Joining The Self-Releasers

After five years at the front desk, it is time for me to go. In my leaving, I join a special league of critters from the Wildlife Center whom have opted to leave us -- not from good health (the front door), not through death (the back door), but through a side door (when we are not looking). These are the cadre of “self-releasers.”

Yep, some of our patients just get away from us. If they had thumbs, they’d be thumbing their noses at us. Or worse. I’m sure animals who come here do not see us as a hospital, but instead as a prison. And since every wild animal worth its salt is an expert on getting away from predators, they are pretty darn skilled at getting away from us, too. Escape is basically their main job. So they are very good at it.

A little research in our medical records tells me that of the 15,061 patients that we have had in my time at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, 55 of them opted to check out of the hotel early. They slipped our grip, or found a weakness in our caging and they exploited it. They did not look back. If they were strong and fast enough to escape, perhaps they were well enough to make it on their own at home in the wild. We have to hope so. We wish them well.

A few patients, however, make their break but don’t succeed. We manage to recapture them. These are the SRWB’s— Self-Releaser Wanna Be’s. I have a few favorite stories of these patients.

Early in my WCV career, Dr. Miranda—remember her? -- warned me of a red fox that was loose in the hospital. No one knew where it was until someone spied a thick bushy red tail with a white tip hanging down out of the tool cart in the treatment room. Nice try, Mr. Fox. But … Fail.

Then the Center went through a few weeks of bi-weekly Albus escapes. Staff would start the day off with a cup of coffee and a search of the library bookshelves to find our education snake. Good try, Albus. Fail.

This year, Mink #16-0073 managed to get out of its enclosure overnight. When the students came in next morning, they encountered their unbound patient sitting on the shelves above his enclosure in hold. Fail.

During the past few years, I have gotten pretty good at interpreting the notes the vets write in the medical record. I’ve added my italicized interpretations below to help you understand the vet-speak about Minky:

“Patient is biting and tugging on “Bite Buster” gloves. A second glove was used to move mink’s attention away from the staff restrainer (whom it would like to kill). Patient is very agile and avoiding restraint well (that is, he got loose three or four times). Had to use a net to limit movements in order to adequately restrain the animal safely (it was either that or start huge dose of tranquilizer for the mink and a round of drinks for the staff).

In another case this year, our education screechy owl Pignoli gave staff as scare when she unexpectedly had some seizures. She was readmitted to the hospital for treatment. At the end of her work shift, Dr. Helen went in to check on Pig one last time before turning in for the night and noticed that Pig’s chick dinner -- which had been carefully laid out on her perch so she could easily find it — had fallen off the perch. Helen wrote in an email to all staff:

“Just about to leave work and went to check on Pig. She had knocked her chick off her perch so I opened up her oxygen cage ... and she … promptly flew out. Little turd. Guess someone must be feeling better...”

When an animal comes into the Center, part of my job as the front-desk coordinator is to take the animal to the hospital and transfer it from the container it was brought in into one of our crates. I get the animal situated to wait until the vet staff can do their exam. We have a special room for transferring animals from one crate to another so if they escape, they are contained until we can catch them again. We call it a “waiting room,” but is really just a closet with heated shelves that are stacked with crates and containers that hold new patients quietly in a dark, low-stress environment while they wait for the vet.

With an escapee on the lam, however, there is nothing quiet or low stress about me waving a net around in a closet that I can barely turn around in while the critter jumps from shelf to shelf and dodges behind crates and between my feet. I clunk around, mutter-cursing trying to find the patient with my thick ”Bite Buster” gloves on making it nearly impossible for me finesse anything.

I’m so eternally grateful there is no cam in the waiting room.

I have certain animals I hate to handle the most. Chipmunks and flying squirrels are quite high on my list because they are SO FAST. I’ve never really seen one—just a blur really. Regular adult squirrels too, because I figure they are always going to either get away from me, bite me, but probably both. Oh yeah, adult mice, too. Super-fast, but at least they are not professional nut crackers, like the squirrels.

Have I told the story of the escapee chipmunk? It leapt out of the box as I tried to pick it up to transfer it to one of our holding containers. Aerobic exercise, net flailing, and cursing ensued, pretty much as I expected. The chippy ran up my leg under my dress, out the neck of my shirt, jumped to my shoulder before launching a spirited flight to the top shelf where I managed to throw a hand towel over him and scooped him up without hurting him with my stop-a-bullet Kevlar gloves. He wasn’t even out of breath.

Later in the day, I casually asked the vet what she had found on exam of that chipmunk. “It seemed totally healthy and had ‘good energy!'" she replied. My exam had revealed the same conclusion.

Another one of my “I’m a professional, don’t try this at home “ moments occurred when a family brought in an injured frog. Someone had just mopped the lobby floor so it was wet. I don’t remember how the frog got loose in the lobby, but the next thing I remember is that I am on the floor, in what I came to perceive as a too-short skirt for what I was doing. I was on my hands and knees rolling around trying to catch— but not squish— the frog who kept squirting out of my hands all over the lobby. After an interminable time, I caught it and stood up, a satisfied smile on my face. But the whole family— parents and three kids— stood in a ring around me around me and every single one of them had a look on their face that I interpreted as incredulous, dubious horror. They each looked embarrassed for me. I, however, was not embarrassed . I was proud that I HAD CAUGHT THE FROG! High five.

So that rounds out just a few memories I have of handling misadventures you don’t often read about on our website.

This weekend, I finish up my five years at the front desk of the Center and “self-release” onto new pursuits. I now join the cadre of self-releasers I have come to know and admire. Unlike most of them, I may visit back here from time to time because I actually like the place. With gratitude to all, I take my exit now out the side door.

Self-Released Front-Desk Coordinator