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Caring for the little critters: Shelter Island Animal Control Officer on the spring boost

Shelter Island is going through a population explosion.

It’s not weekenders and second homeowners getting a jump on the summer, or Island couples suddenly having more babies. It’s rabbits and squirrels that are seeing their families rapidly expanding this spring — just like every spring before it.

Animal Control Officer (ACO) Jenny Zahler, having coffee at at a Stars Café sidewalk table on a sunny morning, said a popular film’s title can describe the rabbit population boom. “This time of year it goes from nothing to everything, everywhere, all at once. Every rabbit is making babies.”

She explained that rabbits have a gestation period of 28 days and have four litters of three to eight kits throughout the spring until autumn. “The babies stay four to five weeks with their mothers before they go out on their own,” she added.

Compared to human gestation, that’s a remarkable turnaround. But then there are elephants, Officer Zahler said. “Two years gestation for them. Can you imagine being pregnant for two years?”

That morning she got a call from an Islander who said her dog had dug out and uncovered an underground nest, or “burrow” of infant rabbits, just two weeks old. “Rabbits are the ultimate prey,” the ACO said. “They’re always on the lookout. They dig burrows and always have two entrances and exits so they can escape.”

The dog, named Serious — “Isn’t that a great name for a dog?” Officer Zahler smiled — smelled the rabbits, started digging and uncovered them. But little damage was done by the time she arrived on the scene, with only one bunny having a slight puncture wound.

Officer Zahler transported the little ones to Islander Kim Cannon, a wildlife rehabilitator. “They’ll be bottle fed with goat’s milk and cared for until they’re strong enough to be released in the wild,” the ACO said.

And then there are squirrels. Their nurseries are in trees and they have a gestation period of 44 days. They stay with their mothers six to eight weeks. A squirrel will normally have two litters a year, Officer Zahler said.

Animal Control Officer Zahler’s friend Vincent Rando with a rescued baby squirrel. (Courtesy photo)

It’s not unusual for the ACO to receive a call from Dan Clark, owner of DC Tree Services, after bringing down a tree and discovering a nest of infant squirrels. The ACO will gather them carefully in a box and take them to the rehabilitator.

Raccoons also nest in trees, and Officer Zahler made a point that everyone should steer clear of these nocturnal critters. “No one should ever touch a raccoon They look like so much fun,” she said. “No, they’re not.”

It’s not just sharp teeth and claws, but more that “raccoons carry a lot of diseases,” she added.

The way to treat all wild animals, Officer Zahler said, is to let them be. One of the most difficult parts of her job is people having no understanding of wildlife. “People think wildlife make good pets,” she said. “No, they do not make good pets.”

Bringing that box turtle or adorable bunny home will only hurt them, and cause problems for the would-be owners. “You can’t replicate a wild animal’s environment,” she added.

And if you think it’s a good idea to get rid of what you consider a pest by yourself, or handling any wild creature, think again. Call a professional: 631-749-5771, or email [email protected]. She’ll answer the call.