This August, I started volunteering with Kildare Animal Foundation (KAF)’s Wildlife Unit – I was inspired by the incredible dedication of a close friend who had been a regular volunteer there for several months – and it has proven to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve learned so much about animal care and rehabilitation during my time with KAF. Working with ill, injured or orphaned wild animals can be very difficult at times – no doubt about it – but every single time I walk through the gates, I feel privileged just to be there, helping them in whatever way I can.
This recent patient – a pine marten – was successfully released back into the wild: one of the many KAF success stories that bring joy to my heart.
KAF admits foxes on a regular basis. Their beauty takes my breath away, but I’m still a little too unsure of myself to deal with them directly. Volunteers with more training and experience know exactly how to move them in and out of their enclosures as efficiently as possible, with minimal fuss.
Foxes’ natural fear of humans makes them very reclusive and anxious around us, so it is very important that anyone who works with them has the appropriate training and experience.
At this time of year, KAF takes in a lot of hedgehogs, and I have a soft spot for every single one of them. Just look at this baby hoglet, for instance! How cute is he? 😊
In a post I wrote about my journey towards veganism earlier this year, I briefly mentioned a sweet hedgehog friend I had during childhood: he lived in my family’s back garden, and I used to go into paroxysms of delight any time I spotted him out and about. What I didn’t discuss in that post, however, was the day my brother and I found him lying under a bush, clearly very ill and weak. A neighbour of ours quickly rushed him to the vet, but nothing could be done to save him.
A few weeks ago, during a routine cleanup, I found a hedgehog who had sadly died overnight. As soon as I went to pick up the hedgehog and there was no defensive curl, no attempt to resist me – no movement or reaction of any kind – I just knew. In that moment, my heart seemed to drop right into my stomach. A part of me went right back to the memories of the hedgehog I had known during my childhood, and the devastation that had consumed me when I learned that my sweet friend had passed.
Since then, I’ve been slightly on edge every time I start working with the hedgehogs. I have gotten into a habit of saying ‘thank you’ to every live hedgehog I see, simply for being alive. I thank them for running away, for curling up against me, for being pissed off over my sheer audacity (waking them up from their nap – how much ruder can I get?! 😉), and for demonstrating just how opposed they are to my general presence.
Docile behaviour is never a good sign. Whenever I have to pick up or move any animal in order to clean out their cell, I want them to fight against me. I want them to resist, to scream at me – to effectively communicate the message: ‘GO TO HELL, HUMAN’ – because this is the instinct they will need to thrive in the wild. When an animal is too listless or weak to stand their ground, it’s usually a sign that something is very wrong.
Wildlife rehabilitation can be a gruelling task in that regard. Every animal who arrives into KAF is given the highest possible chance of recovering from whatever affliction has caused them to end up there. We provide the very best care we can, but ultimately, not every animal that passes through our gates will make it out alive. This is something I have had to try and accept. I know I’ll never be able to fully desensitise myself to the sadder cases, but I have to try my best not to let them destroy me.
Luckily, our success stories are plentiful, and they fill me with enormous joy and give me the will to keep going. KAF regularly posts videos of animals being released back into the wild. There is nothing better than seeing a wild animal running out of their carrier: healthy, strong, and ready to resume living out their lives exactly as nature intended.
One animal who has become very dear to my heart is a red squirrel named Bláthnaid: a stunning, curious, energetic young girl who has gone from strength to strength since she first arrived. Have you ever seen a more beautiful face than this? 😍
When the barn owl below initially came to us, suffering from a badly fractured wing, her prospects of survival were uncertain. However, her progress has since exceeded all expectations.
One job I’ve really grown to love since I started volunteering with KAF is herding the swans, seagulls and chickens indoors for the night. They all share a common outdoor area during the day. Through doing this job, I’ve learned that bird psychology is an extremely complicated thing. Forget the nonsense in Leinster House or Westminster: if you want to witness some truly intricate political wrangling, just watch a flock of birds interacting with one another.
The chickens never fail to amuse me. They are extremely pushy when it comes to looking for food, almost tripping me up on more than one occasion. The three females form a very tight-knit posse, and can often be seen bossing the sole rooster around – from what I’ve observed, he literally comes last in the pecking order! KAF’s chickens are unapologetically sassy, loud, in-your-face and opinionated. I love it.
The chickens are usually the first to come running over when I start ushering the birds indoors (because they hope I’m about to give them extra food, no doubt). The seagulls are a joy to watch too: the sight of about ten to fifteen gulls waddling down the paddock with their wings slightly spread out – screeching enthusiastically at each other all the while – is a treat for sore eyes. Some of the gulls tend to hang back, hoping I won’t notice that they have yet to go inside.
I’ll never forget one particular gull who pretended he was a chicken to avoid being led away. 😂 This happened one evening not long after I had first started volunteering at KAF. On this occasion, the seagulls were the first to go indoors, while the chickens hung back for a while … and I kid you not, one of the gulls hid behind the chickens in an attempt to stay outdoors for a little while longer. As soon as my friend and I had locked all of the other seagulls into their enclosure for the night, we turned back to get the chickens and swans … but it soon became clear to us that one of the ‘chickens’ looked a bit out of place. I literally saw the rogue gull in question crouch behind one of the chickens and put his head down, hoping he would escape our notice by doing so. He knew exactly what he was doing – to this day, I’m sure of it.
The swans are usually very reluctant to go indoors. They tend to trudge down the paddock in a slow, deeply resentful way … and I could swear that at least one of them shoots a dagger-eyed glare in my direction every single time.
If you’re in the mood for something to lift your spirits, this video of the birds being let out to roam in the morning is perfect. ❤️ It never fails to make me smile!
KAF’s Wildlife Unit is an awe-inspiring place, full of people whose boundless compassion and dedication inspires me every single day. Despite the struggles and hardships that often go hand-in-hand with wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, I have treasured every single moment of my time with KAF so far. Volunteering there truly is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I can’t thank my friend enough for motivating me to give it a try. To learn more about KAF and support their work, be sure to visit them on Facebook or Instagram. You can make a financial donation via PayPal – just use the email address email@example.com.
All images and videos used in this post belong to Kildare Animal Foundation’s Wildlife Unit.