Born to Be Wild

All eyes are on Sheldon, a box turtle.

All eyes are on Sheldon, a box turtle. (Photos by A. Rooney)

Rehabber helps animals prepare for return home

Responding to an opening question from a child during an appearance Oct. 7 at the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison, Maggie Ciarcia-Belloni, a wildlife rehabilitator for 27 years, replied: “I’ve never rehabbed an octopus.” 

She has, however, aided many creatures in their return to the wild, some on the spot, others after months. To illustrate her presentation, Ciarcia-Belloni brought along an eastern box turtle and an opossum, which is her specialty, although she also focuses on smaller mammals, particularly squirrels, and game birds.

Her pursuit began decades ago after a bird flew into a sliding glass door at her home. “I did everything wrong,” she recalled. “I tried to feed it and put it in a birdcage. People instinctively are nurturing and want to feed, but they shouldn’t.” Instead, keep it warm, dark and quiet. “Don’t try to get it to drink. Get the animal safe, in a box, then call a rehabber.”

Ciarcia-Belloni found a rehabber who explained to her all that goes into getting licensed by the state. There’s a 100-question test, letters of reference and mandatory training — all done online now. You also must be at least 16 years old.

The New York State Wildlife Rehabilitation Council defines wildlife rehabilitation as “providing aid to injured, orphaned, displaced or distressed wild animals in such a way that they may survive when released to their native habitats. It’s part science, part caregiving.”

Ciarcia-Belloni provided scenarios: An animal might be “trapped in a chimney, hit by a car, caught in a disaster, caught up in a lawn mower, or the victim of human bad behavior.” Sometimes it’s inadvertent; for example, if a tree is cut down that has a hidden bird’s nest.

Another kid question: “Do you rehab bugs?” Answer: “No.”

Ciarcia-Belloni dispelled common misperceptions: “You don’t have to rehab every animal you get a call for. In the beginning, I did mink, foxes, chipmunks and a wider range of birds, occasionally. I even had a bobcat. I don’t do turtles or birds of prey. I’d rather fix teeth than talons.

“Rehabbing an animal is not the same as raising them, though you do get close,” she added. “They need to learn to not approach predators. Don’t put a squirrel in with a cat or a dog. I borrow squirrels so it has one of its own to be raised with. Sometimes where they came from is bad — predators, construction, lost habitat. We try to replicate their habitat.”

If releasing the animal into the wild is not feasible because of injury or other conditions, rehabbers attempt to place them with a nature center. In some cases, euthanasia is the most humane option.

The guests, Sheldon the turtle and Oh Boy, the opossum, then made appearances. An eastern box turtle only goes into water to drink, Ciarcia-Belloni explained, and they are programmed from birth to know where they came from and can make their way back there. 

Problems ensue when someone takes one into their home and effectively erases the ability for the turtle to find its way home. This is what happened to Sheldon, who now serves as an “education turtle.” 

Sheldon is a spritely 35 years old. “They tell that by the shell,” Ciarcia-Belloni says. Because he’s male, he has red eyes (females have brown eyes). The turtle is “quite active, has strong feet, and loves slugs and tomatoes,” she said.

Out came the opossum, the only North American marsupial, or pouched mammal. Oh Boy has a sister who lives at Green Chimneys Farm & Wildlife Center in Brewster; they survived a road accident last year that killed their mother. 

Maggie Ciarcia-Belloni, a wildlife rehabilitator, gives Oh Boy a treat.

Maggie Ciarcia-Belloni, a wildlife rehabilitator, gives Oh Boy a treat.

“Opossums have bad eyesight, good teeth, soft fur and an excellent sense of smell,” Ciarcia-Belloni said. “They have lots of upper body strength and can climb trees, and use their tail as a fifth hand. They have 50 teeth, which is more than any other mammal. They come out at night to look for food. They are omnivores and eat everything — nature’s little sanitation truck.” (Favorites for Oh Boy include salmon, apples, broccoli and bok choy.) 

“They’re prone to frostbite in the winter, and use their tail to carry leaves and to make a leaf nest,” she said. “Also, they snore. Oh Boy and his fellow opossums live in a three-tiered ferret cage, in which they can walk around and explore. The females have a pouch. In the wild, they are fed milk, then ride around on their mother’s back.”

The expression “playing possum” is a description of their defense system. When threatened, they involuntarily play dead, with eyes shut, lying motionless for as long as six hours. Despite this, they have a short life span, just two years in the wild. There are many predators, or they get hit by cars, or they succumb to heart problems (cardiomyopathy). 

Opossums are the lowest on the rabies vector scale, meaning a human can get bitten and not die, Ciarcia-Belloni. And — drumroll, please — an opossum can eat 3,000 to 5,000 ticks in a year. They also eat mice or rodents. “They open their mouth, show their teeth and drool, which makes them look like a rabid animal,” she said.

Ciarcia-Belloni has three baby opossums at home. At 125 grams, they’re too small to go out until spring. She feeds them all kinds of things they might find in the wild, as well as milk replacement made by Fox Valley Animal Nutrition.

She tries to avoid baby-talk with her charges, though she does play rain sounds and cricket chirps, the same sounds they will hear when released. 

Ciarcia-Belloni is retired from a corporate job, which was a challenge because it takes her three hours a day to clean the cages and make the formula. “I did have an awesome boss,” she said with a laugh, which was fortunate as “birds fledged and flew around my office.”

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