Kathi McCue to the animal rescue: New Bowdoin zookeeper welcomed to the local critter community

In the official literature on wildlife rehabilitation in the state of Maine, the authors cite some common myths about the profession.

The second most common myth faced by state licensing officials, according to the article, is that wildlife rehabilitation is fun.

“Wild animal rehabilitation can be interesting, stimulating, rewarding and sometimes enjoyable,” says the literature, “but it is rarely fun. Rather, it is physically and mentally demanding, emotionally stressful and a lot of work. There are many tasks involved that are not pleasant, such as cleaning wounds, scrubbing cages and occasionally making the decision to euthanize an animal that is suffering and can no longer recover.”

Animal rehabilitation is not a hobby, government officials are pretty clear about that. It’s not something everyone can do. And a simple love for animals is not necessarily enough.

Kathi McCue knows all this. The owner of Wilderness Wonders Wildlife Rehabilitation and K&K Animal Damage Control in Bowdoin, she wanted to become a rehabilitator and animal control agent in 2018 and has only recently entered the practice.

Make no mistake: Becoming a nature restorer is not for the lazy or the squeamish.

“To get a wildlife rehabilitation permit, you need to contact Inland Fisheries and Wildlife,” McCue says. “You will receive study materials. You must volunteer at least 100 hours at a recognized institution: leather processing, cage requirements, feeding techniques, cleaning, quarantine protocols, etc.”

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife website has a section called “Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation.”

That section is 128 pages long and covers everything from reporting requirements to disease transmission prevention to disposal of carcasses and animal waste products.

It’s a lot of work. It is often dirty and almost always stressful. Long, long hours and overtime seem to be part of the area.

So, who in their right mind would want to take this on?

Well, Jennifer Marchigiani, for example. The proprietress of Misfits Rehab in Auburn, she is a 20-year veteran of nature sports and a woman so experienced in the trade that she is called upon to train others.

Like state officials who emphasize the difficulty of getting into a wildlife rehab facility, Marchigiani agrees that it’s not for everyone.

“Because it’s not about cuddling cute wild animals,” she says, “there’s a lot of sadness, stress, financial burden, etc.”

So when Marchigiani goes to train a newcomer, it’s immediately clear whether that rookie is fit for the rigors of animal rescue. And with that in mind, Marchigiani is clear on one point: Kathi McCue is exactly the kind of person the area’s wildlife rehabilitation community needs.

“Kathi is great,” Marchigiani says. “She was so excited to learn everything and everything I wanted to show her, so we all did it!”

Keep in mind that animal rescuers like these two don’t just drop injured raccoons and abandoned baby skunks into boxes and take them to the professionals.

“As a rehabber, you’re pretty much forced to do a lot of things a vet should do,” Marchigiani says, “but we have to assess some pretty critical cases before we can even get them to a vet.”

When Marchigiani joined the company in 2002, the state admission test contained only 10 questions, and those were basic questions too. The test is much more difficult these days, and there are more restrictions for those hoping to break through into the exciting world of wildlife rehabilitation.

McCue, Marchigiani says, will benefit from the more rigorous testing and training she had to undergo.

As for Marchigiani, McCue certainly has the right gear for the job.

“She has a great personality and even more energy than I can muster,” Marchigiani says, “so she was a breath of fresh air to have around. I was happy and sad when she opened her own home, Wilderness Miracles. I loved it too bad I didn’t have her as a partner here, but I’m so glad she’s starting to work for herself and lightening the burden of intakes here.”

McCue also trained at the Saco River Wildlife Center, so her training was well-rounded. But there was another person in the company who influenced her, and that’s where I came in.

A rescued possum isn’t happy with the attention at Wilderness Miracles Wildlife Rehab in Bowdoin. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

WILD ANIMALS

I became interested in McCue’s story when I was told about her by Rich Burton, owner of Specialized Wildlife Catching in Lewiston and one of the most active and colorful animal controllers in the area.

“She really does a lot for wildlife,” said Burton, who went on to list the inventory of wildlife currently being helped by McCue. This includes, at last count, 67 baby raccoons, 10 baby possums, four baby red foxes, two baby gray foxes, an adult gray fox, a baby porcupine, an adult porcupine, a weasel, a fisherman, a mink and an adult raccoon.

Burton was impressed with McCue, and anyone who can impress a wild man like Burton is interesting to me. So I tried to find out what drove this lady to get into such a shoddy company.

She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother of another three, is McCue. She is a former sous chef who worked in Michigan before coming to Maine.

How does a professional chef get into the rough world of dealing with wildlife? For McCue, it was a health crisis.

“I decided ‘wild life’ was for me after a battle with head and neck cancer five years ago,” she says. “While I was recovering from radiation, I took that time to learn, study, and network.”

The idea didn’t just come out of nowhere. By the time she was temporarily hampered by cancer, she had already volunteered at a local wildlife rehabilitation center.

“That’s when I knew this was what I wanted to do,” McCue says. “I fell in love with this work. So in November 2018, I set out to achieve my goal of becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center and then open my own rehabilitation center. And in April 2020 I had reached my goal.”

Now McCue runs Wilderness Miracles, with help from her husband, Ken Pillsbury, who builds all of the company’s outdoor enclosures.

McCue’s new occupation marked a complete lifestyle change for the couple; housing nearly 100 critters — from mice to bats and ‘coons to coyotes — tends to shake things up a bit.

“When we walk into our rehab facility, which is in our basement, it’s noisy at times,” McCue says, although, “the first thing in the morning it’s very quiet and when they wake up you can hear them quietly walking around, chattering and spiders. It’s like music to my ears.”

At first glance it sounds like a ball, honestly. Well, having all those happy creatures around must be like living in a Disney cartoon!

Unfortunately, no. Taking care of wild animals means encountering a little bit of everything. There is sickness, there is death, there are bites and scratches. An animal rehab needs to be conditioned to expect the unexpected.

“Getting scratched happens all the time,” McCue says. “Bites do happen, but if you wear good gloves, it’s not that painful. I and most of my wonderful volunteers have been vaccinated against rabies – not something that is mandatory, but I insist that they have that protection.”

Also getting attached to the animals is a risk because where large numbers of animals are collected there is a good chance that bad things will happen. And bad things are mostly learning experiences.

A year ago, McCue took in three Waterville raccoons, who were in bad shape and suffering, an experience she described as “nervous and sad.”

All three of those animals died and the one raccoon they tested for rabies tested positive.

“Our worst year yet was last year,” McCue says. “We’ve taken in so many raccoons. We ended up with the parvovirus that killed a third of our raccoons. Unfortunately, I learned so much from that. I now have strict quarantine protocols. All raccoons go through a two week plus one day quarantine. They were all vaccinated against parvo, distemper and rabies during this period. Expensive yes, but effective.”

And speaking of costs, who actually pays for all this? Not the state. No wildlife shelters are state funded, McCue says. Everything at Wilderness Miracles, as it is for other animal shelters, is paid for out of pocket.

“We have a lot of fundraisers to help cover the costs,” McCue says. “We are also working to achieve our non-profit status. I have really great volunteers who are trained, skilled and committed to our nature, thank goodness.”

Speck is one of four foxes Kathi McCue cares for at Wilderness Miracles Wildlife Rehab in Bowdoin. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

WRESTLING RACCOON AND A SHY BABY FOX

When a new wildlife handler like McCue comes along, it’s cause for celebration, including in the company. There is no competition here, and in fact it is quite the opposite. There are many more wild animals that need attention than there are people.

“There are certainly not enough convalescents,” says Marchigiani. “We’ve lost four rehabbers in the state this year and even looking at the list the state has on their page is not accurate — it lists rehabbers who haven’t been rehabilitated in many years.”

McCue and others like her are welcomed into the wildlife rehabilitation circle. The more cooperation between rehabbers in the state, Marchigiani says, the more animals in need will be helped.

“Networking is essential,” she says. “There are still a few rehabbers that are a bit withdrawn and cut off, but not many. Most of us communicate regularly, share supplies, talk about upcoming conferences and share the knowledge gained.”

And the training of these rehabbers is never finished; the updated guidelines from the state wildlife management make sure of that. As we said at the beginning, it is not a company for unmotivated people.

“One of the best things I like about the new licensing process,” Marchigiani says, “is (the need) to have continuing education every year so that people can continue to grow in knowledge, as new information about diet, nutrition, triage , medication, changes in formula, etc. always changes – yet another reason to network.”

Marchigiani’s Misfits Rehabilitation is already a well-known and loved local wildlife rehabilitation center with over 8,000 followers on Facebook alone. Report an injured or distressed animal in the Lewiston-Auburn area and chances are a mob of strangers will advise you to call Misfits right away.

In Bowdoin, McCue is starting to gain the same kind of devoted following, helped in part by the many animal photos (including my favorite, of a camera-shy baby red fox) that adorn her page† I mean come on. Who among us doesn’t love pictures of baby raccoons wrestling in a box or of a newborn possum being tube-fed?

Mostly, though, it’s her growing reputation with critter enthusiasts and other animal controllers that drives her popularity. Even by the state and national standards that make it so difficult to break into this business, McCue has determined that she has the right stuff.

What is the secret of success in this raw work? McCue can sum it up in a few words.

“Busy, busy, busy,” she says. “Always.”


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