Rehabilitating an orphaned vole
— By Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —
It’s true that we serve bears, wolves, and other large, dramatic animals that capture our imagination. But from an ethical perspective, Life is owed a deep respect regardless of size because anything with the breath of life is an absolute miracle. Even from a practical perspective, size doesn’t matter. For example, without the millions of tiny teeming bacterial and fungal life forms found in a single teaspoon of fertile earth, we wouldn’t have Life as we know it. Burrowing through this fertile soil are still more life forms, busily living their lives and contributing their own qualities to the overall web of life.
In this case, I am writing about a baby vole.
A very kind woman found him behind her car tire. How she spotted him, I don’t know. She was on her way to a modeling assignment, dressed to the nines, but took the time to drive him to us, deposit him in my hand, and rush off. Small as he was, he mattered to her.
He was only one or two days old, so tiny we thought we didn’t have a nipple small enough to accommodate his mouth. We spent a worried evening trying to rig an injection needle to offer droplets small enough not to choke him. Finally, in despair, we tried the tiniest nipple we had in our arsenal. To our amazement, that tiny creature could open his mouth astoundingly wide. It was, when you think about it, the focus of his whole existence—the mouth and the nipple. It took a day or two of feeding— first every hour and then every two hours—until we found a mutual rhythm. Soon he was sucking mightily and I knew how much to assist with a little push of the syringe. It is always a matter of time to establish a relationship with another being. So often we don’t give enough to develop one.
Like most baby mammals, his belly needed to be stimulated for him to urinate and defecate. As I did this, using a warm, dampened Q-tip, he would lie on his back in pure ecstasy, four miniscule limbs spread wide, head back, immensely long whiskers jutting out from his chin, looking exactly like a miniature, inch-long puppy or kitten getting a tummy rub.
He was so small that it was a few days before I was sure he would survive; that the food suited him; that I wouldn’t choke him with too much too fast, or starve him with too little. But as someone who watched him trying to burrow into the safe darkness between my fingers noted, “He has fight in him.” Size be damned, we all want to live. When I described the energy with which he sucked down his milk, another person commented, “He came IN to Life with that spark of energy.” I found that a fascinating way of looking at things, deserving of more thought. And I was going to do everything I could to give him his chance.
His will to live won. Eventually, his eyes began to open, his little ears popped out, his fur filled in. I offered him seeds and nuts and berries and fruits and grasses (and the ever-recommended rodent chow, which—as in every case I have ever dealt with—was roundly rejected). I noticed that bits of food I left in his enclosure had been moved, often and into many places. He was active. He began to vigorously reject the nipple as I worried that he might not be eating enough or getting enough liquid. It is such a delicate balance during weaning. But he is a growing, independent boy and soon I will release him to live his life. It doesn’t matter at all that it is a physically small life. The breath of Life is as big in him as in any other being—there is no “size” to that.
On the other end of Life’s spectrum, we are home to an elderly black bear, Huckleberry Bear Bear. He has a hard time walking now and seems to be a bit Alzheimerish, laying his portly body with his black fur directly in the burning sun of these summer days. Panting, he doesn’t seem to realize he could move to the shade. We stopped letting him out in his garden because we couldn’t move all 600 pounds of him out of the sun and back into the safety of his enclosure. Instead, we built him an assisted living facility, complete with misted shade-cloth and a bed of soft, cool, moist grass, which is where he currently spends his days. We support his arthritis with nutritional supplements, anti-inflammatories, and periodic steroid shots, but his problems are more neurologic than arthritic, similar to when a dog begins to lose the use of his hind end. (This happened to one of our cougars, too. With the dog and the cougar, we could help with special wheelchairs, but that is not exactly feasible with a bear.)
We hosted a visitor the other day who saw Huckleberry lying there peacefully. Her reaction startled me. “You should put that bear down. He would never make it in the wild.”
Apart from the fact that we are a sanctuary, and he is not in the wild, this human-based attitude toward wild animals is very troublesome—that we should “let nature take its course.” Do we do that with humans near the end of life? Why is caring for an elderly bear different from caring for an elderly dog or cat? We don’t routinely put them down when they begin to need help. We often do everything we can to medically prolong the life of our pets, including palliative care. Just because we love them doesn’t make them more important though, or mean they have any more desire to live than the wild ones. They are different in their meaning to us personally, but life is precious to all living beings. They all fight to stay alive as long as possible.
Also, Huckleberry was bred in captivity, brought into this world by humans before we took him in. He isn’t in nature. Unexamined thinking, especially thoughts that are firmly-held and then imposed on other lives who have no say, is destructive. If we truly extend our sense of community to all living beings, we wouldn’t make distinctions based on how important and close someone is to us. That is tribal thinking and does not suit our current times,when there are so many of us and we have so much power to change the Earth’s living systems. We humans are beginning to recognize not just how we are all interconnected but also how essential that recognition is for environmental survival. The tribal way of thinking no longer works. Only valuing all Life will work.
Why do we see the wild ones as so different? That is a question that is worth seriously examining. What is the basis for this belief? It is true that as we take care of an animal over time, we form a relationship. We come to care deeply, and feel we can’t betray that animal’s trust by euthanizing him for a human-held belief. There are also unexpected depths to wild (and all) animals—they are not just biological beings. Who knows how much enjoyment Huckleberry Bear gets from lying in the grass, feeling the cool, sweet, pine-scented breezes of the evening flow over him? I expect one day Huckleberry will peacefully slip away—when he is ready, like many of our elderly animals. If not, we will make that incredibly difficult decision that it is time. But not now. And not without much thought and observation. For the time being, he is free to relax on his cool, green bed of grass as long as he desires.
The other day, another visitor came with pies for all the bears—berry pies covered with a thick layer of real homemade whipped cream. We brought one to Huckleberry. There was very little doubt about his aliveness—or his capacity for sensual enjoyment—based on the sparkling-clean pie plate left over. First, he delicately licked off all of the cream; then the crust was tested and tasted; then the berries; then, slowly, he savored bites of crust and berries lifted off the plate until there was nothing left. And then the plate was turned over, just in case there was more.
We had a third visitor a few days later—an artist. Her immediate response was the opposite of the first. She wanted to help him enjoy as good a quality of life as possible for as long as possible, so she offered to paint a mural on one of the walls of his enclosure, depicting the wilderness and mountains he could no longer see and his beloved, deceased brother, Major Bear, peacefully grazing on grass in a flower-filled meadow.
My own philosophy is that being alive is an incredibly precious gift and we all want to live. May we strive to be guided by that premise.
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.