Last year, the Wings of Hope Wildlife Sanctuary set a record, caring for more than 550 animals at the Livingston facility. As baby owls, purple martins, otters, pelicans and even a bald eagle continue to show up at the door this year, director Leslie Lattimore says that record will be shattered.
Lattimore attributes the increase in wildlife patients to the pandemic "because more people were staying at home, and they began to notice birds or other wildlife in their yards.”
Other events, like February's ice storm, also brought in lots of animals. In Denham Springs, the storm caused icicles to form on purple martin birdhouses in a colony created by the Adams family. Sixty ailing birds were collected and brought to Wings of Hope.
The birds suffered from dehydration and starvation due in part to the cold. Their only source of food — insects — had not been available for days.
Volunteers from Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge worked with Lattimore and staff for a week, hand-feeding the birds mealworms every half-hour until they were revived. The majority of the birds were brought back to their houses.
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“If it weren’t for the volunteers who helped feed these birds, they wouldn’t have made it,” Lattimore said.
Though Lattimore is never without wildlife patients, spring has always been the busiest time because that’s when most baby animals are born. When well-meaning people find them out of their nests, they deem them “orphaned" and rush to their rescue when they don’t see any parents around.
Each creature Lattimore takes in, whether a baby red fox, a woodpecker, a bat, a raptor, an otter or even a hedgehog, is assigned a number and a medical record, which is maintained by the staff and volunteers as the animal convalesces.
Lattimore said she checks in with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine weekly for consultations.
Like all rehabbers throughout the state, the nonprofit Wings of Hope pays for all operating expenses, including food, medications and supplies, primarily with donations.
Melissa Collins, wildlife biologist and permits coordinator with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said there are approximately 75 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Louisiana, and many of them also saw an uptick in cases in 2020.
Collins helped develop a “I Found a Baby” flowchart, available at wlf.louisiana.gov, to help people determine if an animal truly needs to be rescued.
“We always try to encourage people to leave baby animals alone, even if they look like they’ve been abandoned,” she said. “If you care, leave it there."
In most cases, the mom is probably not far from them and will tend to them, Collins said.
However, sometimes an animal is obviously hurt or sick, such as birds with bleeding, broken or drooping wings.
That was the case in January when Madison Hogan, 12, and Luke Harper, 10, discovered an injured bald eagle in Hammond. They contacted Wildlife and Fisheries agents, who transported the injured bird to Wings of Hope.
After keeping the eagle in flight cages and offering it a chance to eat, the bird eventually healed enough from its severe soft tissue injury to forage on its own. The eagle was released into the wild on March 12.
Collins said the hardest part after finding a seemingly orphaned bird or other animal is to sit back and watch.
“Callers who find hairless or featherless wildlife should follow the instructions for creating a substitute nest, making certain avian nests are attached to the nearest tree and high as they can reach. Mammal nests should be created as close to the area where found but in a shady area free from ants," she advised. "Never use man-made or synthetic materials for nests. Instead, use leaves, branches, grass and moss that are free from insects, especially ants.”
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Unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, it is illegal to keep a wild animal as a pet. But people do. Often, when they find they can't take care of the creature, they bring it to an animal shelter, which sometimes turns them over to the sanctuary.
That's how the sanctuary got its hedgehog. It is not capable of surviving in the wild, so it's being kept as an educational animal. A few other permanent residents include those animals that have suffered injuries that would not allow them to survive in the wild.
Collins cautioned that birds and mammals can transmit parasites and disease to humans and pets, so if you end up handling them, be sure to wash your hands and any clothing or linens that come in contact with it.
Raccoons, for instance, have a species of roundworm in their digestive tract that, if ingested, can be fatal to humans and other mammals, she said, noting that's another good reason not to feed or encourage raccoons to hang out on your patio.
To locate a permitted wildlife rehabilitator in your area, or to become one, visit wlf.louisiana.gov/page/permitted-wildlife-rehabilitators or call Wildlife and Fisheries at (225) 763-8584 or toll-free at (800) 442-2511.