This baby bunny is one of dozens of animals MIchelle Sager's takes in every year. Photos courtesy of Michelle Sager
Oct. 24, 2015
Every spring, summer and fall, injured and orphaned wild animals turn up in people's yards and doorways. Your dog or cat may bring an infant rabbit to the back door. Walking in the park, people happen on baby squirrels fallen from their nests or left alone when the mother fell prey to a hawk.
That's where Michelle Sager, a Texas-permitted wildlife rehabilitator in Keller, steps in. She takes in foundling small mammals, nurses them back to health, raises them to the age when they can survive on their own, and then releases them back into the wild. Michelle and other North Texas rehabilitators connect and support each other through the group Texas Metro Wildlife Rehabilitators. TMWR also channels donations for the animals' food.
Michelle Sager is a volunteer with Texas Metro Wildlife Rehabilitators.
When we met while carpooling to an environmental meeting, a small box covered with a soft cloth sat on the car seat beside Sager: baby squirrels. They had to be fed every three hours, so when we entered the restaurant, she took warm water back to the car to warm their milk bottle. She rejoined us in the buffet line later.
Sager rehabs small mammals at her home, under the name The Sheltered Burrow. She cares for "neonates," babies who may still be pink and furless like baby mice. "I'm their first point of contact," she says.
She raises squirrels, rabbits and sometimes possums – "although they're 24-hour nocturnal feeding animals who wake you up at any time of the night."
Occasionally she takes in a young raccoon. Her husband has banned her from rehabilitating rescue skunks.
Rehabilitation of large mammals, such as deer or bobcats, requires specific training and permit, and a larger tract of land.
Small cages fill a room off Sager’s kitchen, where the animals are isolated from domestic animals and people other than her.
"If they become habituated to household pets and human contact, it puts them at risk when they're released," she says. "They'll approach a dog that's unused to them or run up a person’s leg, who gets alarmed that they may have a disease, because that's not normal behavior for a wild animal."
For this reason, no visitors to her rescue animals are allowed, nor does she take them out in public.
Animals mature enough to no longer need constant attention and injured ones who have recovered are moved to larger cages outdoors on the Sagers' patio.
Sager has rehabilitated animals for eight years, training for required two years with a Texas-permitted wildlife rehabilitator. At any given time, she may care for six neonates and several older animals.
"I average 13 to 25 animals in a season."
"It's truly a labor of love," she says. "You pay your own expenses...one of the reasons we formed TMWR was to help reimburse people for part of the cost of food. We pay for our own cages and incidentals...Feeding a raccoon (until it's released) can cost up to $100, a squirrel can cost $30. The bulk of that is formula and solid food."
She fields calls from people who have found animals. Most want to care for them. This is illegal, difficult (the Internet is not a reliable source of care information) and usually unsuccessful, she says. Sager advises animal rescuers to “re-nest” animals if they aren’t injured. If a person does succeed in raising a wildling, releasing it is another question.
“Usual survival time for a wild or domestic animal …released (in the wild by an untrained person) is about two weeks.”
What motivates her, beyond a clear enjoyment of caring for wildlife? Aren't there enough squirrels in the world?
"My own personal answer is, I believe in being a good steward. We share this earth with the animals… We mess up those life cycles (of nature), by choices we make about how we treat the environment" she says. "For me, every animal I am able to put back there, I can help keep that balance in play. Out of a litter of [four] squirrels, without human involvement, only 1 squirrel survives. With cars and pesticide, [one or none] may survive.
"If we mess up the food chain...putting pesticides on our lawn, we see that, in the decline of the bobcat and the coyotes...That little cottontail bunny makes up 80 percent of the food supply for the larger carnivores, not to mention the raptors. Having a few less bugs or extra-green grass in our neighborhood can take a heavy toll on our wildlife."
It turns out that the squirrels that are a nuisance in your attic also plant the trees that shade your running trail and your park.
“They can bury 3,000 nuts in year,” Sager points out. “They can never find them all.”
Armadillos that leave holes in the St. Augustine also aerate the soil and eat grubs. Raccoons and possums eat carrion, the dead animals and birds that would foul the landscape otherwise. “Each species has its good points,” she smiles.
That said, it was time to go give a bottle to the baby squirrels.