By Sue Tiffin
Two weeks in to the new year, Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary, a year-round rehabilitation facility located in Minden, had already taken in about eight animals in need of care.
“Life goes on for us, actually,” said Monika Melichar, on the day just before Ontario’s second provincial lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic began. “It’s pretty busy, I would say. Normally, we’re quieter in the winter, so I think we’re in for a busy year.”
This time in the season can be an active one for animal sightings and interactions, with motorists reminded that many animals are drawn to the road for hunting made easier in areas of deep snow. Additionally, with occasional days of warm weather, some animals are waking up earlier than they had planned and finding themselves starving or displaced – two snakes and a bat are now being homed at the Sanctuary until they can safely be released into a warmer season.
“We’ve had some gorgeous days just recently,” said Melichar. “It gives them a false sense of spring. If they’re hibernating, sometimes the animals will come out take a look around and get stuck. If we don’t know where they belong, where their nest or roost is, they need to come in to us for the winter months and we look after them until spring.”
The Sanctuary has also seen Canadian geese, a hairy woodpecker, a Great Horned owl, a muskrat and a porcupine in the last little while. Each animal offers Melichar a role in rehabilitation that she cherishes.
“To be able to handle and look after and get to know the different variety of animals we have in this area is so fantastic, that is so rewarding,” she said.
“It’s wonderful, this land between,” said Melichar. “We have northern species and southern species. It’s just wonderful to see the different varieties we get here. We always learn something new about the animals.”
Two barred owls resting at the Sanctuary have been released, with one more almost ready to go.
“They’re all the same bird, they’re all barred owls, but their personalities are different, their facial features, their behaviours,” said Melichar. “Some clack their beaks, some kind of blink at you, and it’s so neat.”
Hit and runs have been prominent in barred owl injuries, with Melichar posting online asking drivers to be extra careful of animals hunting close to roadways, and attempt to help if an animal is hit.
“People aren’t stopping to see what happened,” said Melichar. “Maybe it’s dark, maybe it’s busy. I could understand if it’s the 401, but if it’s just one of our local highways it’s important to turn around and take a look, and if needed, call for help. A lot of these owls were either picked up by our volunteers or by somebody else, so even if you’re on the way to work it’s very possible we can get a ride for it somehow.”
In December, four of the five owls admitted to the Sanctuary had been left after collisions, some with a concussion, some with a broken wing.
“They’re fabulous to work with,” said Melichar. “They’re very gentle and don’t necessarily fight us back when they’re in rehab, so they’re very easy to handle and work with.”
Melichar said the best way to transport the owls, which are quite docile, is to wrap them with a towel or jacket in a bundle, keeping their wings in place next to their body.
“A lot of people will have a shopping bag in their car, if you don’t have a tote, or box, a shopping bag actually works, it’s quite safe and you just tie the handles together where you have a protected area for them to rest in,” she said. “You would want to cover their heads if you do find any animal you need to rescue, put something over top of them to cover their eyes, cover their heads. It makes it less likely for them to strike out at you or to feel scared because they don’t see what’s going on.”
One owl that Melichar was examining chirped like a canary, causing Melichar to search the Internet to hear a similar call without much luck.
“It just kind of makes you go, wow, that is so neat,” said Melichar. “The things they do, and being able to get to know them and get to know their different characteristics – it’s always a learning experience. There’s so much we don’t know about the wildlife kingdom.”
“That’s something we have constantly, it seems, I call it almost like a revolving door,” said Melichar of the fox population that the Sanctuary assists each year with injuries commonly sustained from mange.
“It’s a really debilitating disease that was just really rampant last year, it looks like it’s not going away,” she said of the skin disease caused by mites that burrow into the skin and can be transferred from animal to animal.
“It causes a lot of crusting, just of the dead skin, and irritation and scratching and hair loss,” said Melichar. “The poor little foxes, they look like they’ve got one big callous that’s cracked and bleeding and causes infection. It’s just a horrible disease. It will kill them if they can’t survive and recover.”
Mange will attack the face and tail area, so that when foxes curl up and wrap their tail around themselves, it transfers to their face so that their eyes seal up, they can’t hunt anymore, and they starve.
“Tumbleweed, unfortunately, was at this stage where his eyes were squinting and asking for help,” said Melichar. “They more or less come near people, approach houses, are more physical. I find at that stage they’re looking around residential areas for tidbits, maybe dog food, as opposed to the bush because they can’t hunt anymore.”
In his search for food, Tumbleweed – so named by the little girl who found him at the end of last year and called for help – was chased and bitten in the hind leg by a neighbourhood dog. Melichar had some good news about his progress, though: “Today we tested him – he can stand,” she said. “He’s still weak but he’s using that hind leg quite well, he has total control over it, although it is weak still. We’re happy with this progress.”
She notes he has “the cutest little face.”
A second fox that arrived recently, named Thistle, is now healing from mange in space set up beside Tumbleweed. She was emaciated upon arrival.
“She’s a little girl and she was just a tiny mess of nothingness,” said Melichar. “Her head is bigger than her body. She was so tiny and thin and dehydrated, she drank water for three days straight just to replenish.”
The foxes are side-by-side where they can smell and hear each other, and will eventually be put in the same outdoor pen once their fur grows out.
“With the mange medication, their fur drops out and they regrow it,” said Melichar. “We want to make sure they’re regrowing winter fur and not summer fur because they’re indoors. It’s kind of a tricky thing in the winter, we have to keep them cooler later on when they’re starting to regrow their fur and also put them outside so their winter coat comes in and not just their summer light coat, that could confuse them if they’re in a heated room.”
While the foxes will be released back to their respective territories, Melichar said they can get to know each other and meet up if they wish.
“The nice thing is they’re not alone,” she said. “They’re very social. They do enjoy their company. At one time, we had seven foxes in one area. They keep their space but play with each other. They’re actually quite nice animals, no bickering as long as they have their own food. You can’t do that with most animals.”
“Our fawns are out of ‘lockdown,’” announced a Dec. 23 video on the Sanctuary’s Facebook page, which shared highlights of the release of seven orphaned or injured fawns just before Christmas.
Fawns usually begin coming to the Sanctuary in May, up until the middle of July, where they are raised together, enabling them to make a group, form a herd and potentially stay together upon their release.
“We check to see what the weather’s going to bring and if there’s a lot of deep snow, we would keep them over winter, protect them and release them in the spring, because they’re little,” said Melichar. “They need to be able to browse branches off of trees, but if there’s a lot of deep snow those branches are usually browsed by the older deer already, and by the time our little ones go out there they can’t reach them anymore.”
Of the seven released, two have branched off on their own but the other five are sticking together.
“We’re still supplementing them every day,” said Melichar. “They’ve been released, they’re totally free and wild, but they’re creatures of habit so we feed them, and the local herd of deer come too, they come and mingle together and we introduce them to each other.”
Melichar said deer typically travel the same route and same trails often, and are “pretty much like clockwork,” bedding down for her in front of the feeders if she’s not ready and waiting when they arrive.
“We are here, we’re open, we are taking COVID precautions, but people can call us for advice if they see something they’re concerned about,” said Melichar.
Those interested in learning more about the happenings at the Sanctuary can sign up for a monthly e-newsletter, and those interested in volunteering are welcome to apply – Melichar said they will be in need of volunteers this year and hope to bring more helping hands in this spring, with strict procedures to keep in line with public health guidelines. Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary is a volunteer-based charity that does not charge for service and is appreciative to the public for monetary donations or help fulfilling a wish list for supplies and materials as seen on their website.
Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary is located at 2146 Duck Lake Road in Minden. For more information call 705-286-1133, email firstname.lastname@example.org, follow the charity on Facebook or visit www.woodlandswildlifesanctuary.ca.