year, eventually releasing them back into the wild.
Wildlife Rescue Center

Others are mixing up batches of animal chow at home or coordinating “contactless” animal drop offs in the lobby.

“We're used to dealing with limited resources and making the most of things,” Rutledge said, “but there's definitely never been a time when we’ve had to deal with anything like this before.”

Not every baby animal needs to be rescued, she said, even if it’s found alone. Some species, like deer and rabbits, will leave their babies in a safe, quiet spot for hours and only return a few times a day.

“When we have people call us, a lot of times, they're situations that could have been prevented,” Rutledge said. “We definitely don't want to be removing any healthy animals from the wild ever — but especially right now.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Our priority is you. Support coverage that’s reliable, trustworthy and more essential than ever. Donate today.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.