Julie Cassidy does big things for small creatures

East Dallas is crawling with them. Critters, that is.

Remember the recent mini-hysteria over the coyote prowling our streets? Raccoons frequently traipse across our roofs as darkness falls, peering down at us with glowing eyes. The plethora of squirrels provide comic relief with their antics, and opossums make late-night visits to our backyards, looking for snakes, rodents and bugs to eat.

But the natural world is not always a kind place and sometimes the animals who share our neighborhood end up in need. Fortunately for them, a network of wildlife rehabilitators exists, at the ready for the next critter emergency. Among them is neighbor Julie Cassidy.

Because she works full-time for the City of Dallas, Cassidy sensibly limits the animals she can take in. While others welcome bats, skunks, raccoons and rabbits, Cassidy opens her door to squirrels and opossums who don’t require multiple feedings during the day. But her long workday often is bookended with bottle feedings and grub prep.

Like many of her associates, Cassidy stumbled into the wildlife rehab world. About six years ago, she was walking her dogs when one alerted to something interesting in a bush. The dog came out of the bush with a young opossum in her mouth. “She didn’t injure it,” remembers Cassidy, “but I realized it was too young to release back into the wild. So I took it home and contacted a rehabber.”

After checking out the little guy, the rehabber friend then educated Cassidy on its feeding and general care. Inspired, Cassidy soon began volunteering on the DFW Wildlife Coalition Hotline, answering questions about wildlife and connecting needy animals with rehabbers.

One Saturday, a caller to the hotline reported that her dog had killed a momma opossum, leaving six babies orphaned. A search for a rehabber who could take all six turned up dry, so Cassidy decided to take them in herself. Under the careful supervision of a permitted wildlife rehabilitator credentialed by Texas Parks and Wildlife, Cassidy nursed the little opossums back to health and back into the wild. Hooked, she soon got the paperwork in line to rehab her own creatures. Since then, she has become a member of Texas Metroplex Wildlife Rehabilitators and has attended many a wildlife class, a requirement for maintaining her status.

So how do the squirrels and opossums land at her door? Many are the result of calls to the hotline or from agencies such as Dallas Animal Services. Frequently, distraught callers report that their dog has killed a possum which was caring for babies and they want to help the orphans. In some cases, a baby possum has fallen off of the mom’s back and been separated from its family. Baby squirrels, on the other hand, sometimes fall or are blown out of nests. At times, nests can be casualties of tree trimming.

And did you hear the one about the possum crossing the road? Cassidy recalls receiving a message from fellow rehabber Prudi Koeninger, who had received word about an adult opossum stranded on I-30 in the inside median. Cassidy rushed to the scene and scooped him up. “It was probably a 25- to 30-pound possum who was scared to death. Thankfully, it was not injured and just needed to be treated for fleas and get a good meal.” She released it a couple of days later.

When Cassidy takes in a little patient, her first order of business is to bathe, warm and hydrate it. Then she will weigh it on a standard food scale so she’ll know how much to feed it. Squirrels are bottle-fed special formula until they reach a weight of about 200 grams. They are then gradually introduced to solids, such as small bits of apple and shelled pecan pieces.

Baby opossums are not so simple. Instead of a bottle, they are fed through a tube, more closely simulating the natural feeding in the mom’s pouch. The little marsupials need to be around 100 grams before they try lapping up formula or yogurt and, later, scrambled eggs and fish.

Just as their mothers would do, Cassidy stimulates the baby squirrels and opossums after every feeding to help them eliminate urine and feces.

In addition to routine feeding, Cassidy is trained to treat the animals’ wounds and administer medication and parasite treatments.

The scale to weigh all those critters? The specialty food? Medicine? Cages and bedding and what-have-you? All out of her pocket, as is the case with every other wildlife rehabber.

Cassidy’s goal, of course, is to return the squirrels and opossums into the wild. Fortunately, she has just the place: family property near Lake Whitney. “It’s an area where they always have a water source and plenty of land where they’re not threatened by vehicles or people or dogs, just the natural predators.” To date, she’s released about 100 opossums and about 40 squirrels.

But it can be difficult to let go. “You never know if they make it through the first night. I do get anxious for them because all I’ve provided them is shelter and food. I can’t provide them the skills in order to survive in the wild.” Cassidy pauses. “A lot of time and resources and your heart goes into taking care of these babies.”

Find out more at dfwwildlife.org.

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