OKALOOSA ISLAND — A baby raccoon the size of an apple lay curled up in a clear box on a Thursday morning at the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, cuddling a stuffed animal beside it.
Gena Medley, a vet tech student and an intern at the refuge, picked up the critter with her hands and laid it on the scale.
The numbers on the scale read 165 grams — less than half a pound.
“He hasn’t even opened his little eyes yet,” she said, picking him up again. He curled right up in her palm and went back to sleep.
It’s officially the first wave of baby animal season in Northwest Florida, the tail end of spring when the animals who mated after winter time are beginning to have their babies. Technicians say the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge is bursting at the seams with baby critters that were brought in after being orphaned or separated from their parents.
In one corner of the refuge’s Okaloosa Island shelter, six baby skunks, no bigger than small kittens, scurry in and out of plastic igloos and roll around with each other under a sheet.
In another corner, an enclosure containing two playful baby raccoons rattles around as the critters romp in a hammock.
Throughout the refuge, groups of baby foxes, bunnies, birds, owls and raccoons sit patiently — but not quietly — waiting for attention from the two full-time refuge technicians, as well as volunteers and interns. Workers are busy round-the-clock providing each of them special dietary and nutritional needs as well as medical care, comfort and rehabilitative services.
It’s not easy, says technician Michelle Pettis. But it’s what they do.
“We rely very heavily on our interns, as well as our volunteers,” Pettis said. “Without them, the job simply would not get done in an efficient manner … and we are just in the beginning of baby season, so this is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Pettis estimates about 30 percent of the babies brought to them are orphaned when something happens to their parents, like a possum being hit by a car or a fox being trapped by an angry homeowner.
The rest, however, she calls “abduction with the intent to rescue.”
“People find a baby bird on the ground and don’t realize that they can just put it back up in the nest, or a squirrel whose mom they don’t realize is still around, and they’ll take it and bring it to us,” Pettis said. “They think that they’re being helpful, but in reality, they’re just abducting the animal.”
Technician Shelby Proie says well-meaning people need to be aware of the instances in which a baby animal can be simply reunited with its parents, or needs to be brought in for rehabilitation.
“If you ever see a baby animal in the wild and it looks sick or injured, by all means call us and we’ll help you get it to us or to the closest rehabilitator to be treated,” Proie said. “But if the animal looks relatively healthy, there are a lot of different things you can do, based on the species, to reunite them with their mothers.”