“I’ve seen them not using their hind end, going around in circles,” Hope Swinimer, founder of Hope for Wildlife, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates wildlife in the Nova Scotia. Swinimer was describing the way squirrels tend to behave after sustaining head trauma from collisions with vehicles or encounters with domestic cats.
“They become very passive, almost stuporous … So you can pick them up and do anything with them,” she continued. “If you’ve ever dealt with a wild squirrel, that’s not possible.”
In the last two months alone, three new squirrels have arrived at Swinimer’s rescue with head trauma.
“For all three, the doctor was almost ready to euthanize, because they really didn’t think the squirrels would recover, but we always try,” she said. And now? All three are flying around their units with full recoveries, and when the early spring comes along, they will be released back into the wild.
Every year Hope for Wildlife admits about 350 squirrels, and in the spring that often means baby squirrels, some as small as the one in this photo below.
“I know squirrels aren’t all that glamorous of an animal, but we love them,” said Swinimer. “I love them.”
It was that love for all animals that originally inspired Swinimer to found a wildlife rescue nearly two decades ago. A couple found an injured skunk by the side of the road and brought him to the Dartmouth Veterinary Hospital, where Swinimer had just started working as a manager.
Swinimer admitted the skunk, but there was one problem. “I didn’t realize that they had a no-skunk policy for obvious reasons,” she said. “So I brought him in, set him up and proceeded to ask the doctor to give him a physical exam and find out what was wrong with him.”
“Those were some smelly days,” Swinimer noted.
Zorro, as he was later named, was too injured to return to the wild, but he was still well enough to enjoy life at the rescue she then started. Under the care of the veterinarians through Hope for Wildlife, he ended up living more than 13 years.
Over the past two decades, Swinimer’s rescue has grown into quite the operation, serving roughly 3,500 patients each year. The animals who pass through the rescue stay for a few days or a few months, depending on their individual need. Most stay only about six weeks before they’re ready to return to the wild.
Open since 1997, Hope for Wildlife has continued to expand its operations. This year, they’ve added even more space, so animals such as squirrels, songbirds, crows, ravens and raptors will each have their own rooms, separated by species.
“We used to have a mammal room and a bird room,” she said. “But now we can even fine-tune it more, so it will help with disease, stress, noise levels, and cleanliness.”
They also created a space just for raccoons and another just for bobcats, filled with pine trees “to give them that woodsy feeling.”
“We just recently completed a beautiful 100-foot-long, 30-foot-tall bobcat unit with great climbing and trees and everything,” she said. “We have three bobcats in right now. They’re all babies from late summer, and they will be released as soon as there’s a better food supply out there.”
In addition to performing surgeries and providing medicine and space for animals to heal, Swinimer also spends time educating the public about the way people affect animals. According to Swinimer, human conflict is the cause of 95 percent of the injuries seen at Hope for Wildlife.
Hit by cars, tangled in the garbage, attacked by domestic cats — many of these conflicts can be prevented with a simple bit of education.
For example, one of the most common reactions people have to find a raccoon in their house is to live trap and relocate it — without knowing why the raccoon is there in the first place.
“The only reason a raccoon will go into your attic is to give birth, usually,” she said. “People get their live trap out, they trap the mom and they drive her way away. Then two to three days later they hear the little chirps of the starving babies.
“There are easy ways to get the mom to leave the attic with her babies, so it really is a matter of educating them how to do that without livetrapping,” she continued.
Despite her best efforts to raise awareness and treat the animals who come to the rescue, not every animal is able to survive.
Swinimer discussed a young seal named Valentine who passed away after being featured in a recent video.
“With Valentine, his case was really complicated — as you can imagine being tail-end run over by a car is not a good thing,” she explained. “It’s good that people realize that the work we do is difficult and hard and often filled with failure, but it’s important to remember that we have great successes too.”
Swinimer maintains her hope, founded in the belief that much of these conflicts can be prevented by a bit of education and reminding people to care for all animals.
“People understand that dogs and cats have feelings and are intelligent beings and feel pain, but I think there’s a bit of a disconnect when it comes to the wild world,” said Swinimer, who also believes that every animal “has this really strong desire to live and thrive and be happy.”
It’s that compassion for animals that has driven her to help countless animals over the last two decades and encourage others to do so as well.
But it’s not just compassion. When asked how she responds to people who view her work as a waste of time, she explains that her work doesn’t only come from the heart. It comes from the head too. In her eyes, saving each individual animal is a way to counterbalance the devastation that humans have brought to wild animals.
“Each and every day, just by living, we mess up our ecosystem and our world in ways that we just can’t help — everything from building houses to driving to work,” she explains. “If it’s OK to negatively impact nature, I think it’s OK to once in awhile positively impact it, too.
“They’re just an important part of our whole world. For our very survival, we need to keep them alive, because we’re so connected and for every species we lose, it’s hurting the entire system.”
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