Florida wildlife: Squirrels, opossums and skunks, baby season gets underway

Annie Blanks
Pensacola News Journal
Walton Sun

Bins full of syringes, rubber nipples and feeding tubes line a wall of the baby animal intake room at the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge.

On a sterile metal tabletop next to the bins, three large plastic boxes with holes cut out in the lids sit on top of heating pads, empty — but not for long.

The start of the baby animal season is officially underway at the refuge's new Navarre location, which opened just two months ago and has not yet experienced a baby season at its new location. At the old location in a reclaimed fire station on Okaloosa Island, ECWR staff worked through several baby seasons in the cramped building, which wasn't built to suit its needs.

The new refuge, however, has an entire building dedicated solely to medical care for rehabilitating animals — something it's ramping up to do in bulk as springtime approaches.

Adorable animals born at Florida zoos in the past year

10 invasive plants causing major problems in Florida

"Right now, we're active pretty much from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.," said Stormy Andersen, the refuge's executive director. "Soon we're going to be extremely active from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Our volunteers, techs and interns will be working 12 hours a day every single day of the week."

Baby animal season, which is when wild animals typically breed the most due to the weather, begins in mid- to late-February in Northwest Florida, and the refuge has already taken several infants into its care.

Three baby opossums were brought to the refuge late last week, but all three passed away because they were just days old and couldn't survive without their mother.

Three baby eastern gray squirrels, however, are being cared for and nursed to health until they weigh enough to be released back into the wild.

One of them, weighing around 20 grams, was just beginning to sprout hair and open its eyes. Intern Corey Shelikoff held the little critter in his hand as it wiggled about, suckling on his fingertip.

"It's almost feeding time," Shelikoff said.

Another animal, a fledgling mourning dove, nestled in another incubator inside a hand-knit nest. The refuge received hundreds of hand-knit animal beds earlier this year that were originally intended to help animals in Australia that were affected by the raging wildfires.

Animal rescue groups in Australia became overwhelmed with the influx of donations, and so many of the hand-knit items went to places like ECWR. A colorful box full of different-sized beds will now be on hand to help the staff provide cozy, warm beds for babies when they go through intake.

"When it's baby season in here, somebody is always feeding, getting something ready, helping the animal potty," Andersen said. "There's a lot to be done."

Over the next few weeks, the staff at ECWR will take in hundreds of baby animals, including squirrels, opossums, raccoons, foxes, skunks and birds. Nearly all of them will be treated back to health and released back into the wild. Some of them may not make it, and a few of them might just be nursed back to health but unable to be released back into the wild, and could become a part of the refuge's "animal ambassador" program.

Baby season is a drain on the refuge's resources, and the organization relies heavily on donations to meet its needs. It also has normal operations on top of baby season, which include caring for its animal ambassadors that can be viewed by the public (like a brand new red fox, Loxy, who just arrived last week) and hosting educational classes and tours.

"We're getting all the babies from February to May, so we're happy to have moved and opened when we did," Andersen said. "Staff and interns have everything set up for success, and it's going to be busy, but we're going to make it work."

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.

This story originally published to pnj.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.