Plucking from the wild

LAURENS — When the small squirrel was dropped off at Paws Animal Wildlife Sanctuary, he couldn’t close his mouth.

His teeth had become so overgrown and twisted, he couldn’t close his jaws as they impaled the inner and outer areas of his cheeks.

It was a scene Mac Curry has become all too familiar with — someone had plucked the squirrel from the wild at a young age, improperly cared for it and dropped it off at her wildlife rehabilitation center when they realized something was wrong.

Curry worked with the squirrel for months, cutting his teeth at the root every week just to leave painful, bloody stubs in his gums.

But it was too late. His owners had fed him with a syringe since he was a baby, leaving out the hard nuts that are necessary for a squirrel’s diet and physical development, and his teeth would never grow normally again.

They kept growing back at odd angles, jutting out in ways that would ultimately lead to a slow, painful death for the squirrel. Instead of holding him down once a week and agonizingly clipping at the roots for the rest of his life, Curry made the difficult decision to euthanize him.

Curry runs PAWS in Laurens County for animals who need rehabilitation before they can be released in their natural habitat, but often many of them never make it back to the wild.

Fiona will never live in the wild again — an official with the state Department of Natural Resources captured the white-tailed doe as she leapt in and out of backyards, trying to play with neighbors and their pet dogs.

She has a slack jaw that sits agape, her teeth pointed out horizontally.

Fiona had become a backyard pet for four years after some children found her alone in the woods and mistakenly thought she needed help. The fawn had been nestled on the ground when the kids brought her to a well-meaning couple in the neighborhood who took her in and kept her in their fenced-in backyard.

At one point, a few dogs attacked the enclosure Fiona was being kept in, and in an attempt to escape, she threw herself at the fence, breaking her jaw in the process.

Since she still seemed to be eating, the family never took Fiona to get her jaw looked at by a veterinarian.

It wasn’t until Fiona escaped and was found by DNR that she made it to PAWS.

Although Fiona’s jaw will cause her problems in the future — her teeth will slowly grind down and she will be unable to chew food — her broken jaw is not stopping her from being released in the wild.

“What we’ve got is a 4-year-old doe who can never be released because she’s too friendly, too trusting of predators, she has a broken jaw that has healed improperly that is going to cause her problems when she is older and she didn’t need to be rescued in the first place,” Curry said.

Because Fiona has become accustomed to humans, she isn’t afraid of coming up to houses, running in the road and playing with humans by standing on her hind legs and throwing herself at people.

In Curry’s deer pen, Fiona is the lone deer who happily walks up to the gate when people walk in. The others shy to the back, as they’re supposed to, rushing to the farthest corner away from people.

Although Fiona’s story ended better than the squirrel’s, her tale is still one marked by how preventable it was — if she had been left in the wild, she likely would have had a happy, free life of about 10 years.

“Her story is not unique. We get far too many calls of people wanting to give up their pet deer once it’s too far gone for us to save,” Curry said. “Everyone thinks that there is some sanctuary or rescue out there that will take their deer, and there are not enough sanctuaries in the world to take all of the pet deer that are being created every year.”

Many wildlife rehabilitators will not take in an animal that has been in an untrained person’s care for more than two weeks — by then, the damage is often done.

“They don’t understand they’re asking someone to pay for proper care for this animal for the next 15-20 years,” Curry said. “In less than a year, they can cause somebody else 20 years worth of expense.”

Stories of animals who would have lived happy, healthy lives but for human involvement are common — a red-tailed hawk who lives at PAWS can never hunt again because she was kept in a small cage and fed improperly, causing her ankles to twist and her claws to clench up. She was found malnourished, her feathers stripped to their spines, dragging herself by her wings across a field.

A baby vulture came to Curry with mutated wings and broken bones because it was fed store-bought chicken breast and had a vitamin and calcium deficiency. Unrecognizable, its wings were twisted over its head and its bones never recovered.

Many times, Curry’s animals do not come from people intentionally abusing them — it’s often someone who wants to help them or keep them as a pet.

For the red-tailed hawk and Fiona, Curry was able rehabilitate them and give them a life, albeit in captivity.

“I think she has made peace with her new life in captivity — I still have problems with it,” Curry said. “We need the rabbits, we need the squirrels, we need the rodents out there, but we’ve got to make sure that there is a balance.”

Pat Cloninger, with the Upstate DNR office, said they get about five to 10 calls a week regarding animals who need help.

“Most people do not do this. Most people do not try to rehab them themselves, but the ones that do can cause really awful situations for the animals,” Curry said. “Natural causes, we can deal with that. We don’t always save everything, but it’s fairly clear-cut — we can save them or we can’t save them. The ones where they’ve had humans involved, those are the ones I don’t always know if I can correct or not … and it’s 100 percent preventable — that’s the thing that emotionally tears us up.”

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