Orphaned baby beaver finds comfort with otters at local shelter
Some of the world's most successful environmental engineers don't take student loans or Ivy League degrees.
When fully trained, they're experts at site selection and the fundamentals of hydraulics, and they construct their sturdy waterworks entirely from natural materials.
They tend to sleep most of the day and exclusively wear fur, but their projects recharge aquifers, restore ruined habitats, reduce catastrophic flooding, slow wildfires and shelter migrating salmon from drought. They work without plans, can fell trees unerringly away from their constructions using just their teeth and yet are still considered pests by humans with projects of their own.
We don't get to see Castor canadensis, the 60-pound North American beaver, in Sonoma County very often, so I jumped at the invitation to see one up close at the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.
An orphaned young kit, little more than a year old, is there for care and rehab before release to back to the wild.
The orphan beaver has made her home inside a makeshift lodge, a domed plastic igloo, beneath a shady enclosure. When it was lifted off, we found her seated calmly on her trademark paddle tail, front paws on her chest. She was wrapped in clean, thick straight auburn fur, luxurious and shiny enough to be in a premium haircare commercial.
Up close, she is surprisingly large, much larger than any house cat, with dainty cupped ears, black bead eyes, long clawed front paws perfect for digging, and discreetly webbed hind feet. The fine raised pattern covering her long tail looks like it might have been molded by artisans. She didn't bare her chisel-sharp incisors – those four, flat, fast-growing, front beaver teeth - but when she snacked on a raw yam as she patiently waited for us to leave, she carved it away effortlessly.
The rescue center sits high on a hill off Meacham Road, with 5-plus acres for a hospital, and rehabilitation sections for raptors, foxes, bobcat, puma and other wildlife who will be returned to the wild, and some permanent residents, who, for various reasons, cannot go back.
As we stood inside the spacious animal enclosure with the little beaver, I asked Danielle Mattos, the Animal Care Director, why her team and volunteers go to such effort and expense to rescue animals like this.
“Most of the animals are here because of human interactions, ” Mattos explained. “People disrupt habitats and wildlife gets injured. So we think it's important to take some responsibility, to do what we can to get them back to health and returned to the wild.”
Caring for a solitary beaver is a real challenge, because in the wild, beavers are highly social. Left alone, they often stop eating, stop grooming and won't come out of their den. The orphan at SCWR seems to be acclimating. She's sharing space with three young and frisky recovering river otters in a protected space around a natural looking re-circulating pond. The pond, donated and built by a Petaluma company, Aquascape, is actually the only aquatic marine mammal rehabilitation enclosure for much of the state.
“When the beaver's in the water,” Mattos smiles, “she's the queen of the pool.”
The young beaver, because of its age and inexperience, can't be released for at least another year, Mattos sayid. To survive, beaver kits must learn the complex, essentials skills of dam building and maintenance, tree felling and food sources, lodge making and avoiding predators. In the wild, they gain this knowledge from parents and siblings. That can take two years. This one can't be sent back until she's mastered them here.
Beaver were once apparently common in Sonoma County and much of California.
By the early 1800s they'd been locally wiped out and are now extremely rare here. Recent beaver sightings near Kenwood and Sonoma, Maxwell Farms and near Tolay Regional Park suggest a few may be making their way back from small surviving populations in the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area.
The orphan at the rescue center isn't a local. She was found in Central California, near Madera. A backhoe operator clearing a drainage ditch there apparently swiped the bank where the beaver were denning, killing the parents and siblings, leaving one survivor.
A few months old, she was delivered to a local veterinarian, then volunteers from the Fresno Wildlife Rehabilitation Service picked her up, and she came into the care of Cathy Gardner, the wildlife center's director.
“Normally”, Gardner says, “baby beaver are cross, cranky, temperamental. They will throw their bottle away, make noises. This one was sweet, very different.” Unfortunately, she was also ill. Beaver urine is caustic. In water, where beaver normally live, it's rapidly diluted. But penned up, the baby beaver's tail and feet were badly burned. Gardner nursed her through the resulting infection, changing pads around the clock.