Sorry to be so off topic, but it's 3 a.m. and I'm feeling rather bitter tonight. I just lost the baby orphaned mouse I was rehabbing (I'm a licensed wildlife rehabilitator), breaking my heart yet again. I tend to think of myself as pretty tough when it comes to dealing with life and death. It happens a lot when you, you know, live on earth, but especially when you work with such short-lived creatures as most rodents. And when you rescue, or in this case, do wildlife rehabilitation, you run into death even more often since many of the animals arrive ill or older. Sure there are lots of healthy young animals too, but as every rescuer knows, those are the ones who adopt out quickly, meaning we (suckers that we are) end up with the hard-luck cases, the broken hearts, and the sleepless nights wishing we could do more.
Wildlife rehab is hard hard work and sadly, when they arrive so small, so starved, they are next to impossible to save. But I try. He made it almost a week. Almost a week of round the clock feedings every 2-3 hours, holding this tiny little creature, more delicate than anything you can imagine. Almost a week of muscle spasms and zanaflex from using damaged back muscles to hold the smallest little rubber nipple you can find to the tiniest gaping muppet mouth, peeping between gulps. My body isn't really made to handle repetitive tense movements like making the smallest softest circles with a q-tip to mimic the mother's touch, helping the body to grow and relieve itself of wastes.
This case began when a family called, desperate for help with three tiny babies they had found. Now, I know mice die all the time in the wild, and that even if I did this every day for the rest of my life, I couldn't save as many as other people intentionally kill every day with spine snapping traps, blood thinners, and glue traps (by far the most inhumane traps available. Think about it.) but when you have a chance to lend a hand (I mean, you don't stop trying to save dogs and cats just because 6 million of them are intentionally killed in American shelters every year)--and mice have a soft place in my heart. I was born loving mice. As a kid, toy mice took over my dollhouse and lived in Victorian luxury. My dad loved to tell how I referred to my stuffed animal mice as "my People". Yeah, that's me. Mouse-mom X. So anyway, the family called, desperate to find a rehabber to help. Mice aren't necessarily a species all rehabbers jump at the chance to care for, and she said her little (human) girls were inconsolable, afraid the mice would die right there. How can I say no to that?
I guess I had too much hope. A few years ago I successfully hand reared a pair of deer mice who were found cooking on the pavement in a parking lot. (Just to show that I have not lost my sense of humor, that last sentence totally made me picture a teensy mouse tailgating party, but you know what I mean.) Over several weeks of care, they grew strong and healthy, though in the end they could not be released back into the wild because they had imprinted so strongly on humans and would leap at any human and try to crawl into your hand (or up your sleeve for warmth) which would not go over well with most people. So I cared for them for the rest of their lives while they taunted the cats through the wire grating covering their cages, and relished the "mouse mush" meals I put together to keep them in good health (I still have the recipe if anyone out there wants it for their own mice.). I've also had others who were able to be released who came and went. Watching them go was wonderful, to send them out to live with their own kind (I released them in a protected spot on our property where I feed the wildlife.) Like an animal version of graduation.
Sadly, the 2 little females who came in this time passed on quickly--only holding on for a couple of days. They were so starved when they showed up, they looked like they had week old heads on newborn bodies, and keep in mind it only takes about 4 weeks for mice to acheive full size. It wasn't easy, but it happened early and I try to stay detached as long as I can stand it while constantly being so close, in such a vital relationship with these creatures. But the little boy grew and grew. He would suck on his little hands and nibble on the soft webbing between my fingers with the tiniest little teeth you've ever seen. They looked more like a pair of hairs than incisors, and they tickled more than nipped. He got strong, defeating all the barriers Scott invented to keep him in the nest box, eventually leading to a zippered vet carrier. He was a champion squirmer. I crumbled in the face of his developing personality and named him Dexter. He was eating so well. Crawling like a champ. In a day or two his little eyes would open. I thought we'd made it through the worst.
But I also had suspicions that there might be trouble lurking. When mice are this young, you can actually see through their skin and watch their stomachs fill with formula. A few times I noticed that he was struggling when stimulated to deficate. I could see a little lump in his intestines, but with a little tummy massage, it would pass. I hoped that as he grew, the organs would develop more fully and the problem would go away. But that's not the way it happened. While I can't be certain since he passed quietly, between feedings, my best guess is that instead of growing more open, it may have grown closed. And when I saw him still and cold, it took my heart and smashed it. I had been experiencing violent muscle spasms and was forced to take more of the muscle relaxing drug than I prefer in order to get them under control, but at that moment I was thankful for the dullness I usually loathe.
So in the middle of the night, I can't help wondering if I can go on doing this. Is wildlife rehab just more than I can handle both physically and mentally? Am I too emotionally close to these animals to be good at this? Should I move on to a different type of volunteer work that doesn't cut so deeply. It's sad and paradoxical, I think, that caring too much can cripple our ability to help alleviate the suffering we so desperately want to heal. But I've seen it a million times in other people, and been there several times myself. There's even a name for it: compassion fatigue.
I started CAAT (Carolina Animal Activists Together) and ultimately had to leave it and the stomach twisting tales of suffering we were constantly facing in an effort to educate and reach out to others who wished to stop the daily harm. It was eating at me. I don't regret the work I did at all. CAAT eventually morphed into Humane Carolina, a fantastic organization that does a lot of great work for animals.
Later, I worked in intake and adoption screening/counseling for Independent Animal Rescue. I devoted my time to helping the other incredible people there take in and find homes for animals otherwise slated for death, or who were being abused, neglected, or otherwise tormented. But eventually I couldn't stand one more desperate call from a shelter worker searching everywhere for any vacant spots in rescue foster homes because they were having to walk animals straight from the front door to the euthanasia room because there was no space. I couldn't take knowing that having to tell her we were full essentially put my hand on that greenish syringe that represents the hopeless knowledge that even with all of the people who devote their entire lives to helping these animals, we just can't save them as quickly as people are breeding and dumping them. I couldn't take one more phone call from someone who wanted to adopt because they had their last puppy put down for being too clingy and wanting to be with them all the time, but it was okay and ultimately a good thing they did because now they know the kind of dog they don't want and do we have any labrador puppies available? Or one more litter of kittens hanged one by one from a vet office's fence because they had to tell the owners that they had no room to take in the litter of siamese cats they bred and no longer wanted. It just hurt too much. I jumped and yelped every time the phone rang, I became so tense. Sometimes that still happens. But would I go back and erase my time doing the work I did there? Of course not. I know it made a difference and that together, we saved many, many lives and gave them the safe, responsible, committed, and above all permanent homes they so desperately needed.
Do I regret moving on? No. I had to. And I worked as a kennel assistant at a vet, bringing love and attention to animals who were recovering from illnesses, or woke up frightened and disoriented from anesthesia, or even just gave boarded cats some music and little cloth catnip toys I made myself to make their stay more comfortable. An extra lap around the yard with the dogs, running and jumping sun or snow was a big deal to a dog who missed his family. Of course, you can likely guess why I can't do that anymore, but ultimately the job led to 3R Rescues. Once word gets out that you're a rodent nut, they seem to find you like lightening finds a golf club. My love of rodents led to becoming a Licensed Wildlife Rehabber, and here I am.
Can I stay here? I don't know. I know there are a million ways to help this world, yet it's hard to let go when you know you're still needed. If I let go of wildlife, where will I go?