Behind the Scenes with a Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator

We often post pictures on social media of the interesting critters we have drop by our clinic. What you may not realize is all the behind-the-scenes work done by our area’s licensed wildlife rehabbers.

We owe a huge thanks to the Black Hawk Wildlife Rehabilitation Project (BHWRP) and their rehabbers (Linda Nebbe, Terese Evans, Tracy Belle, Dreama Bartz, Janet Grovo, Christina Langham, and many others we may have overlooked!) to make sure all God’s creatures are cared for, healed, and returned to the wild.

We are fortunate to have one of them, Rachel Shadle, on our staff at Den Herder Veterinary Hospital.

Wildlife Rehab Training

Rachel has always loved creatures of all shapes and sizes (she has a wonderful collection of birds, fish, lizards, a tortoise, bunnies, dogs, and cats at home). When she started working here in 2006, she got hooked on wildlife. In 2011, she wanted to take things to the next level and become a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Terese helping an injured eagle

Terese Evans, her husband Jim, and Dr. Cherney examine a juvenile Bald Eagle.

She found a sponsor for her training, Terese Evans, and started her hands on learning. There isn’t a formal course, just lots of observation and assisting.

Each species has unique issues and few animals come in under the same circumstances. Rachel says that the training never ends as long as a person is working with wildlife!

After working closely with Terese, Rachel had the DNR inspect her facilities and submitted paperwork to the State of Iowa for approval. She is now a licensed rehabber and volunteers much of her free time helping wildlife.

Caring for Wildlife

She devotes much more than her time to wildlife rehab. She offers space in her home and spends money from her wallet. She has an area of her garage for housing wildlife. She does not bring them inside her home just in case the wildlife could pass something on to her personal pets at home.

She also has outdoor cage areas for wildlife. BHWRP will provide special formula or medicine, but all other care is out of her pocket. Donations to BHWRP are always appreciated to help support these rehabbers!

baby bunniesThe time needed for rehabbing is rather intense. In the spring when many babies (e.g., rabbits, squirrels) are rescued, Rachel is responsible for frequent round the clock feedings. She said it is like having a newborn infant to care for (minus the diapers).

She has to plan her day and evening around feedings as well as any vacation time when she would be out of town. If you are in the office, look around her desk area. You’ll often find a small carrier that might be making little squeaks inside.

Despite the constant care, rehabbers actually need to minimize human contact as much as possible so the animal (or bird) doesn’t bond with humans. Having a natural fear of people will be necessary for optimal survival in the wild.

Read what you should do if you find injured wildlife.

Paperwork, Playtime, and Painful Moments

Licensed rehabbers must keep detailed records on all wildlife in their care. The DNR reviews them every year. If you aren’t following protocol, you can have your licensed revoked.

barn owl in flight

Rachel shares, “The goal of wildlife rehab is to get them healthy in order to release them back into the wild with their instincts intact. We aren’t having ‘playtime’ with them as you would with a personal pet. We have to provide a stimulating environment that helps them develop skills for whatever their species needs.”

When injured wildlife is brought into rehab, it is assessed for quality of life. When injuries are too severe, euthanasia is the best option. It is never an easy decision, but they can at least have a peaceful and pain free death, something that would not happen in the wild.

Rachel knows that despite everyone’s best efforts, there never will be a 100{cc651acb8fd21d18461bab90e3951e117ad976e0f5f2bec6fa2ec763fee94208} survival rate. The losses are hard, but that makes her work all the harder to help those who do survive.

neonate squirrelsSquirrels!

Rachel has been caring for two squirrels since they were 1 week old. As you can see, their eyes aren’t open and they don’t have fur yet. They eat special formula every 3 hours and need to be kept warm. She will keep this up for about 6 weeks when they will transition to solid foods and eventually move to an outdoor enclosure.

This enclosure allows them to acclimate to outside and start practicing their squirrel skills. The outdoor cage is equipped with branches and a nest box of their very own. After a few weeks in the cage, they will be ready for release.

Their nest box is placed in a tree in an area well stocked with food. Squirrels need assistance their first winter with food. They will be released near a home that is willing to stock feeders so the squirrels have an easier time gathering food.

Rachel is no stranger to caring for squirrels. You can read an earlier article on her squirrel feeding skills!


She has been caring for two male opossums since they were 2 months old. Initially they ate a special formula every 4 hours. Now they have transitioned to solid food appropriate for an opossum’s diet.

2 month old opossumsThey are still in a carrier now, but soon will go outdoors. They will have a similar transition as a squirrel. They’ll have a hideout in the cage and branches to climb. Their release into the wild will be in another month or so. Much like squirrels, they’ll eat on their own, but they need a “back up” that first winter so they are released in an area where food will be provided should they need.

One of these opossums is not healthy enough to be released into the wild in Dr. Cherney’s opinion. He is deaf in one ear and has a poor quality coat (not enough to keep him warm). He didn’t thrive as well as his brother from the beginning.

BHWRP is applying to the DNR for him to be an educational animal. We hope they will approve this request as he is doing well now and is easy to work with. The DNR keeps a careful eye on any wildlife retained as an educational animal. It’s a big decision to take an animal from the wild and keep it in captivity.

While they may not win any beauty contests, opossums are rather interesting creatures. Read more about them here.

Rachel Wildlife RehabberRachel’s Dream House

When talking about her future as a wildlife rehabber, she would love to have a dream house ideally suited for wildlife. She would love a house on lots of land, with a pond and marsh area, even some water running through. There would be plenty of mulberry bushes, apple, oak, and walnut trees, as well as garden space for growing veggies. She’d also set up an indoor greenhouse to grow veggies year round.

A barn (or two) for caring for all her creatures great and small and lots of release spots would be super. And she wants a cow. Just because.

Rachel’s Biggest Lesson Learned

“Nothing is the same. You learn something new with every animal you care. Whether it is your first or 100th litter of rabbits, everything is different. And that means you learn to be flexible. Which isn’t a bad thing in life!”

Thank you, Rachel and wildlife rehabbers everywhere!

For more information on wildlife and wildlife rehab: