Squirrels, rabbits, snakes, owls: Louisiana wildlife need rehabilitators

A sign on the door gives an unusual warning to visitors at the Wings of Hope Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Volunteers (and everyone else). Make sure this door is closed at all times. Great Horned Owl will eat everyone in this building.”

That door separated the owl from rooms filled with squirrels, rabbits and other wildlife and sometimes pets brought to the sanctuary for care.

For Leslie Lattimore, director of the sanctuary in Livingston, keeping animals under her care from becoming each other’s dinner is just one of the many things she’s learned to do in more than 37 years of rehabilitating wildlife.

That experience is something the Louisiana Wildlife Rehabilitation Association hopes to spread across the state through rehabilitator training sessions next year.

“We’re looking for new rehabbers,” said Beau Gast, director of the Louisiana Wildlife Rehabilitation Association.

Specifically, the organization wants to attract more people in the New Orleans area as well as the central coastal areas such as Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes.

“In the greater New Orleans area, we are in desperate need of anyone who wants to do anything right now,” Gast said. “Down around Houma, that area we don’t have any rehabbers down there.”

Rehabbers are licensed by the state to treat wild animals, with the ultimate goal of releasing them back to the wild.

While some zoos and the LSU veterinary school may accept some animals if there are resources and room to do so, wildlife rehabilitators use their time and money to help.

There are only about 25 active rehabilitators in the state, with many taking one or two species of animals only.

To increase this number, the Louisiana Wildlife Rehabilitation Association will hold about four training sessions.

The Humane Society of Louisiana also will hold one or two training sessions in the New Orleans areas and coastal communities with the hope of starting some grassroots efforts to get wildlife rehabilitation facilities established.

Lattimore first got involved in wildlife rehabilitation when she was living in Colorado, where she helped one or two animals a year, she said.

Then, 37 years ago, she moved to Louisiana.

“When I moved here, I thought I wouldn’t do it anymore,” she said, but she got pulled back in. “My kids just kept bringing things home, and it just escalated from there.”

Gast describes Lattimore’s operation as probably the largest wildlife rehabilitation center in the state with the sheer number of species she accepts.

“We do everything except for white-tailed deer,” Lattimore said.

Today, the sanctuary is a refuge for squirrels, turtles, possums, skunks, flying squirrels, a Mississippi Kite, hummingbirds and, of course, the Great Horned Owl.

Then there are the non-Louisiana animals, including parrots, a green woodhoopoe and a large African Sulcata Turtle that a couple was keeping in their basement but no longer wanted, so they shipped it to Lattimore’s place.

Lattimore’s advice to anyone interested in getting involved in wildlife rehabilitation is not to follow her lead.

“I would tell them to do only one species,” she said. It’s more cost-effective, and a person can specialize better by concentrating on just one species.

The work takes time and money, but it also takes some hard decisions.

One of the hardest, she said, is deciding whether an animal that is brought in is viable and can either be eventually released back to the wild or have a quality life in captivity.

Video cameras monitor most of the cages so Lattimore can watch the animals’ progress without causing a distraction.

On one side of the yard is a large enclosed area where birds can get exercise and strengthen their wings before being released.

“It fulfills the requirements for eagles,” she said.

Animals get referred to her from a number of sources, and she depends on donations to help keep bills paid and animals fed.

In the meantime, Lattimore has rearranged the office by hiding all the pencils, to keep them from disappearing with the help of a too-inquisitive crow, and by raising electrical cords off the ground to keep Thumper the rabbit from chewing through the wires.

“I really don’t know what keeps me doing it. I can’t explain it,” she said with a laugh, as a parrot calmly sat on her shoulder. “I guess it’s like an addiction.”