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Deborah Altman was walking with a friend in the trendy downtown NYC neighborhood of SoHo when something caught her eye.
It was an opossum huddled in the corner of a building on Grand Street. (Possums and opossums are different animals but the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. It’s confusing.) Seeing the scared helpless animal, Altman, a product manager who lives in Brooklyn, immediately thought of her own dog, who she had rescued as a puppy, and felt compelled to help.
Having rescued a chipmunk last year, Altman knew to contact a wildlife expert and found a list of contacts through the New York State website. When she eventually connected with Michelle Ashkin, a licensed New York State wildlife rehabilitator, she figured her part was over.
“I was expecting that I just needed to make the call and report it and they’d come down and pick it up,” said Altman. But Ashkin is one of only a handful of wildlife rehabbers in the city and gets calls from all over the five boroughs. Because of situations like this, “one of the responsibilities [of wildlife rehabbers] is to help the public when they come across wildlife,” said Ashkin, who has over 20 years of experience. “We let them know what the risks are, and if they want to rescue the animal, guide them how to do it as safe as possible for them and the animal.”
So she asked Altman if she would be comfortable rescuing the opossum herself and bringing it to a wildlife clinic uptown. According to The Humane Society, “rabies is extremely rare in opossums,” and although they sometimes hiss, it’s just “bluffing behavior.” It was clear to Altman that the poor little guy was just lost and scared. So she agreed to do it.
It probably just got lost trying to get a cronut from Dominique Ansel Bakery.
Credit: Deborah Altman
Since bringing an opossum onto the subway wouldn’t be such a great idea, Ashkin also offered to send Altman money on Venmo for the cost of the cab ride.
To be clear, Altman had stuff to do that day. She had plans. Plans that didn’t include trapping small mammals on busy city sidewalks. But her conscience won over. “I remember being like, ‘If I don’t do it, who else is going to do it.'”
Once Altman agreed to help, she found a discarded cardboard box on the curb, and ran back to the opossum still huddled in the building corner. She called Ashkin back on FaceTime and propped her phone on the ledge of a pillar.
In the past, Ashkin had to rely on verbal descriptions and photos to assess the situation. But six months ago she got a call about an injured squirrel in Queens, and it occurred to her to use FaceTime. “They were able to show me where it was and I was able to see this condition, and I was able to tell them right away what to do,” she said. “It eliminates a lot of guesswork.”
The practice has become “commonplace with many in the field,” said John Griffin, senior director of Urban Wildlife Programs at The Humane Society.
“We have advocated for the use of images and video chat to help with ascertaining injury or orphan status,” he said.
Jessica Zorge of Raptor Tales Rescue in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, told the MetroWest Daily News that she uses FaceTime to confirm if a bird really needs help.
Being able to do that from a distance is important, she said, because if there are “50 people around one baby owl that’s just trying to survive, the parents really can’t get close and feed it and keep it going.”
Back in SoHo, Ashkin began to walk Altman through the steps.
“I felt comfortable saying to her approach it from behind. Take it with your sweatshirt, or whatever you are willing to take it with, and sort of wrap it up and place it in the box.”
After a few nervous attempts, Altman was able to wrap her jacket around the opossum and put it safely and securely in the box. In typical NYC fashion, said Altman, people walking by didn’t seem phased by a woman trying to trap a wild animal. With the opossum contained, Altman hung up and went off to find a cab.
Initially determined keep it a secret to the cab driver, she came clean and explained everything when he flat out asked her what was in the box. To her relief, he was very supportive. “This guy and I talked the whole time,” she said. “About all kinds of stuff — animals and pets and health and healing.”
After a $35 cab ride uptown, Altman and the opossum finally arrived at the Wild Bird Fund, a nonprofit that rehabilitates birds and other wildlife. Staff members thanked her and informed her that they would make sure the opossum was healthy and then release him into the wild in upstate New York.
Throughout the experience, Altman says it was Ashkin’s guidance over FaceTime that empowered her to do it.
“She made me feel comfortable and safe and that I was totally able to just grab a wild animal off the Soho street and get it the help that it needed.”
Ashkin says the technology has been a great tool in not only helping save wildlife, but as a reassuring presence for people who are understandably nervous about handling wild animals. “I think when you stay on the phone with someone, it gives them… a little sense of comfort.”
If you find an animal in need, Ashkin says do not try and move the animal or give it food or drink. And definitely don’t try to keep it as a pet. You might not know what’s wrong with it and could end up doing more harm than good. Instead, you should immediately call a wildlife rehabilitator.
And maybe clear your schedule for the day.