Our human-created environment can be a hazard to wildlife, and sometimes we may be called upon to step in and help save a life. On a recent morning, I happened to look out my kitchen window and noticed an opossum struggling and unable to free its back left leg from a crack in a fence where two boards were misaligned. This was in my neighbor’s locked backyard, which I was not immediately able to access. I have no idea how long the animal had been there, but opossums are normally nocturnal, so it could have been hanging there with its leg stuck in the fence for some time. It would eventually die there if not released.
An urgent rescue
After knocking on my neighbor’s door, along with calling and texting her, I still had not received a reply after five to 10 minutes. This being an emergency, I grabbed my six-foot stepladder and prepared to scale the back gate in order to gain access to my neighbor’s yard. Normally I would never enter a neighbor’s yard without permission, but I saw this as a life-and-death emergency that required immediate action.
As I was setting up the ladder, my neighbor came out through her back door and opened the gate, having finally received my messages. I then approached the struggling opossum, putting on work gloves and speaking quietly to it, promising to set it free from this painful situation.
I gently held the marsupial with my left hand, while trying to pull its left leg out and up with my right hand. The leg was stuck fast and wouldn’t release. I then held the animal in my right hand as I pulled the left fence board forward, taking the pressure off the leg. That, combined with an upward pull on the opossum, finally released it.
At that point, it just lay there in my arms like a baby, peaceful and not struggling at all. It must have known it was being helped and was safe. Plus, it was probably exhausted. It was also suggested to me afterwards that the animal probably was “playing ‘possum,” meaning it was feigning death as a survival mechanism. This unconscious state actually is an involuntary reaction triggered by danger, according to the Audubon Community Nature Center, and can last for a few minutes to several hours, depending on the type and level of threat.
No worse for the wear
After laying it gently on the ground, we soon saw the opossum get up, limp away, and then apparently gather strength and mobility as it climbed up the fence, walked along the top, and then scurried away along the back of my yard fence. Success!
I hate to think of what would have happened had I not noticed it hanging and trapped in that fence. Although I have never seen an animal stuck in that fence before, I am going to see if I can work with my neighbor to fix it and try to eliminate the gap where an animal can get stuck.
Another week, another rescue
The following week it was time for a second animal rescue. Around 5:30 in the evening I went out on the deck to cook something on the grill. This is something I do only occasionally, so it was fortunate that I decided to grill on this particular evening. As I faced the grill, in the corner of my eye I suddenly noticed a small bird trapped and struggling in the cat netting that is mounted above the backyard gate.
This netting is part of a “Cat Fence-In System” that we’ve used for many years to keep our cats in and protect them from escape and harm. Never before have I seen a bird or any other wildlife caught in the netting, but this particular section had gotten kind of old and tangled over the years, and so presented more of a risk. I immediately called out to my wife that we had a trapped bird that needed to be saved, and she came out with a flashlight and scissors.
Careful scissor work
Working with large scissors, and then eventually switching to a pair of smaller, finer scissors, we carefully cut away all the tangled netting to get it free from the bird. It took about 10 minutes, since the fine netting was quite tangled, and the bird was struggling a bit.
We were able to free it from the outdoor netting, but the red-breasted nuthatch still had netting tangled around its body and neck, so we brought it inside for further work. After about 10 more minutes, using scissors, strong eyeglasses, and a headlamp, it appeared we had gotten all the netting cut away. By this point, the bird had long since given up and stopped struggling, as we gently held it and made sure all the netting was removed.
Once that was completed, it was time to bring the bird outside and hope that it could still fly. My main worry was that the bird would be injured and unable to fly. I really wanted this story to have a good ending.
By now it was dark out, and all the other birds had retreated to their night quarters up in the trees. We placed our red-breasted nuthatch on the outdoor deck table, and it soon hopped to the railing, paused a moment, then flew quickly up into a tree. It seemed to fly well, and we were so relieved to see it flying free.
The next day I cut away all that tangled netting on our gate, so that no other birds will get caught in it. We actually don’t have cats anymore, since our last precious cat passed away last December, so there is no longer a need for the netting other than keeping it up for possible future cats. We didn’t see the rescued bird again after it flew up into the tree, so I assume it is fine and has resumed its normal activities.
These rescue stories are a reminder that things like cat netting, deer netting, Halloween spider webs, loose fence boards, hazardous chemicals such as antifreeze or insecticides, and other human-created dangers can be a real problem for wildlife. Another risk factor is the presence of outdoor cats, which are estimated to kill as many as 2.4 billion birds annually in the United States, according to CityWildLife.org. Unleashed dogs also do their share of harm.
In the right place at the right time for animal rescue
We can’t solve every problem in the world or save every life, but I’m so grateful I was able to notice these animals in need and be there to help them. I hope that you too will keep an eye out for our furred and feathered friends, and be there to give them a hand if they need one—and remove any obvious hazards. There’s no better feeling in the world than to save a life.
Contributing writer Steve Gorman has been a resident of Alameda since 2000, when he fell in love with the history and architecture of this unique town. Contact him via [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Steve-Gorman.