Helping all Creatures, Great and Small
Susan Siegel with “Willow,” an injured opossum she nursed back to health.
By Grace Allen
A life-long love of animals has turned into a calling for a Norfolk woman. Susan Siegel, a former critical care nurse, is a newly licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She has also launched a non-profit organization, Return2Wild, out of her home, which she hopes will educate and engage people in wildlife care, conservation, and peaceful, safe coexistence.
As a wildlife rehabilitator, Siegel is tasked with caring for injured, sick, or orphaned wild animals. When the animals are healthy and can care for themselves, Siegel releases them back into their natural habitats.
Since she was a young child, Siegel wanted to become a veterinarian. Instead, she ended up going to nursing school, where she learned skills that are transferrable to her new role today. Most wildlife rehabilitators are strictly volunteer, however, so she is not paid a salary.
“I have done many things in my nursing profession, and I’ve loved every moment, but now this is my full-time gig,” she said. “This is my passion and also my way of giving back. It’s my community service, and I’m honored to do it.”
Wildlife rehabilitators follow rules and regulations determined by both state and federal agencies, which require different licenses. Siegel is currently licensed to care for most mammals, reptiles, and non-migratory birds.
She will not take in raccoons, however, because they are a significant rabies vector species. She says it’s important to note that they also carry raccoon roundworm, a severe zoonotic disease dangerous to both animals and humans. It is very difficult to eradicate via normal disinfecting methods and can live in the environment for up to 10 years.
“I do love raccoons, however, and I would help anyone find the right rehabilitator if the need arises,” said Siegel. “I will also take any rabies vector species out of the hands of the public, immediately, for safety reasons, and help get the animal to the proper rehabber, a wildlife center, or animal control.”
Since becoming licensed this past fall, Siegel has cared for opossums, chipmunks, bunny rabbits, and squirrels in her home. She has converted a room into what she calls the “WICU”—Wildlife Interim Care Unit. A walk-in closet has become a treatment room for the tiniest baby animals that need an incubator or a warm, dark, and quiet space to de-stress. She currently has two outdoor enclosures, which are also used for stabilized wildlife being prepared for a return to the wild.
Wildlife rehabilitators work hand-in-hand with animal control officers. For Siegel, that partnership includes both Norfolk’s animal control officer Hilary Cohen, as well as Erin Mallette, the animal control officer for Millis and Medway. Mallette is also a certified wildlife rehabilitator.
ACO Cohen, in an email, said Siegel is a welcome addition to the area’s animal welfare professionals and will be an asset to the community.
“There are not enough wildlife rehabilitators in Massachusetts, so I am ecstatic to have her literally in Norfolk’s backyard,” said Cohen.
Deciding whether to call an animal control officer or a wildlife rehabber often comes down to public safety, explained Siegel. Animal control officers should be the first point of contact if the animal appears dangerous or potentially rabid, or if it was hit by a car. Generally, domestic animals fall under the auspices of animal control officers, who are licensed differently than wildlife rehabilitators and are employed by police departments.
When spring finally arrives in these parts, Siegel expects to get very busy. As people spend more time outdoors, they may notice active wildlife or baby animals in their yards. Often, people are unsure if the babies are injured or abandoned, but there are clues that can help determine if the animal needs assistance, or if the mother is hovering nearby, unseen.
“I believe people are well-intentioned and want to scoop them up and rescue them because they think they’re abandoned, but really they’re not,” said Siegel. “There are little tests people can do and I’ll talk them through it. We always say, before you intervene, call us. And if we determine the animal really needs help, I’ll step in.”
Siegel says she will always respond to calls or emails from the public, and it doesn’t matter which town they live in. If she can’t help, she will direct the caller to someone who can. There are about 150 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Massachusetts, each with their own area of expertise.
“We all work together to make things happen,” said Siegel.
All wildlife rehabilitators in Massachusetts must have a Vet of Record as part of their team. A wildlife rehabilitator works closely with the veterinarian, who helps provide needed medical care as well as euthanasia if necessary. Siegel noted that while wildlife rehabilitators can be quite astute at identifying and treating injuries, only vets are licensed to diagnose, prescribe medicine, or order medical tests.
Siegel sees part of her job as educating the public about wildlife. She wants Return2Wild to be a resource for the community and is happy to speak to area groups about local wildlife and animal welfare.
She also plans to start fundraising for her new organization, to cover the costs of food, formula, housing, and veterinary care. Right now, she is paying for everything herself, as is typical in the field because many wildlife rehabilitators work from home and receive little or no financial compensation. There is no government funding.
Wildlife rehabilitators also depend on volunteers, and Siegel plans to include volunteers to help her achieve her mission at Return2Wild. She believes that wildlife care and conservation takes a village—teamwork, volunteers, and donors. A commitment to doing what is best for animals, which can often mean leaving them undisturbed in the wild, is also important.
“No matter how good our intentions, nothing replaces momma,” said Siegel. “We are here to give wildlife a second chance, not impact their best chance.”
To learn more about Siegel and her new organization, visit return2wild.org, or follow the organization on Facebook.
To contact Siegel, call or text her at 774-469-0806, or send her an email at return2[email protected]. There is also a contact form on the website.