Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A mousey breakfast

I wonder how many other people are out there who set their alarm to dismember a dead mouse. It’s not the most pleasant task to wake up; mouse guts have a peculiar smell, and the soft yielding of small bones, fur and flesh to the snipping of my scissors has a certain creepiness to it. 

I brace myself with another sip of coffee for this unsavoury part of my role as owl foster mom and cut the mouse head into bite-sized pieces. While the three little saw whet owlets twitter excitedly in the bird cage to my right, four-month old black bear twins Nahanni and Logan are wrestling up a storm in the mammal cage to my left. They are busy practising bear skills like shredding rotten wood and swatting their paws at each other. A glance into their feeding area shows me that they’ve also been using their water bowl as a wading pool again and have liberally sprinkled the floor with their veggies, dandelions. It almost makes for a meadow ambience. 

Mouse dissection completed, I lift the three owlets into a clear plastic box lined with paper towel. These little orphans came to Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter when the tree that housed their nest was cut down. The property owner, who hadn’t realized owls were raising their young ones in the tree, brought the babies in. At that point, they were just a few days old: only one had open eyes.

They are now roughly the size of a tennis ball. A very fluffy tennis ball, because their dark orange and grey feathers are coming in at a very fast rate. Gone is the homely, stubbly look that reminded me of bits of dryer lint stuck to ping pong ball with a glue gun. There is a marked size variation between the three owlets, but all three focus their yellow eyes on me now in anticipation of breakfast, the broad beaks like a good-morning-smile. 

Breakfast is fewer mice than it used to be: the owlets were gaining weight too fast, NLWS’s co-founder Angelika Langen noticed. We volunteers have been too well-meaning when feeding them, unwittingly illustrating why lay people shouldn’t raise orphaned wildlife but drop the animal off at a rehab shelter. Instead of prodding each owlet into grabbing a piece of mouse, we should just be offering it to the little birds briefly. A hungry owlet will open wide and try to grab the piece, while disinterest and a closed beak mean the bird is full. 

I use a pair of tweezers to dangle a leg of mouse in front of the chirping birds. The two biggest owlets go for it, and it disappears down the red throat of the medium-sized bird who keeps staring at me with her yellow eyes. I make more rounds between the three beaks with bits of guts, more legs, and pieces of head, and as the mouse parts dwindle, so does the interest of the owlets in having more. The yellow stare leaves my face, they begin closing their eyes and huddle up to each other. 

Putting them back into their cage is becoming more tricky than it used to be: their talons have developed pretty good grip already, and the biggest owlet clings to my finger while flapping her wings furiously and snaps her beak as I transfer her out of the feeding box. Her siblings follow suit, and then it’s time to clean up my mouse butchering gear to mix some milk for the little bear cubs. It may be a weird way to start the day, but it’s hard to beat. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

On a more personal note

Over seven months now. This is by far the longest time I’ve lived on grid, hooked up to roads, running water, power, cell phone service, and the rest of civilization in well over a decade. From my perspective, I’m currently living “down south”, while people here consider themselves as living in the north.

But alas, it’s not the north. Of course, people living in the High Arctic wouldn’t consider my home as being up north either. It’s all a matter of perspective, and this year of volunteering down south is allowing me to see my own life and those of other people from a different perspective – that of somebody who’s hooked up and plugged in.

It’s made me realize very strongly how happy I am to live my life out in the bush the way I do. It’s like an endless vacation compared to “normal” life. I guess I realize more strongly now the incredible amount of freedom I have at home; the freedom that comes with living simply (or like a bum, some might say). Having the incredible luxury of time. 

I find I don’t necessarily miss home so much, but the north – my north – in general. The long, slow sunrises and sunsets, unlogged forests that stretch to the horizon, mountains beyond mountains with healthy wildlife, eccentric people, First Nations people, open and friendly people … because there aren’t many humans in the north and we enjoy meeting somebody new.

Our lake at home is still frozen, but my thoughts turn to kayaking almost every day now. Being out on the water, looking for caribou along the shore; that clear sky high above, the translucent water dripping of my paddle and the scenery unfolding hour by hour. The sense of being small, expendable, and the land so vast and of such stark beauty. I wonder how our porcupine is doing, if the bears are out and where the moose cows will choose to have their calves.

It will still be there for me when I unhook and unplug, when I come back. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift of all.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Waiting for tragedy

We’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern here at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, waiting for this year’s first little orphans. It’s a weird, contradictory feeling: I don’t want any animal to experience the trauma of losing its mother and find itself in the completely unfamiliar and initially terrifying situation of being taken into human care. On the other hand, I chose to volunteer here for a year to learn more about wildlife. I want to look after animals. And so I find myself waiting for a tragedy to happen in an animal’s life.

We’ve been raking our hearts out while preparing for the first animals of 2017 to arrive. Never has dead grass been embraced with more fervour and enthusiasm than by our 45 bear yearlings, who are making it increasingly clear that they feel ready for freedom by shredding everything in their reach. Den boxes, climbing trees, even the ceiling of a partly covered enclosure are falling victim to the bears’ claws and teeth. 

The bears concentrate hard as they sniff the dead grass we bring in to them, a little taste of the outside world. Pulling it apart with their claws, elbow sticking out to the side, they lick up bits of roots and insects, until the new smell experience becomes too much. Like dogs overcome by a powerful smell, they throw themselves into the grass, rubbing their neck and shoulders into it. Wrestling matches start up and turn into wild games of chase, until the grass we’ve painstakingly raked has turned into a trampled carpet on the ground of the enclosure – where we get to rake it up again and consign it to the manure pile.

While the dead grass, as well as rotten logs and hidden bits of food keep the bears occupied, we are busy with spring maintenance of the grounds and preparing enclosures for the first new arrivals. Wildlife rehab is in many ways unpredictable – it’s a guessing game when the first animals of the year will be dropped off, and what species it might be. Keeping a small, varied stock of specialized milk powders formulated for the nutritional needs of the different species on hand is part of being prepared, as well as stocking things like different sizes of bottles and Miracle Nipples (which apparently work really well for baby squirrels). 

With all this prep work going on, I almost feel like an expectant mother – excited, a bit nervous, and wondering what the baby will look like. We’ve learned from Angelika Langen, NLWS’s co-founder, about the importance of moose and deer calves getting colostrum, the benefits of bottle feeding versus tube feeding, and the necessary hygiene regimen during bottle feeding. We’re prepped, we’ve got Miracle Nipples, we’re ready!

And now the first little orphans of the year have arrived: two tiny black bear cubs whose mother was killed in a car collision. Staring at the two frightened cubs huddled against each other, so very vulnerable, I realize I will never be completely ready, no matter what animal it is. I am not excited. I am not joyful. I am devastated because these cubs are so scared, barely daring to glance at us, and they have lost everything they had – their mom. 

I know from looking after the other bears that in all likelihood, these two will overcome their fear, grow and thrive and get released next year back into the wild. But in this moment, I’m caught in the contradiction of trying to build health and happiness out of sorrow and fear. I wonder - maybe that is exactly what these animals can teach us.