Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Spring Brings Patients to the Wildlife Medical Clinic

Pet Column for the week of March 26, 2007

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

When my beagle and I go outside, the air smells sweet, the birds are singing--and Chief finds plenty of rabbits to chase as the squirrels cheer him on. It is official: spring has arrived.

With spring comes the re-emergence of the wildlife that was out of sight during the colder months. At the Wildlife Medical Clinic of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, the busy season has arrived.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic is a volunteer-run service that provides medical care for ill or injured wildlife, from coyotes to turtles to robins. The goal is to enable these patients to return to the wild. During the spring and early summer months the clinic is inundated with animals brought in by well-meaning people who believe them to be orphaned or abandoned by their parents. In most cases, these baby birds and bunnies were probably not actually in danger.

"The problem that we have in the spring is that people come across nests and are worried that the parents are not properly caring for their babies, when in fact they are--just not when we are looking. On many occasions we will have babies brought to us that are warm, have full bellies, and have been well taken care of by their parents," says Stacy Burdick, a second-year veterinary student who serves as co-manager of the Wildlife Medical Clinic.

Bringing healthy wild babies to the clinic actually greatly reduces their chance of survival. Wild animals, especially infants, are stressed easily when taken out of their natural environment. So unless you notice that the animal is injured, is cold to the touch, or seems listless or lethargic, it is important to leave it alone. If you are unsure whether an animal should be brought in, the best thing that you can do is call the clinic at 217-244-1195 and a staff member can advise you based on the situation.

If you find a baby bird or squirrel on the ground that is clearly not injured, Burdick advises that you try to find the nest and put the baby back inside. "If that's not possible because the nest is out of reach, the next best solution is to put drainage holes in the bottom of a small plastic container, then line it with grass and leaves. Place the baby in the container and hang it from the highest point of the tree you can reach," she says.

"The mother should continue to care for the infants despite the relocation. Monitor the new nest from a distance, if the baby looks like it hasn't been fed or it's cold, then it truly has been orphaned," says Burdick. An abandoned baby should be brought to the clinic for care.

Volunteers at the Wildlife Medical Clinic must try to avoid having their wild patients imprint on the human caregivers. This is especially a problem with wild babies.

"It may seem cute to have a coyote pup barking for attention or food in the clinic, but if that animal cannot be broken of this habit, it cannot be safely released into the wild," explains Burdick.
The clinic's patients must be fully functional in order for them to be returned to the wild. Whereas dogs, cats, or other companion animals can lead happy lives with some disabilities, such as the loss of a limb or impaired vision, a wild animal must be able to function completely in its environment if it is to survive.

"Unfortunately many of the animals that are brought to us do not survive. We don't try to prolong an animal's suffering just to keep it alive. We cannot save every animal that comes in," explains Burdick.

"Animals that are non-releasable, that are calm around humans, and that are not in pain are considered for relocation to area zoos and wildlife refuge centers, as well as for use in public education programs," says Burdick. "We currently have licenses to keep four birds of prey for use in public education to raise awareness about local wildlife."

Other aspects of the mission of the Wildlife Medical Clinic include giving veterinary students hands-on experience in patient diagnosis and care and educating the public about issues of conservation.
The Wildlife Medical Clinic sees an average of 2,500 patients a year. Approximately 100 veterinary and undergraduate students volunteer their time and expertise to operate the clinic, under the supervision of an experienced veterinarian, Dr. Julie Whittington, who serves as the medical director.

The clinic is a non-profit organization supported entirely by donations and grants. The clinic's largest annual fundraiser "Doodle for Wildlife" will be held April 21 and all proceeds will go toward supporting the Wildlife Medical Clinic and its unique patients.

To learn more about the Wildlife Medical Clinic, the "Doodle for Wildlife," or to contact clinic staff with wildlife questions, visit the Web site at