MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) - State conservation officials in Alabama are working on new guidelines that could change the way wildlife rehabilitators do their job in terms of which animals they'll be allowed to rescue.
This follows a letter they sent to members of the North Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitators in April, making sweeping new changes that came without warning or discussion.
WHNT NEWS 19 learned of the move and started asking questions. That's when we found out what is now in the works to target several species of animals native to Alabama, specifically raccoons.
In short, the future of wildlife in Alabama may boil down to "Survival of the Fittest."
WHNT NEWS 19 spoke with wildlife rehabilitator Janet Stratman for perspective about the animals, the risks they pose to humans and what it takes to nurture an injured or abandoned wild animal back to health to be returned to the wild.
At the time of our interview, Stratman was caring for two baby raccoons. One was estimated to be two weeks old. The other was one month old. Both had been separated from their mothers and were turned over to Stratman.
Stratman and another rehabber, Linda Manning, used baby bottles to give the baby raccoons the nourishment they need to grow strong and healthy. She put them on the ground in her backyard and they immediately started chattering, whining and searching for a source of warmth and protection.
Both Stratman and Manning say baby raccoons are among their favorite animals to rehabilitate.
"You burp them, like a baby," said Manning. "You have to make them go to the bathroom like their mothers do. It's not an easy job."
"We raise them up and we release them," said Stratman.
She explained in 2012 she released 31 rehabilitated raccoons into the wild in north Alabama, along with hundreds of rabbits, squirrels and other animals brought to her by private citizens and veterinarians.
This voluntary work has cost her thousands of dollars of her own money to purchase the nutrients and other necessary items for animal rehabilitation. But when we asked her why she does it, Stratman answered, "Oh, because I love the animals."
Stratman said she said she was shocked when she received a letter from Captain Johnny Johnson of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources dated April 17th announcing changes to rehab guidelines. The letter specifically spelled out the forbiddance of rescuing fur-bearing animals, including raccoons, possums, beavers, bobcats, fox, skunks, minks and otters.
When asked what she thought when she first received the letter, Stratman answered,"Oh my gosh.. What are we gonna do? It's just really hard because it's death."
She and other rehabbers contacted Capt. Johnson and WHNT NEWS 19 to find out the motive for the changes, which didn't apply to the rest of the state - only District 1, the portion Johnson oversees. Rehabbers were most concerned with what they should now tell people who called them for help.
Two weeks later, Johnson rescinded the letter.
When asked why he made it null and void, Capt. Johnson answered, "We found out that some rehabbers throughout the state were in fact doing what we had recommended not doing. We were unaware so, in order for everybody to be treated fairly, we are rescinding that letter."
Johnson said his original concern was for what he believes to be an overpopulation of raccoons in north Alabama and the threat from rabies and other diseases which raccoons can carry.
That's despite Alabama State Health Department statistics which show no cases of rabid raccoons in north Alabama since at least January 2009.
Johnson said now, division leaders are working on new guidelines to be applied uniformly to the entire state, possibly starting with forbidding the rehab of raccoons, no matter how old they are.
He added the department will take input from rehabbers, veterinarians and other professionals who have an interest in the wildlife. They hope to have the new guidelines in place within six months.
Here are some contact numbers for Wildlife Rehabilitators and Authorities:
*Madison County Wildlife Rehabilitators: 256-258-WILD (9453) (Hot Line)
*North Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitators: 256-883-0667 (Hot Line
*Captain Johnny Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
21453 Harris Station Rd., Tanner, AL 35671
Phone: 256-353-2634 / Fax 256-340-0402
*To Report Violations: Game Watch: 800-272-4263
*For Wildlife concerns in Morgan County, call Morgan County Humane Society at 256-773-7222. They are licensed to take in wildlife.