Leave rescuing wildlife to experts

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

COVINGTON -- As one of thousands who read the story of the recent raccoon attack on a 9-month-old baby in Newton County, Elizabeth Hartman's heart was touched. But, she read it from the perspective of her expertise in dealing with raccoons and as someone who knows and appreciates them for the wild creatures they are.

Since 1998, Hartman has been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator specializing in raccoons for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division. So far this year, she has rehabilitated and released back into the wild 115 raccoons.

Currently she has 16 raccoons that she is rehabilitating and plans to release come spring.

"That will be just in time for a new crop of babies to appear," she said.

Hartman's supply of raccoons comes from people who may have found them on the side of the road, maybe in a tree they cut down or even in their own attics.

She said for those who want to help raccoons, they must be aware of some basic facts.

"It is dangerous to handle them," she warns. "I usually advise people to put on heavy work gloves and scoop them up in a cardboard box. Touch them as little as possible. Then I'll meet them somewhere and take it from them."

Hartman said just about the worst thing a person who is trying to help wildlife can do is to capture it and keep it for their own.

"Your goal should be for them to be able to live on their own. I'm allowed to handle them and care for them, but I can't keep them as pets and I wouldn't want to because they belong in the wild," she said, adding that it is impossible to predict the behavior of any wild animal that survives by instinct.

"Their behavior is unpredictable, but their behavior is also logical," she said. "Raccoons are amazing animals, but when the lines between wildlife and pets are blurred, they can wreak havoc on the family and the house. I've taken in 'pet' raccoons from people whose hearts were originally in the right place -- they found an abandoned baby raccoon on the side of the road and wanted to help it live. Then they end up caring for it for a while and a bond occurs -- more on the side of the human than the raccoon -- and then they selfishly decide to keep it as a pet. While raccoons can legally be kept as pets in other states, they cannot here in Georgia and it's for good reason. They are wild at heart and can destroy houses and do even worse to people."

Hartman said with baby raccoons she bottle feeds them, weans them and has them eating solid food before releasing them into the wild.

"I have a habitat outside in my backyard with a little bit of shelter when it rains. Otherwise, they are completely exposed to the elements," she said. "I have a swimming pool that I stock with feeder fish so they can learn to fish. I also feed them grubs and have logs that I stock with grubs so they can dig for those. And, I have a feeding station that has dog food in it so they can get a little food from there. Then, when I release them, I also leave that feeding station with them for about six weeks so they can have dog food to eat as they learn that new environment and learn to live in their new home."

She said she doesn't release the raccoons on her own property.

"They're forced to be wild," she said, adding that she's never had one attempt to return to her habitat.

She said recently she had a mother with five babies and she wanted to make sure the mother took all five babies with her when she left. There was no problem, she said. "She was totally wild and hated to be in my cage so there was no way she would have wanted to come back."

A software tester by profession, Hartman said she became a rehabilitator because of her mother's example.

"When I was a little girl, my mom rescued bats for Zoo Atlanta. I kinda grew up around that and when I got old enough, I decided to do it myself," she said.

She and her husband recently celebrated their fourth anniversary and hope to start a family some day. But for now, she said the raccoons are like her children.

"It's a shorter commitment," she quipped.

But there are dangers in what she does and she has the scars to prove it.

In 2003, she was bitten on the hand by a raccoon which resulted in a two-week hospitalization and two months of IV antibiotics.

"At the hospital they told me if I'd waited another two days before coming in, my thumb would have had to be amputated," she said.

Recently, a raccoon was able to reach down from a perch and bite her ear.

"He pierced my ear. I am fully aware that I am opening myself up for scratches and bites to the dismay of my family," she said.

And then, of course, there's the danger of rabies. She said raccoons aren't born with rabies, but even with young raccoons precautions should be taken. She has had pre-exposure rabies vaccine and her husband is going through the inoculation process.

"I make sure anybody who comes in contact with a raccoon is well-prepared," she said. "Rabies in the South is very prevalent. If there's any question if a person has been bitten or scratched, I'd much rather sacrifice the raccoon and have it tested than to take a chance on that person getting the rabies virus."

The only way an animal can be tested for rabies is to kill it and take tissue from the brain, she said.

Hartman said she wants the DNR's rehabilitation program to become more widely known so people will know who to contact in the event they find wildlife in need of care. She specializes in raccoons, but there are other rehabilitators who care for squirrels, deer, reptiles, birds, you name it. She recommends calling the Special Permits Office of the DNR's Wildlife Division at 770-761-3044 or go to www.georgiawildlife.com and select "Find a wildlife rehabilitator" from the home page which will take you to a list of Georgia rehabilitators and their specialties. They can be contacted directly and if they are unable to help, will direct you to the right person, Hartman said.