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Once upon a time, I worked at the local animal emergency hospital. On one particularly cool spring night, my co-workers and I gathered around the check-in area to discuss the hospitalized cases before the next shift took over the cases.
The receptionist answered. “Good evening, how can I help you?”
(Brief pause while listening to caller)
“Okay, see you soon and thanks for letting us know,” she said before hanging up the phone.
“Someone found some baby ducklings who have been separated from their family group, near a pond off highway 169 and 61st Street,” she reported. “They gathered them up because they were being chased by some cats or other nighttime creatures. With it being dark out, they didn't know what else to do and are headed our way with them now.”
I didn't know how to respond except to say, “When they drop them off, could you please get the exact location of the pond where the ducklings were found?” This situation was a new one for me and nothing else intelligent came to mind. I was tired and this was not a topic we'd covered in veterinary school.
Ideally, one should always contact a veterinary professional or licensed wildlife rehabilitator before catching or handling wild animals of any age. Usually, they don't need any help, and will return to their normal habitat without any help from humans. Not only can it be illegal, but the very act of handling wild babies may mean that they will not be able to be returned to the wild because their parents won't take them back. But it was too late to say all of that, as the ducklings were already in a carrier and on their way in to the hospital.
Moments later, the receptionist brought a small dog crate back to the treatment area from which was coming a melody of the softest yet slightly piercing peeping noises one could imagine. Peering into the crate, it became clear these were freshly hatched Mallard ducklings. There were 12 wobbly little bodies in total, each like a small ray of sunshine in all their newborn fuzziness and yellow gold with black stripes. They all stayed tightly huddled together, making one large blob of fuzz, with many legs and half that number of heads.
“Could you please call the local wildlife rehabilitation center,” I asked a technician, “and see if they can take them?”
(The constant peeping continued.)
“Dr. Mueller, I called the wildlife center and their emergency contact but no one answered.”
“Okay,” I said, “it looks like we'll have to take care of these little guys tonight. Could someone please put them in a kennel, in the back where it's dark and quiet? Leave them in the crate for now and offer them some water.”
A few moments later, all heck broke loose and a random assortment of dogs and cats with urgent problems began flooding into the hospital, so many that I had to stay well into the night to help. So much for handing my cases off to the next shift!
I'll take them home tonight, I thought while caring for another patient, and keep them warm and safe while I figure out what to do with them. The constant peeping luckily helped keep me bright and alert that night while driving home, as that wasn't always the case after a long shift. I wasn't planning to be at home for long because we were short a doctor at work, and I was scheduled to come back in the morning to take back over care of the cases I'd just handed off.
(6:00 a.m. alarm)
Upon opening my eyes, I immediately remembered the ducklings who I found to still be sleeping. When I nudged the crate a little, they quickly awoke to begin peeping once again in perfect harmony. They'd also tipped over their water bowls and stomped in the wet bedding to their little hearts' content. I smiled and went to wake my stepdaughters for school. Claire, the youngest, has always had a special interest in animals. I told her I had a surprise, which got her moving a little quicker, and she shrieked out of sheer joy when she saw them.
“Nate, can we keep them?” she asked.
“I'm so sorry, but no,” I said. “They need to go back to their family to get their best shot at life.”
“Can we keep only one or two of them?”
“Nope,” I said as gently as possible as I could see the tears filling the corners of her eyes. “We can't do as good of a job at raising them as their own family which is why we need to try to reunite them all back together again. Don't you think they miss their family, and don't you think their family is worried about them?”
I could see her becoming more frustrated with me.
“Please go get ready for school, and be sure to wash your hands since you've handled the ducklings.” I said as she unhappily stomped away.
“And Claire, if you want, before I take you to school, we'll stop by the pond where they were found last night to see if we can find their family. How does that sound?”
“Okay,” she said after a brief pause and with a slightly happier tone. I could tell the idea of the before-school adventure to the duck pond cheered her up some. When she was ready, I loaded the ducklings in the truck and off we went, but not without another round of, “But Nate, can we please keep just one?” before we arrived.
Nearly there, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out the note my receptionist had written with directions to the pond. Thinking I might be slightly crazy to believe there was even a small possibility of this working, we parked a short distance from the pond and got out. I grabbed the dog crate and we began walking toward the pond but we didn't get far before we were heard. All at once upon hearing their sweet ducklings' harmonious cheeping, several adult Mallards oh so ungracefully descended upon us, landing only a few feet away.
All the quacking, hissing and commotion from the adult ducks stopped Claire in her tracks. “It's okay, I'm right here,” I told her. “They want their babies back and they'll be much happier when we leave so we need to do this fast. Do you want to open the crate?”
“Yes!” she said without hesitating.
I set the crate on the grass and took several steps backwards. Claire unlocked the crate and tipped it forward slightly to help gently guide them out. They recognized their quacking family members' voices and proceeded to clumsily trample one another in a race to get out. Luckily, not one duckling was injured in their mass exodus.
“Slowly walk backwards, Claire,” I said. Within the blink of an eye, the parent ducks came, with wings spread to surround their young. Back together again, they rushed toward the water's edge and took to the safety of the pond.
Back in the truck and heading towards school, Claire was grinning from ear to ear.
“Aren't you glad the duck family is all back together?” I asked.
“Yes,” she beamed. “I can't wait to tell my friends when I get to school!”
She paused for a moment and looked at her phone, but I could tell she had something more to say.
“Since we're still a few minutes early, can we stop and get some donuts?”
She knew we didn't usually stop for donuts unless there was a special occasion, but this was the perfect moment to celebrate, so a day of donuts and ducklings it was.
If you find a wild animal you believe needs help, always contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator before doing anything else. Do not attempt to catch or handle them without prior instruction from a rehabilitator or veterinarian. Wild animals can be dangerous and may carry diseases that can be contagious, and potentially fatal, to humans even when the animal appears healthy.
March 11, 2021
Dr. Nathan Mueller
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January 30, 2021