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Veterinarian Technician May 2007 (Vol 28, No 5) Focus: Rescue and Rehab

On the Cover: "A Talk with Angela Martin Licari, CVT"

by Andrea Vardaro Tucker

    "It's quite interesting to wake up to the call of a loon in your home," says Angela Martin Licari, CVT. She speaks from extensive experience. With more than 15 years' background in wildlife rehabilitation, Angela is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who runs her own facility. An innate understanding of animal behavior has also led her to start a feline behavior consulting business. Although for many years her focus was not clinical, Angela became a veterinary technician to gain hands-on experience to better serve her patients.

    Angela credits her Native American heritage and spirituality, as well as her parents, Jane Goodall, and her elders, with inspiring her to live and work with animals. Her childhood dream was "to work with Smokey the Bear and the Indian who cried in the pollution commercials," she says. "Even as a child, I knew my heart belonged in the woods, taking care of our fellow creatures." Here, Angela tells us more about how her background enhances her career and how she balances her growing family and professional life.

    Learn more about Angela's backgroundconsulting business , and musical talents .

    How long have you been involved with wildlife rehabilitation?

    I started as a volunteer animal keeper at Willowbrook Wildlife Haven in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, in 1991 and have been involved in wildlife rehabilitation ever since. But my fascination with wildlife goes back to childhood. During our many family camping trips, my dad and I would walk through the woods, shining a flashlight into the trees to catch a glimpse of the nighttime animals. I'll never forget finding a rotund porcupine one night. It's still the only time I've seen a porcupine in the wild. My dad helped me understand the importance of our relationship with all animals and instilled in me a respect for the earth and its creatures.

    Tell us about your wildlife facility.

    I started Atagahi Wildlife Haven, a rehabilitation facility for native orphaned, sick, and injured wildlife, in 1996 when I moved to the Madison, Wisconsin, area. My husband and I take care of all the animals we receive at our home. We are a nonprofit organization — so far, my expenses have been out-of-pocket, with a few small private donations. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators receive no money from local, state, or federal resources, so I hope to start fundraising so I can obtain land and expand the haven for the public to enjoy while learning about wildlife issues. My dream is to have a sanctuary for permanently disabled wildlife with an area for wildlife rehabilitation, a trail where the public can see and admire permanent residents, and a nature center for educational talks and projects for kids. Many of the animals we get are not releasable because of human encounters — many have been hit by a car, shot, or raised as a pet — but with education, people can start to lessen the negative impact they have and learn to live in harmony with wildlife.

    What does "atagahi" mean?

    Atagahi is a Tsalagi (Cherokee) legend that translates as Lake of the Wounded. In the legend, a young warrior who lived in what is now known as the Smoky Mountain region was granted a vision of the lake. He heard the sound of water swirling and saw the grass turn into water. A wounded bear appeared, walked through the lake, and came out on the other side healed. The lake then disappeared. The bear told the young hunter that the Lake of the Wounded stays hidden to protect animals from hunters and that the hunter would never be able to find it again. My elders told me this long ago, and I knew right away that it would be the name of my wildlife sanctuary someday!

    About how many animals do you treat in a year?

    It's not uncommon for me to have 30 or more infant raccoons, squirrels, and opossums in my home during the summer baby season. When you take other species into account, including other rodents, cottontail rabbits, and bats, I see more than 100 animals throughout the year. I specialize in rehabilitat-ing raccoons, but as Atagahi Wildlife Haven grows, so will its capac­ity and my ability to care for other species.

    Since summer 2005, I've had a permanent resident gray squirrel named Sassy Silly Sally Skwerl who is not releasable to the wild because of physical handicaps. I have a license to keep her for educational purposes, so she serves as an ambassador for squirrels and all wildlife in teaching the public about a variety of wildlife issues, such as how to protect your home from wildlife invasion, what to do if you find an injured or orphaned animal, and natural histories of native species. Other permanent haven residents have in­cluded an opossum named Stinky Pete who became handicapped after being hit by a car, and a raccoon named Bernice whose paws were so badly burned in a chimney that she couldn't climb trees.

    Walk us through what you do when an animal is brought in.

    For animals that aren't orphans, it depends on what the problem is. I've seen animals with distemper, tricho­moniasis, injuries from a dog attack, vehicular trauma, gunshot wounds, and lead poisoning. I get birds that have been stunned by flying into windows and turtles with cracked shells. Some days, it seems like I have an endless stream of admissions! If the animal needs care involving specialized equipment, such as radiography, I work with area veterinarians.

    In the spring, I start receiving orphaned infants. Before I accept an infant into care, I try to educate the person admitting the animal about how to reunite the baby with its mom. Some species, such as cottontails, purposely don't stay around their nests to keep predators away from their young. In these cases, the infants are not orphaned at all, and intervention is not needed.

    The infants that I accept are cared for according to species. Raccoons are dewormed and vaccinated at an appropriate age. Opossums are also de­wormed. Singleton babies are added to others of the same age to create litters, and all babies are nursed using formula specifically designed for their species. Depending on their age and condition, baby animals may require nursing up to six times a day. They also need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate when they are very young.

    Caring for infant raccoons is actually pretty similar to taking care of my newborn daughter! Their nursing involves bottles, nipples, formula at an appropriate temperature, and linen changes. When they are weaned and big enough, juveniles are moved to an outdoor cage where they can climb, use nestboxes, forage for food and play in water pools, and develop any other species-specific behaviors they need to learn to survive on their own. At this point, I visit them only twice daily. In the morning, I clean litterboxes, re­move food from the previous night, and put out fresh water and dry dog kibble for the day. At night, I spot-clean if needed and feed them their full diet, which includes stocking the water pools with grapes and crayfish.

    I release raccoons when they are about 4 to 5 months old and have cut their adult canine teeth. Releases are done on private land, where I put up a cage for the raccoons to live in for a few weeks. The door is left open so they can come and go as needed, and the landowners check to make sure they have water and dry kibble available. Usually, after a few days to a few weeks, the raccoons stop coming back to the cage and are on their own. That's the ultimate goal of wildlife rehabilitation: to release the animal back into the wild, not to keep it as a pet.

    What have been your most fascinating cases?

    It's always exciting to get animals that I don't see very often, such as loons, badgers, beavers, or eagles. It's also very rewarding to see animals return to the wild, especially if they had been in care for a long time. I recently worked with a great horned owl that was found hopping through a baseball field with a leg-hold trap on his foot. He had a stubborn infection in his wounded talons that took months to heal. Remembering the sight of him flying back to his home and the expressions on the faces of the kids who found him still brings tears to my eyes.

    I've seen some interesting medical cases as well, like a Canada goose that was shot through the chest with an arrow. Luckily, the arrow only punctured the breast muscle and no internal organs were involved. I was able to slide the arrow out after cutting off the end, and the goose — which we dubbed Cupid — made a complete recovery. I also had a raccoon with strangles. He lost 50% of his body weight because he couldn't swallow, and when he got overexcited, he couldn't breathe. I made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize him, but I decided to try one last time to lance and express the abscess that was literally strangling him. It was a huge abscess, spanning his entire neck, but somehow it had liquefied, and it completely expressed. Everyone thought I was pretty wacky to be laughing as I watched the anesthesia table fill with pus, but I was elated! He gained the weight back quickly and was released with his brother and sister.

    One of the highlights of my career was assisting a veterinary team from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in the vasectomy of a lion at a big cat sanctuary. It was a facility for rescued animals, and the owners didn't want their lions to breed. I learned that castrated lions lose their manes from loss of testosterone and get beat up by other lions. So we vasectomized this lion so he could keep his mane and status in the pride.

    Did you go through any special training to work with wildlife?

    Wisconsin law requires that you pass a test to obtain your license to become a basic rehabilitator and be under the guidance of an advanced rehabilitator to obtain experience in handling various species and knowledge about caging and nutrition. You also need to be licensed through the Department of Natural Resources, and if you want to work with birds, you need to have a federal license through the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. I'm an ad­vanced rehabilitator, and I serve as a mentor to new rehabilitators in my area.

    Being a veterinary technician is an advantage in wildlife rehabilitation because technicians gain extensive experience and training in triage, wound care, fracture immobilization, radiology, pharmacology, parasitology, and laboratory skills. Knowledge of species-associated behavior also helps in designing caging to enhance innate skills, reducing stress, and assessing whether an animal is exhibiting behaviors necessary for postrelease survival.

    Are there legal limits to what you can do as a rehabilitator?

    I'm obligated to abide by laws regarding care of native wildlife. My area is a chronic wasting disease zone, so it's illegal for me to work with deer. It's also illegal in Wisconsin to work with skunks because of the unknown incubation period of rabies in that species. Endangered species that come in must be reported. There are regulations on where you can release animals, too. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Re­sources mandates that if an animal can't be released into the wild or live in a licensed facility as a permanent placement, it must be euthanized. There's a lot of heartbreak in wildlife rehabilitation because many, if not most, of the animals that come into care die or need to be euthanized.

    Tell us a little about your feline behavior work.

    I primarily perform private in-home consultations, during which I assess the behavior issue, design a behavior modification program with the client, and discuss other issues such as the possible benefits of medications. I give the client handouts and follow up with phone consultations. Referring veterinarians are informed of my assessment and remain included in any follow-up care.

    How do you juggle both of your careers and your family?

    I get to schedule my feline behavior consultations to fit the rest of my day. I'm also very lucky to have an understanding husband who is great at building caging and helping out with orphaned animals. Since this is my first year as a mom, I'm taking this summer off from having wildlife in my home. Instead, I plan to focus on my long-range goals for Atagahi Wild­life Haven.

    What advice would you give technicians who want to do rehabilitation work?

    Contact a nearby licensed rehabilitator or facility and volunteer. There's a lot of work involved, and that's the best way to learn. Find out about licensing requirements for your state. Also, get involved with the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and your state organizations so you can attend conferences and network. The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council also hosts educational conferences throughout the year.

    Based on your experience, do you have any glimpses to offer into animal behavior?

    When working with animals, always put yourself in their place to assess their reactions. It doesn't matter if it's your 15th time administering vaccines that day and your attention is on the fact that you had to skip lunch — it's a scary time for a nervous dog, and he needs your attention more. Understand the fright of a kitten that is being restrained on the metal examination table for her first blood draw, surrounded by loud, unfamiliar humans talking about their plans for the weekend. Imagine what it must be like for a puppy or kitten waking up from a spay or neuter surgery with blurry eyesight, hearing voices it doesn't know, smelling drugs, blood, and disinfectant, and having a painful abdomen. Would you want to be in a room with bright lights and a radio blasting?

    Always be conscious of your breathing and voice tones around your patients. Behavior breeds behavior, and your patients need your calmness to comfort them. I wish every veterinary staff member — veterinarians included — could spend a day sitting in the corner watching animals and their reactions to everything going on around them. I think a lot of us would act differently around our patients after doing that.

    NEXT: Tech Life (May 2007)
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