KNOXVILLE -- Marybeth Rood feeds a lot of mouths. Fifty-two, to be exact.
Rood, a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, is trained in the care and feeding of baby or injured animals. She is one of the few people in the state who legally can keep Tennessee native animals.
Currently, her only charges are raccoons, but she often has other mammals. Her job is to get every animal strong and ready to return to its natural home in the wild.
"This is baby season," says Rood. "I start at 4:30 a.m. every day and begin warming bottles. If I have newborns, I get up for a 2 a.m. feeding."
During this busiest time of the year, when wildlife is most active and babies abound, Rood runs an efficient animal-care operation at her home in Corryton.
Feeding takes up most of the morning. Then she cleans the enclosures -- working her way from the heated kennel on her screened-in porch where she keeps the newborns, to crates where the older youngsters are kept, to a large cage she calls the kindergarten.
Finally, she gets to the last confined home these raccoons -- hopefully -- will know.
Rehabbers receive no pay and get few donations. They cover all the expenses themselves, including the more than $700 she just shelled out for rabies, parvo and distemper vaccinations.
Rood's paying job is with Rural/Metro Fire Department.
Songbirds to fawns
Dr. Cheryl Greenacre, a veterinarian specializing in avian and small mammal medicine at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center, sees a lot of furry and feathered diversity.
"We receive 1,000 to 1,200 injured or young wild animals a year," she says.
Seven veterinarians with expertise in treating birds, small mammals and exotic animals staff the Avian and Zoological Medicine Service, which is open 24 hours a day. The wildlife care operates on donations alone.
Most of the incoming wildlife are songbirds, but the service also sees rabbits, squirrels, moles, voles, chipmunks, raccoons, hawks and owls. Rarer admissions are blue herons, box turtles, osprey, foxes, coyotes and fawns.
Because foxes, raccoons and coyotes are vectors of rabies, by TWRA rules, they must be humanely euthanized if older than 6 months. Healthy raccoons younger than 6 months old with no history of human contact -- biting or scratching a human -- are returned to their native homes.
That's where people like Rood come in.
"Our service's purpose is to make sure the animals are capable of being returned to 100 percent athletic ability and releasable," Greenacre says. "We triage here and then work with state-licensed rehabbers to get them back to the wild."
Greenacre names the most common ways that animals are injured: Cats prey on birds, rabbits and small rodents; owls and hawks collide with moving cars. Any animal crossing the road is subject to injury by a car. Hawks also come in with gunshot wounds.
Greenacre cites barbed-wire fencing as being hazardous to owls.
"We recently had a young barred owl that got caught up in barbed wire," she says. "It was very lucky, because usually they try to free themselves and twist off a wing."
Lawn mowers and string cutters injure turtles and rabbits. Greenacre has seen fishhooks stuck in the throats of a variety of animals. And the mosquito-borne West Nile virus is still present in some birds, particularly crows.
One avoidable and unnecessary reason wildlife is brought to the hospital is the mistaken perception that a baby animal is an orphan.
"We call that kidnapping," says Greenacre. "People are very well meaning and think they're helping."
But the reality is that cottontails are independent when they're still quite small. Fledgling birds take a few days to master flight, so they hop and fly sporadically. It's part of the learning process.
The parents are nearby, feeding the baby and keeping an eye out for danger. It's during these times particularly that cats and dogs should be kept away.
Out of concern, people remove fawns from a safe and natural setting because the mother is nowhere in sight. But she only nurses her fawn for brief periods at dusk and dawn and stays away the rest of the time. That way, she won't draw predators to her baby.
How best to help
How do you know if an animal needs help?
"If you have to run any kind of wildlife down to catch it, it's probably old enough to survive on its own," Greenacre says.
Conversely, if an adult animal is easy to catch, something probably is wrong with it.
Other signs of illness or injury are an open wound or the presence of maggots. If you find an animal you think might be injured or orphaned, Greenacre offers some advice.
"Observe the animal from a distance before trying to capture it," she says. "Keep an eye on songbirds for up to 24 hours and listen and watch for its parents."
Nestlings -- baby birds without all their feathers -- can be put back in the nest, if possible.
"It's not true that birds will abandon their young if you handle it," Greenacre says.
If you think the animal is truly orphaned, Greenacre advises calling a licensed rehabilitator. A list of rehabilitators is on the TWRA website at state.tn.us/twra/wildliferehab.html.
Says Greenacre: "The rehabbers do this out of the kindness of their hearts, not their pocketbooks. They know what they're doing, and we couldn't make this work without them."