Groundhogs are no dummies.
That’s what Robert Halpin learned during a recent visit to TreeHouse Wildlife Center in Dow.
The 10-year-old Dorchester boy was watching a baby groundhog climb the walls of his cage when the groundhog figured out that one section wiggled a little. Sensing a way out, he started nudging the door latch with his snout.
“He’s trying to escape!” Robert said with amusement, prompting an employee to walk up and make sure the door was secure.
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The groundhog was one of dozens of baby animals on display last weekend as part of a TreeHouse Baby Shower. Guests were invited to make cash donations or bring supplies to help care for an influx of baby groundhogs, opossums, foxes, coyotes, owls, ducks, squirrels, kestrels, deer and other animals.
The wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center north of Elsah has taken in more than 100 orphaned or injured babies this spring.
We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of opossums, and that seems to be a national trend.
Andrea Schnelten on incoming baby animals
“We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of opossums, and that seems to be a national trend,” said Director of Development Andrea Schnelten, 34, of Rockbridge. “We’ve been joking that its the Year of the Opossum.”
Baby animals can become orphaned when their mothers are hit by cars or get injured when they fall out of nests.
On Saturday, six baby opossums huddled on a blanket in the corner of a dry aquarium. They weren’t much bigger than mice.
“When they’re born, they’re about as big as the tip of your little finger,” said Treehouse founder Adele Moore, 66, of Brighton. “It takes 23 to equal the weight of a penny.”
The baby shower also was meant to educate the public about wild animals and raise awareness of the non-profit center, which mostly operates on donations and volunteer labor.
Robert’s mother, Angela Halpin, 32, took the opportunity to bring in a baby squirrel.
“I found it on the ground in my aunt’s yard,” she said. “I think it fell out of a tree. Usually, we raise them, but this one wasn’t doing so good. He needed a little extra help. He was weak. He wasn’t getting up and walking. I think he was outside too long.”
TreeHouse cares for squirrels, although many people consider them pests.
The center doesn’t accept raccoons, rabbits or songbirds. It is prohibited by state law from holding skunks or bats. Baby raccoons require long rehabs before they’re returned to the wild. They are messy and disease-prone and need to be isolated. Baby rabbits tend to be too high stress for captive handling.
“Baby songbirds have to be fed every 15 minutes from dawn to dusk, and you can’t skip feedings and make them up,” Adele said.
Other visitors on Saturday included Susan Jackson, 68, of Creve Coeur, Mo., who brought her 8-year-old grandson, Hallsten Sasfai, and 5-year-old granddaughter, Clara.
Clara took one look at a female baby groundhog and named her “Sophie.” Then she posed for pictures, wearing a coyote skin.
Hallsten made his way to a bay window, where children used binoculars to look out over a pond.
“See the rabbit?” asked Drake Smith, 10, of Brighton, who had spotted a rabbit that was a visitor, not a patient, at TreeHouse. “It’s over there in the middle of the woods.”
It didn’t take Hallsten long to decide that his favorite baby animal was a fox.
My favorite is the fox. It’s got a hint of orange in its fur, which is my favorite color.
Hallsten Sasfai on his TreeHouse visit
“It’s got a hint of orange in its fur, which is my favorite color,” he said. “I really liked the baby squirrels and opossums. They’re great climbers.”
The baby fox and two baby barred owls were downstairs, displayed in pet carriers behind a glass window.
“The fox came in about a month ago, and she had a broken back leg,” said weekend staffer Tabitha Yates, 18, of Granite City. “She got the cast off about two weeks ago. She can get around pretty good now.”
Another pet carrier contained an adult Eastern screech owl with a broken wing. She has been helping raise three babies through a fostering program.
Susan has a summer cottage in nearby Chautauqua. She learned about TreeHouse from her neighbor, Libby McGinley, the center’s office manager and treasurer. At the end of Susan’s visit, she helped the grandkids play a game, matching adult animals with babies, for a chance to win a T-shirt.
“We love it here, “ Susan said. “They’re so open and friendly. They care for the animals, and they share the animals.”
The baby shower yielded donations such as dog food for baby foxes, cat food for baby opossums, rodent water bottles and syringes used for feeding, fish tanks and blankets.
People put cash donations in an antique wicker doll carriage that belongs to Andrea.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook, and when we get all these babies, there’s a lot more expense,” she said. “They need formula and special food and special care.”
TreeHouse wish list
- Rodent water bottles (glass only) for baby squirrels.
- High-quality canned dog food, such as Science Diet or Blue Buffalo, for baby foxes.
- Monetary donations to buy food for baby owls, which have specific dietary requirements.
- Canned cat food for baby opossums.
- Gift cards from Farm & Home Supply or Tractor Supply Company for deer formula.
- Black bottle tips from Farm & Home to put on jars for bottles.
- Small (1-5 milliliter) plastic syringes for feeding baby groundhogs.
- Purina Mills Game Bird Chow Starter Diet for baby ducks.
- Blankets, 10-15 gallon rectangular fish tanks (gently used with no cracks is fine) and small dishes for water and food for all animals.
At a glance
- What: TreeHouse Wildlife Center
- Where: 23956 Green Acres Road in Dow
- Open to public: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily (self-guided tours of outdoor cages)
- Volunteer guided tours: Call 618-466-2990 or email email@example.com to schedule
- Information: Visit www.treehousewildlifecenter.com
Adele’s tips on intervention
- If you see a small rabbit with its eyes open and ears up, hopping around the yard, it’s on its own, not orphaned. Rabbits leave the nest at 2 or 3 weeks.
- Many young birds leave the nest before they're ready to fly and can stay on the ground for up to a week. Parents remain nearby, making sure they have plenty of food.
- If you find orphaned or injured wildlife, call TreeHouse before intervening. Staff will give monitoring instructions or come out and check to see if intervention is needed.
- Don’t try to raise a baby mammal yourself. It will need a specialized milk replacer, depending on species. General milk replacers in stores don’t provide adequate nutrients.
- Don’t try to raise birds of prey, either. They require rodents as a food source. A young raptor can contract rickets on an inadequate diet in as little as a week.