Wildlife center aiding injured, orphaned rabbits

Sunday, March 31, 2013 | 5:17 p.m. CDT
This undated photo provided by New Hampshire Fish and Game Department shows a New England cottontail rabbit. Wildlife officials say the New England cottontail could soon face extinction, due to diminishing shrublands across the Northeast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with state agencies and private organizations from Maine to New York to restore its natural habitat and save an animal that is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

BALLWIN, Mo. — A wildlife rescue center near St. Louis is working to help bunnies make it to adulthood.

The Wildlife Rescue Center in St. Louis County handled 1,085 orphaned and injured wild cottontail rabbits last year, all but 55 of them babies, Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis reported.

The 34-year-old center rehabilitates injured, sick and orphaned native Missouri wildlife. Once healthy, the animals are released to their natural habitats.

Animal care director Kim Rutledge said the number of cottontails treated by the center rose steadily over the last four years, due in part to increased development in west St. Louis County.

Four volunteers act as foster caregivers for the young bunnies, Rutledge said.

"Things are just picking up this season," Rutledge said. "Cottontails account for over 35 percent of our total intake. They are the most commonly encountered backyard wildlife. Thankfully, they mature quickly, so their stay with us is short compared to other orphaned mammals."

Typically, the babies are brought in because of a rabbit nest that's been disturbed or destroyed due to landscaping, Rutledge said.

"Unfortunately, with the ones that just came in, someone found a nest and attempted to take care of the babies themselves because the person didn't see the mother," she said. "But it's likely the nest wasn't abandoned because she only comes there at night. The person thought they were doing the right thing."

Often, by the time the center is called, the babies have been in human care a few days, past the point where the mother would come back.

Residents preparing homes and gardens for spring should be aware of the needs of the rabbits who might share their backyards, said Penelope Beache, the center's director of resource development.

"The best thing people can do is work around any rabbit nest because it's an old wives' tale that mothers will reject their young due to human scent," Rutledge said. "It's important to just leave them alone or give us a call to answer questions. We're trying to be a model of compassionate conservation."

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