The casualty list is wide ranging: possums with frostbite, a turtle frozen in a block of ice, a swan hit by a plow, a fox hit by a car.
If this month’s record cold and snowfall have taken a toll on human residents in Massachusetts, they have also wreaked havoc on the animal population, particularly wildlife. Animal shelters are beyond capacity with weather-related injuries.
“This is the worst winter that we’ve seen in terms of straight-up starving animals coming in,” said veterinarian Maureen Murray, who practices and teaches at the Tufts University Wildlife Clinic in North Grafton. “With this historic amount of snow and extremely low temperatures, animals need more energy to stay warm, but they’re not able to find food sources for that energy, so it’s a really big strain on them.”
Although it’s difficult to determine whether wildlife populations have suffered permanent damage, local experts say it’s clear the animals are under extreme stress.
In response, animal shelters are working overtime. At New England Wildlife Center in Weymouth, the staff is tending to creatures they rarely see, including ocean birds blown off course by the recent storms and brought into the shelter emaciated and battered.
The Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable, one of the largest in the Northeast, has more than 90 patients in care now, nearly triple the average number for this time of year, said director Deborah Millman.
“I cannot think of a wild species that is not at risk in this weather,” said Dr. Greg Mertz, chief executive and “odd pet vet” at the New England center, whose staff has been working around the clock to feed them and mend broken wings and legs. “They’re part of the same environment we live in, and the things that affect us are also affecting them.”
The patients at the center, the only wildlife hospital in Greater Boston, include an Eastern screech owl brought in by an Abington family who noticed that it was up to its neck in snow. “His body was frozen. We put him in ICU in an oxygen tank, and on top of a heating pad,” said executive director Katrina Bergman. Treated for hypothermia, malnutrition, and a broken wing, he is doing well, she said.
Similarly, a turtle found frozen in a snowbank by a Boston family is recovering. “They don’t have a car, so they rented a Zipcar and brought it in,” said Bergman.
It is not easy treating wildlife under even the best of circumstances. “Domestic animals want to be taken care of, but wildlife want no part of this at all,” said Mertz. “These animals are not used to being around people at all.”
The MSPCA reports that two starving roosters with frostbitten combs were found abandoned in Shrewsbury, and a Pekin duck was plucked out of a snowbank by the Marblehead animal control officer. “She was probably someone’s pet,” said MSPCA spokesman Rob Halpin. “She had a little blue ribbon tied around her leg.”
Among the most common animals being seen at the shelters are ailing sea birds. The worst of the recent storms have been nor’easters, where the wind rotates onto land from the northeast, driving ocean birds toward shore and onto ice floes or snowbanks, according to the wildlife center.
The birds include thick-billed murres, Bufflehead ducks, and horned grebes. Malnourished, too weak to fly, and hundreds of miles from their habitats, they’ve been treated for broken wings and legs, and fed constantly. Mertz had two black ducks in ICU that had to be tube-fed, so frail were they after being blown from their ocean lair onto land.
“These guys are almost always offshore, and people never come in contact with them,” Mertz said.
Beyond the ones he has treated at his clinic, Mertz said he is also concerned about those animals he’s not seeing. Take, for instance, chipmunks, groundhogs, squirrels, shrews, mice, and moles. “They’re not at risk now because they’re buried in hibernation, but when all this snow melts, that changes the story. You worry about the flooding that will affect the hibernating.”
Many other animals normally would burrow through the snow to eat buds and seeds, but most are doubtless having trouble both digging through the deep drifts and finding anything to eat these days, he said.
Like the wildlife center, the MSPCA is concerned about those animals that can’t reach either the ground or seeds. “It’s at this time when backyard bird feeders are most appreciated by animals who otherwise might starve, and we’d ask for everyone who is able to do so to please keep their seed feeders filled until spring comes,” said Halpin.
Mertz said he worries that larger animals, like deer, may be frustrated in their attempts to secure food, finding it too difficult to forage. The only animal tracks he has seen in the woodlands are from fisher cats.
“I think that’s because they’re light enough not to be sinking deep into the snow, but I’m not sure they’re getting enough to eat.”
Domestic animals are less at risk from the weather. Those who work with them report that the vast majority of pet owners are able to keep their animals safe and comfortable. It’s the economy — not the weather — that most affects pet security.
Still, the shelters for domestic animals are facing their own difficulties. At Greyhound Friends Inc. in Hopkinton, two volunteers, Jon Servello and Mickayla Shepard, “ride out the storms overnight with the dogs” to make sure the 30 hounds are safe and sound. “Greyhounds have no fat, no insulation; they’re short-haired,” said Louise Coleman, who founded the nonprofit in 1983. “We’re very careful with this kind of weather.”
The fenced-in area for the dogs to roam and relieve themselves is blanked in snowdrifts. “Greyhounds don’t like being anything but comfortable,” Servello said. “Trying to get them outside when there’s disagreeable weather is difficult.”
That’s where their two-legged friends come in.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.