When most of us think of wildlife rescue and conservation, images of oil covered seagulls, giant pandas, and beached whales are probably what come to mind. What about all of the precious wildlife that isn’t found in some exotic place, but a few miles from our homes, schools, and places of business? Many people have helped a turtle cross the road or returned a baby bird back into its nest, but who is out there trying to find ways to protect those rare and fragile species and lend a hand to Mother Nature to help offset the impact human civilization can impose on the natural world?
One group of passionate wildlife enthusiasts have considered this very deeply and realized that there was an immense need for such a grassroots type of organization to affect change on a local level. The Susquehannock Wildlife Society was formed as a vehicle to gather enthusiastic folks from many different backgrounds who feel a calling to help wildlife. Through education, conservation, rescue, and rehabilitation, we feel we can be a force to help turn the tide of the rapid decline of many species of wildlife in the Susquehanna River basin in Maryland and its surrounding areas. Our long term goal is to build a center where we can focus and organize these efforts in a single place.
Making a difference in the future of a species through many forms of conservation involves embarking on an arduous path, one that will take many months of discussion, research, as well as partnering with government agencies, universities, and national groups. However, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is a method of protecting populations that we were able to begin immediately. We can make an impact not only for that individual animal but for local populations that contribute to health of an ecosystem and the survival of the species as a whole. It is well understood that at every step of the way education and public outreach is the key to ensuring our work continues for years to come.
One of the first goals of the society was to partner with existing wildlife groups to not only build on what they have already done but to ease the burden these amazing individuals and organizations have taken on. Two partners that came very naturally because of their excellent reputation and location were Chadwell Animal Hospital, providing medical assistance to injured wildlife, and Phoenix Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates animals back to health. Our group decided we could best serve wildlife and these other groups by acting as a facilitator and transporter during wildlife emergencies. We believe we can streamline the previously unclear and sometimes difficult process by providing the public with an easy method to call in wildlife emergencies and quickly dispatching an individual to assess the situation, capture, and transport the animal to the proper location for it to receive care. It is a long road to building a solid team of dedicated volunteers to expand and solidify this effort but we are already well on our way.
Word is beginning to spread about this ambitious project and new volunteers have started to sign on to increase our effectiveness. The society has worked hard to spread the word on the Internet, through our many contacts, and at local environmental events. Already we have received calls for injured or orphaned birds of prey, deer, foxes, raccoons, waterfowl, snakes, and most recently even a state endangered turtle. It’s amazing to see what started as a mere idea form into reality.
Endangered on the Susquehanna
From the inception of the organization, Teal Richards, a research biologist with Towson University, has offered a wealth of knowledge and advice on how we could contribute to wildlife conservation on a local scale. A little over a month ago, we had the opportunity to repay her by helping to facilitate the surgery to remove a swallowed fishing hook from a female northern map turtle she had rescued. Teal has been studying and documenting her findings on the state endangered northern map turtles in the Susquehanna River area for the past few years. This in an effort to understand its population status here in Maryland and the effects of the hydroelectric dam on its lifecycle and reproduction. During her continued tracking and capture efforts, she came across this otherwise healthy individual that had sadly made the wrong choice to ingest a snared piece of bait and displayed a portion of monofilament line protruding from the corner of its mouth. A female at reproductive age like this is particularly valuable to the population since so many turtle nests are predated by raccoons and other mammals along the river. Few turtles that hatch ever survives into adulthood and, furthermore, it can take a decade for one to reach sexual maturity. Knowing how serious the situation was, Teal quickly contacted our wildlife hotline to seek our advice on what to do with the turtle. Understanding the sensitive nature of this species, we suggested that it be taken Chadwell Animal Hospital in Abingdon, MD to have its condition assessed and to see if the hook could be safely removed.
The turtle was gladly seen by the friendly staff at Chadwell and a full-hearted effort was made to try to remove the hook orally. Unfortunately, the determination had to be made to perform surgery on the turtle in order to rid it of the potentially deadly foreign object embedded in its stomach. Doctors Keith Gold and Tamie Haskin felt fully confident they could remove the hook and the turtle would enjoy a full recovery. Since this is a state endangered species, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was contacted to seek their authorization to remove this individual from the wild for approximately one month so it could be operated on and recover. They not only approved our team to move forward, but were grateful that all of these individuals cared enough to volunteer their time and money to give this special creature another chance to contribute to the furthering of its kind.
The very physical feature that has protected turtles for millions of years actually makes it much more difficult to provide medical care. In order to enter the digestive tract of the turtle and remove the hook, a portion of its plastron (lower shell) would have to be carefully removed. With the incredible precision that is imperative for any great surgeon, the turtle was opened up and the hook completely removed. The tissue is stitched back up and the removed piece of shell inserted back into place. An epoxy was applied across the plastron to stabilize and set it in much the same fashion as one would a cast on someone’s arm. The surgery was a major success. The knowledge and skill of the Chadwell staff truly saved this turtle’s life but its journey away from home was not yet complete.
After several days of observation at the Animal Hospital the turtle was returned to Teal so it could be monitored during its month long rehabilitation. Normally our rescued wildlife is gladly taken in by the Phoenix Wildlife Center in Baltimore County for recovery, but this turtle was a special case. At the request of DNR, the turtle was to remain with Teal (who holds a permit to possess the endangered turtle during her research), kept separated from other wildlife, and given its natural diet of snails and other native mollusks. The turtle was kept in a rehabilitation enclosure not far from its Susquehanna River habitat until it could be brought back into Chadwell to be approved for release into the wild.
Once seen by the veterinarian staff and given a clean bill of health, the homesick reptile was ready to head back to the sacred Susquehanna where it could return to swimming the mighty current and basking in the warm summer sun. Teal arranged the release of the turtle back to the exact location where it was found and attached a radio transmitter so with a little luck it can be tracked down, recaptured, and have its health observed, so we can verify that it is capable of living out the rest of its life as nature had intended before its unfortunate encounter with our modern world.
Patched on the bottom to allow the plastron to heal and topped with a radio transmitter for future tracking, the map turtle was released back into its home waters on the Susquehanna River.
A video of the map turtle’s release and return to the same spot where it had been found on the Susquehanna River can be viewed below:
While this is a story of triumph, I must note that there have been many animals that could not be saved. Countless individuals are hit by automobiles during our busy commutes and populations fade away from ancient habitat by our endless development. Our current network is made up of only but a few and our impact is still limited. However, with the future help of our community and caring volunteers to come we can truly make a difference. The goal of our group is to protect wildlife in any way we can. We do not want to stop human growth or outdoor recreation. We only aim to make the public aware of wildlife as we continue on our path and enable ways we can live alongside this precious resource, ensuring future generations can enjoy our wondrous wildlife, not in a zoo, textbook, or museum, but right here in our backyard. To join us please visit our website at www.suskywildlife.org and report any wildlife emergencies at 443-333-WILD (9453). We need your help to protect our wildlife!
Surgery photos by Melissa Goodman
Release photos and video by Teal Richards