The Call of the Wild

Miranda Torkelson (courtesy of Wildlife Rehabilitation Center)

By the time I was 5 years old, I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. As a child, I talked my non-animal-loving parents into allowing dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, and fish to join our family. The part of my childhood that didn’t revolve around animals was spent adventuring outside. Our family vacations tended to involve camping in a state park or hiking many miles through national parks. 

In seventh grade, I started shadowing a veterinarian to see how to apply scientific knowledge to improve animal and human lives. This solidified my career choice. In high school, I was part of a project with the Department of Natural Resources, researching porcupines. Every other week, instead of going to class, I spent the day setting traps, collaring porcupines, and tracking them with radio telemetry in order to better understand their ecology. This was a perfect combination of my veterinary and outdoor interests: wildlife medicine. 

During my higher education, I started to do disease surveillance research with bats, track red-tailed hawks, and research the health of urban foxes and coyotes.

After I graduated from veterinary school, I completed a small-animal medicine and surgery internship at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. My schooling taught me the basics of medicine, procedures, and surgery, but this internship taught me how to apply this information and actually serve as a doctor. 

Next, I completed a year-long internship in wildlife rehabilitation medicine. I split my time between the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota (WRC) and The Raptor Center. I worked with an incredible variety of patients, including eagles, owls, hawks, foxes, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, songbirds, swans, ducks, geese, opossums, turtles, snakes, frogs, and more. 

The purpose of wildlife rehabilitation is to determine which patients have the best chance of survival to release, and to provide minimally stressful care for them along the way. Wildlife patients do not understand that we are there to help them, and we cannot comfort them like pets. Being in captivity is inherently stressful and scary for our patients, so it is important to do what we can to shorten their stay with us. Rehabilitated patients are released back to their territory once they are healed and physically ready to survive again in the wild.

It is also our duty to determine who has a low chance of survival and to relieve their suffering. 

WRC sees a lot of traumatic injuries. These can occur due to collisions with buildings or cars, predators, dog and cat attacks, gunshot wounds, among others. Injuries can include broken bones, wounds, or soft tissue trauma. Sometimes we see these injuries shortly after they happen, but often wildlife patients cannot be captured to be brought into the clinic until they are debilitated and have secondary infections or malnutrition. 

In the spring and summer, we see a lot of orphaned young animals. We also see toxicities from rodenticide or heavy metals, like lead. Treating this variety of patients and problems relies on the use of comparative medicine and creativity. If I haven’t treated something before, I search through our records, ask my colleagues, check in wildlife textbooks or research articles, look for information in more common domestic species, or even look to human medicine. This constant need for problem solving and ingenuity makes my job ever-changing and exciting.

I have developed a passion for improving our capacity to provide critical care. One of the species I’ve focused on is red foxes with mange. Mange is a condition caused by parasitic mites that burrow into the skin and cause intense itching, hair loss, skin infections, scabbing, and other lesions. As the disease progresses, it can become so debilitating that the animal is unable to hunt and find food. Typically, they also have other underlying illnesses. 

Last summer, I had several fox patients that I did everything I could for, yet I still could not save them. They got emergency blood transfusions, IV fluids, medications, and special diets. By carefully managing these cases, I got closer to an understanding of the constellation of conditions involved. The investment of time and care, the pain of loss, and my drive to improve and succeed allowed me to get closer to solving the puzzle. 

Critical mange foxes started to survive. We have had three foxes released, and one in care now is close to release thanks to these new protocols. It is this ability to learn and improve outcomes that inspires me to continue my work. 

Miranda Torkelson DVM, CWR (she/her) remained at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center as a veterinarian after completing a training program, and intends to specialize in clinical wildlife medicine. 

Action = Change

The majority of wildlife rehabilitation patients are brought in by the general public. People find injured wildlife in their backyards, alongside roads, in parks. Patients are also brought in by the DNR, animal control departments, and police officers. 

Says Miranda Torkelson, “Most common wildlife patients can be safely transported in an appropriately sized cardboard box or pet carrier. It is always most important to put your safety first and avoid dangerous parts of an animal, such as teeth, beak, and claws. I recommend throwing a towel or blanket over most animals and either grabbing them around the main part of their body or gently pushing them into a container. If you have any questions, call your local wildlife rehabilitator, and call before handling any more dangerous animals such as carnivores, bats, large animals, or raptors.”

Wildlife Research Center, 2530 Dale St. N. Roseville, 55113 

video from Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota