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North country needs wildlife rehabilitators

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David A. LaShomb had grown to love the two baby raccoons he found starving on a roadside when a state Department of Environmental Conservation officer showed up at his door and took them away.

The officer told Mr. LaShomb, Norwood, that he would take the raccoons to a veterinarian and then to a wildlife rehabilitator, but instead they were killed and tested by the Health Department for rabies, which came up negative.

“They were thriving, actually. We became attached to them, but we had no intention of making them pets,” said Mr. LaShomb, a former dog warden for the town of Potsdam. “We already had a couple of weeks invested in them. I didn’t want to see it go for naught, but it went that way.”

Mr. LaShomb and his daughter, Amber J., had tried to find a wildlife rehabilitator to take the raccoons but had little luck before they started researching how to raise the babies to an age where they could make it on their own.

“I wanted to turn them over,” Mr. LaShomb said. “I made every effort I could.”

Mr. LaShomb did find a rehabilitator in Jefferson County who is certified to handle animals that can carry and transmit rabies, but the man already had 30 others he was caring for and wanted a $200 donation to take the raccoon babies.

Mr. LaShomb and his daughter considered the arrangement but worried that the man was overwhelmed by all the animals he already had.

Other wildlife rehabilitators Mr. LaShomb contacted said they could not care for rabies vector species — including skunks and raccoons — because they receive no assistance and the state’s requirements are expensive.

Meanwhile, word of Mr. LaShomb’s efforts attracted the attention of DEC officials, who would not allow him to keep the baby raccoons.

“I’m hoping to rally some animal lovers so things can change,” Mr. LaShomb said.

Statewide, there are about 1,000 wildlife rehabilitators, but only three in St. Lawrence County, none of them licensed to care for RVS animals.

“It’s incumbent on us to put our heads together and see what we can do,” said Judy Drabicki, DEC Region 6 director. “We would love to see more RVS rehabilitators.”

Most wild animals should be left in their natural environment, but there are exceptions.

“We want things to be wild. We want people to understand nature’s cruel,” DEC Wildlife Manager James F. Farquhar said. “On the other hand, there’s the human element. Obviously, you want to help something in distress.”

Carol J. Palmer, Parishville, has been a wildlife rehabilitator for 28 years, caring mostly for fawns, squirrels, and rabbits, but she has never become certified for RVS animals.

“I took the classes, but the cages are expensive. It’s all volunteer,” she said. “There is no traveling. We have lots of cages and animals and not a lot of money. I’m not sure it’s a love of animals or insanity. You really have to have a lot of devotion.”

The north country used to have more rehabilitators; while some dropped out because of the expense, others became discouraged.

“It can get depressing because a high percentage of the animals don’t make it,” Mrs. Palmer said. “For a lot of people, it’s burnout.”

Amy E. Ouimet is one of three RVS rehabilitators in Franklin County, all of them friends who back each other up.

“We are absolutely inundated with calls. There’s simply more need,” Mrs. Ouimet said. “I am full and I’ve been full for a while.”

There is room for improvement in the state’s program, which could encourage more participation, Mrs. Ouimet said.

Training for new rehabilitators takes place once a year in one location in the state, but Mrs. Ouimet would like to see the classes offered in a wider area.

This year, the training at the state’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Council conference will take place in October in Syracuse.

“When I did it, I had to go all the way to Buffalo,” Mrs. Ouimet said.

Unfortunately, a more local approach to training is difficult because classes involve DEC, the state Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture and Markets, Ms. Drabicki said.

“The accommodation is that we move it around the state,” she said.

RVS rehabilitators are required to pay out-of-pocket for a pre-exposure rabies vaccine, and the cost — nearly $1,000 — stops many people. New Jersey, however, offers the vaccine at reduced rates during its wildlife conference, Mrs. Ouimet said.

She said she also would like to see the same rabies bait vaccine dropped for wildlife in some counties, including St. Lawrence, distributed to rehabilitators for use in the animals they tend.

“Why do they not provide those to us?” she said. “Things like that frustrate me to no end.”

DEC recognizes the north country needs more wildlife rehabilitators and might approach sportsmen’s clubs for their ideas, Ms. Drabicki said.

For his part, Mr. LaShomb wants to start a nonprofit organization to raise money for rehabilitators.

“I want to right what’s wrong,” he said. “I think it can happen, because there’s animal lovers all over.”

Mr. LaShomb said he plans to name the organization FLO Foundation, short for Feisty and Little One, the names of the baby raccoons he tried to save.

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