The Tennessee Cave Salamander

If we asked you to think of an endangered animal, you’d likely picture something huge and beautiful and majestic. You may even think of an animal that is no longer endangered, like the giant panda or bald eagle. But you probably don’t think of the small, modest endangered animals that live right here in our own city.

Large, pretty animals— called “charismatic megafauna” in ecology circles— tend to be the icons of wildlife conservation. They attract visitors to zoos and parks and spark marches and movies. And while charismatic megafauna matter, they sometimes cause us to ignore the plights of the animals we’re most capable of helping.

The Tennessee cave salamander lives naturally in cave systems right here in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. It’s in grave danger of extinction because of pollution and development of the streams and wetlands that drain into the caves where it lives. Fertilizers, industrial waste, pesticides, dams, and logging are all destroying the Tennessee cave salamander’s fragile habitat. Without urgent action, this little animal is likely to become extinct within our lifetimes.

So what can you to do help? Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to care. Speed the word about Tennessee cave salamanders and push for more public understanding of all endangered animals, not just the ones who are noteworthy for being large and exotic and beautiful.

Be mindful of your own ecological impact, here in the Tennessee cave salmanader’s native range. Don’t waste water. Don’t overuse lawn chemicals. Don’t litter or dump oil or antifreeze. Support local conservation groups, like the Chattanooga Audubon Society and Tennessee Aquarium. Together, we can help protect our own native treasures.

Chipmunks are Harmless: Don’t Hurt Them!

Pest control companies seeking your business may be quick to exaggerate— or even totally fabricate— the damage that chipmunks can cause. Please don’t be in a rush to harm these little guys!

Eastern chipmunk burrows have tiny entrances only about the size of a quarter, so unless your lawn is so neat and tidy that it could pass for AstroTurf, these holes aren’t likely to even be noticeable. Chipmunks do not chew wood or cause damage to trees or homes, although they may occasionally nibble the berries or flowers off ornamental plants.

Although any mammal can carry fleas and ticks (and the diseases they transmit) chipmunks themselves aren’t considered to be at a high risk for any disease affecting cats, dogs, or humans, so there’s no need to eliminate your resident chippies for anyone’s safety.

Please let your chipmunk neighbors stay in their home! But, if you absolutely must evict a chipmunk family, please seek humane ways to repel and exclude them rather than rushing to the exterminator.

Vultures and the Zombie Apocalypse

A group of vultures— called a “wake”— can consume an entire 150-pound corpse in just a few hours! Of course, those corpses are generally deer, but if you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic scenario surrounded by zombies, your vulture neighbors would come in handy.

These amazing birds are quickly attracted to the smell of decay and will descend on anything dead (or, presumably, undead). Their cast-iron stomachs are full of powerful, acidic compounds that disinfect whatever they eat. A vulture’s belly can kill salmonella, E. coli, anthrax, and presumably whatever zombifying plague is going around.

Maybe we’re not likely to need them as zombie destroyers, but these animals are important to our world. Vultures keep our entire planet cleaner and healthier for everyone.

Remembering Tennessee’s Bison

When you think of bison, you likely picture giant herds in open prairies in the West. But did you know they bison were once an important part of the landscape of Tennessee, as well?

Bison roamed throughout the state, in herds numbering in the thousands, following the same migratory patterns for centuries. The paths they took were so well-traveled that they shaped the landscape. Many of these became roads, which eventually became state highways. The areas where the herds wallowed formed diverse homes for amphibians and waterfowl and provided drinking water for other migrating animals. Bison also helped sustain Tennessee’s then-thriving populations of red wolves, black bears, and pumas.

Unfortunately, hunters in the late 1700s had no interest in keeping this keystone species alive. They would gather at Bledsoe’s Lick, a natural salt lick in Middle Tennessee, and mercilessly kill bison by the hundreds. Bledsoe’s Lick was home to mountains of bleached bison skulls by the 1790s, and Tennessee’s bison were completely gone soon after.

Although bison have been reintroduced to a few enclosed habitats in Tennessee, our state’s free-roaming bison can never return. The habitats and ecosystems they depended— and created— upon simply don’t exist anymore, and the paths of their migrations and feeding and breeding grounds are now blocked or developed.

Let’s learn our lesson from our past mistakes. While we can’t use Bison Day as a way to bring them back to a state that can no longer sustain them, we can use the bison’s tragic end as a reminder to preserve and protect the native wildlife we haven’t lost yet.

Will armadillos give me leprosy?

Don’t hurt me over leprosy fears!
Armadillos are stigmatized out of fear that they may spread leprosy.

The nine-banded armadillo is one of many unfairly stigmatized animals living here in Tennessee. It’s hard to avoid worrisome news headlines about armadillos carrying leprosy, a painful, disfiguring disease that we humans have feared for millennia.

It’s true that some nine-banded armadillos do carry the bacterium that causes leprosy. They first caught it about 500 years ago from human beings, which is actually very surprising.

Leprosy is a fragile disease that can only live in a very narrow temperature range, so it doesn’t easily jump between species. Most other animals have bodies too hot or too cold for leprosy, but armadillos, like humans, are in the “Goldilocks” range for this delicate germ.

Leprosy’s fragile nature means you don’t have much (if any) reason to fear that the armadillos living under your shed will make you sick. The bacteria causing the disease can’t survive long in the soil or air, so you can’t catch the condition without closer contact with the critters.

The best way to keep yourself and your family safe is to give armadillos some space and respect. Don’t hunt, skin, eat, play with, or move these animals! If you find one that needs help, contact a rehabilitator who can handle it safely.

What kind of wild puppy did I find?

If you’re lucky, you may spot a wild “puppy” of some kind in the wild one day. I’m the first few weeks of life, wild coyote pups, fox kits, and raccoon kits can look very similar and sometimes lack the very distinct traits that make adults fairly easy to tell apart. All four of these species start life as one uniformly grey to brown color.

If you’ve found some “puppies” who are unattended, the most important thing to do is leave them alone unless they’re clearly hurt, in distress, or starving. But if you need to identify them— for example, to try to “match” them to a mother animal who is confirmed dead— here are some ways you can tell what kind of wild puppy you have.

Red foxes are distinguishable from other wild kits and pups because they always have a white-tipped tail. Their distinct white-tipped tails are identifiable from birth and occur in all color morphs of red fox. Red foxes also have fine kitten-like claws and narrow snouts.

Grey fox kits look very similar to red for kits in their first month of life, having a similarly uniform color. They also have very fine claws and narrow snouts. The tip of a grey fox kit’s tail, however, is always black rather than white.

Raccoon kits who are less than a week old don’t look much like raccoons. They can look very similar to newborn pups and newborn foxes. Some people have even mistaken them for squirrels! The clearest way to identify a baby raccoon is by its hands. While fox and coyote pups have dog-like paws, a raccoon has hands that look almost human.

Coyote pups look the most like the puppies of domestic dogs. They’re considerably larger than fox kits and have a broader snout and a broader nose. Coyote pups’ feet are also larger and their claws are also thicker.

If the mystery pup you’ve found needs help, please contact a rehabilitator promptly. These animals all need expert care to have the best chance of being successfully released in the wild.

What’s most likely to have rabies in East TN?

Bats, skunks, raccoons, cats, foxes, dogs, and cattle are the most likely animals to have rabies in East Tennessee.
Bats, skunks, raccoons, cats, foxes, dogs, and cattle are the most likely animals to have rabies in East Tennessee.

Any warm-blooded animal can get rabies. Even rabbits and dolphins are at risk. In a few extraordinarily strange cases, it’s been recorded in birds! But there are some animals that are statistically at a higher risk than others.

This can vary quite a bit by region. In our area, bats, skunks, and raccoons together comprise nearly 100% of confirmed rabies cases, with a few cases in cats, foxes, dogs, and cattle trailing statistically behind.

It’s worth noting that some animals have an undeserved reputation when it comes to rabies. Despite public concerns and fears, there is very little risk of contracting rabies from a coyote, bobcat, opossum, or groundhog in East Tennessee.

If you’ve been bitten by an unvaccinated mammal— even those in the highest risk categories— your risk of being exposed to rabies is fairly low anywhere in the United States. But, since rabies is so serious and deadly, it’s important to follow up with your doctor and local health department to protect yourself.

For Fox Sake Supports Vaccines!

For Fox Sake Wildlife Rescue is proud to be pro-vaccine.

Our recent post about the USDA’s oral rabies vaccine generated a lot of controversy! Commenters made claims that— among other things— rabies vaccines spread rabies and contain ground-up human baby parts.

The oral rabies vaccine is distributed by the USDA, not For Fox Sake, but we’ve received similar criticisms whenever we’ve mentioned vaccinating the animals in our care.

For the record: For Fox Sake is an explicitly, unequivocally pro-vaccine organization, and we believe that vaccination is an essential part of responsible wildlife rehabilitation. When animals are brought into rehabilitation, it involves taking animals with unknown medical history, from multiple areas, and putting them in unnaturally confined and crowded spaces.

This puts them at an unnaturally and unreasonably high risk for vaccine-preventable illnesses like canine parvovirus, canine distemper, panleukopenia, bordatella, and yes, rabies. If unchecked and unprevented, these serious illnesses cause extreme suffering and preventable death in wildlife and also pets. We believe we have a responsibility to prevent these illnesses whenever possible.

It’s easy to be opposed to vaccines for wildlife if you haven’t seen these illnesses in person. Several times per week, we’re forced to euthanize animals who are terminally ill, and it is the most painful and traumatic parts of what we do. Animals who become sick in the wild don’t just lie down and die. We’ve seen— as one single example— a fox covered in her own bloody, maggot-infested diarrhea and vomit, having seizures and screaming in pain and confusion. If you believe that an animal should be forced to suffer through such a thing simply because it is “natural,” your beliefs are incompatible with support for For Fox Sake’s mission.

We also have a duty, based on state law as well as basic ethics, to vaccinate all animals in our care for rabies. Unlike our grandparents’ generation, which was plagued with rabid dogs who roamed the streets, we benefit from the mass vaccination of domestic animals and the relative rarity of human rabies infection. We want to be part of the goal of eventually eradicating rabies from the United States, and believe that we are helping to accomplish that by immunizing all animals in our care and submitting all animals with neurological symptoms for rabies testing.

If you do not support vaccines, you do not support For Fox Sake.

How to Tell Red Foxes Apart from Grey Foxes

Tennessee is home to two species of fox, the red fox and the grey fox. Despite their names, color isn’t the best way to tell these beautiful animals apart! An animal can be a member of the red fox species but have nearly any color fur, including silver, white, yellow, brown, and even lavender! This fellow here is a melanistic red fox.

There are several ways to tell our native foxes apart. Red foxes always have a white-tipped tail, while grey foxes always have a black-tipped tail. Grey foxes are more common in forested areas, while red foxes are well-adapted to urban environments. Grey foxes also have round pupils whereas red foxes have slit-shaped pupils. If you ever see a fox in a tree, that’s also very telling, since only grey foxes can climb trees thanks to their retractable claws!

Don’t help an injured adult deer!

How should I help an injured adult deer? By leaving it alone!
How should you help an injured adult deer?

It’s hard to see an injured animal without stepping in to help. But in the case of adult deer, the best way to help is to step back.

Deer are extremely susceptible to a strange, complex disorder called capture myopathy. When captured, many of them simply die, even if they get the best possible care. The risk of dying of capture myopathy is often much greater than the risk of dying from injury.

Capturing an injured deer can be catastrophic for other reasons as well. Here in Tennessee, adult deer can’t be legally rehabilitated, so you won’t be able to find a veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator who can help. Adult deer are also very large and dangerous, so you’d be putting yourself in harm’s way by attempting to help.

Does this mean you’ll just be leaving the deer to die? Not necessarily! Deer often survive broken legs, deep wounds, broken antlers, castration, and worse! But if a deer is so badly wounded that there’s no possible way it will survive, your local animal control or police may be able to euthanize it to prevent suffering. It’s worth calling them if a situation seems truly hopeless.

Please give injured adult deer space!