Rescuing Chattanooga’s Wildlife

Where the Wild Things Are

Here in Chattanooga, our proximity to nature means that city life often converges with wildlife. Over the years, this has presented challenges for our wild residents. Our native species of animals are critical to the health of our ecosystem, and no one understands their struggles better than the local wildlife conservationists who are working to save them. The reason they do it is simple: They understand the value of these animals and why we need to conserve them. What follows is a closer look at area species and insight from experts on the animals that call Chattanooga home.

By Catherine Smith

owls rescued by Hapinest



The Little Guys: Squirrels and Songbirds

At the bottom of the food chain, there are animals like squirrels and songbirds that frequently come into contact with humans. Because they are so common in our daily lives, it can be easy to overlook their significance to our environment. 

Squirrels are often misunderstood – some people consider them pests, while others keep them as pets. Marshall Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservancy wants both sides to reconsider. “I always encourage people to appreciate and enjoy squirrels and all wildlife, but do not try to ‘own’ them or make them captives in a human world,” says Kate Kinnear, who runs Marshall Creek from her home. Regardless of how you view these little guys, they are essential to our environment.

For such tiny creatures, squirrels make considerable contributions to the health of our forests. Each year, squirrels bury seeds and acorns in the ground to secure food for the winter, but the seeds they forget about often become new trees. 

Squirrels also help maintain optimal growing conditions by tending to the soil. Their digging aerates the ground so that roots can grow stronger. Because squirrels constantly need to chew, they also help by clearing debris from the forest floor. This chewing turns twigs, pinecones, and other debris into nutrients added back into the soil. All of this contributes to forest expansion that can mitigate the damage of deforestation.

Like squirrels, songbirds are common in our backyards, but they are becoming less common. Since 1970, the North American bird population has dropped by 2.9 billion birds – that’s a statistic that would ruffle anyone’s feathers. Our native birds bring joy to tens of millions of birders in the United States, but they are also essential to our environment.

“Songbirds are an important part of the ecosystem for their role in insect control and distribution of seeds to help more plants grow,” says Sherry Teas of Camp Wildernest, a songbird rehabilitation facility here in Chattanooga. Many birds that live here year-round eat a significant number of insects – including mosquitos! Our native birds also control the growth of pesky weeds thanks to the number of seeds they consume.

Furthermore, scientists look to our bird populations to gauge the health of our ecosystem. “They are key indicators of environmental health or contamination,” says Alix Parks of Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue. When our bird population drops, scientists know that something is out of balance within our ecosystem. “Songbirds are one of the most threatened species on the planet, so each bird we can save is valuable to us,” Teas adds.

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Camp Wildernest


Ask the Expert: Sherry Teas, Camp Wildernest

Rehabilitation Services: Local and Migratory Songbirds

What is a common misconception people have about the animals you care for?

Most finders still believe that touching an animal will cause the parents to reject the baby – it’s completely untrue. I always tell people, “The parent’s instinct to care for their baby is stronger than any scent you may leave on it.”

Are there any unique challenges to working with migratory songbirds?

Identifying baby birds is a unique challenge I face as a songbird rehabber. We cared for 74 different species of songbirds in 2021, and sometimes trying to identify a naked, eyes-closed baby is a complete mystery. 

What is the most rewarding thing about working with migratory songbirds?

We always feel some excitement when receiving “first-time” species on admission, as it allows us to work with unique animals and expand our knowledge. It’s very rewarding to release any animal back into the wild, and it feels like a bonus to work with so many different species.

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Opie Acres


The Misunderstood: Opossums, Skunks, Raccoons, and Foxes

Further up the food chain, we have animals like opossums, skunks, raccoons, and foxes. These animals tend to have bad reputations, but they make valuable contributions to our environment just the same.

Unfortunately, raccoons, skunks, and foxes are prone to carrying rabies, which contributes to their unpopularity. “I’ve noticed that people tend to be either overly concerned about rabies or not concerned enough,” says Juniper Russo of For Fox Sake Wildlife Rescue. Some people mistakenly believe that any raccoon spotted in the daytime is rabid, while others disregard animals actively suffering from seizures or foaming at the mouth. According to Russo, “Rabies is uncommon but does need to be taken very seriously, especially when an animal has neurological symptoms.”

Though exercising caution around these animals is good, it is important to understand why they are necessary to a healthy environment. Raccoons and skunks feed on pests and carrion (rotting animal carcasses), while foxes control populations of small mammals that carry ticks and spread disease. Without them, our environment would be out of balance.

Unlike the other animals in this group, opossums are not prone to carrying rabies, and their poor reputation is primarily a result of widespread misconceptions. “The most common misconception is that opossums are carriers of rabies, when it would be more likely for them to be struck by lightning,” says Jerry Harvey, who rescues countless opossums every year with Opie Acres. In truth, low body temperatures and strong immune systems make the opossum a terrible host for rabies. 

Another misconception is that opossums are dangerous and destructive. Though they are known to bare their teeth when frightened, they are docile creatures that only attack as a last resort. They are also unlikely to damage property or landscaping. Because opossums eat decaying plant matter, they prefer cleaning up dead plants to feasting on our gardens. 

Despite popular belief, opossums are excellent neighbors that we are lucky to have. These omnivores control pests like insects and rodents, but they stand out when it comes to eating ticks. A single opossum can consume up to 5,000 ticks per season, significantly reducing the spread of Lyme disease. Incredibly, opossums are resistant to snake venom and are known to prey on copperheads and rattlesnakes. Not bad, right?

Opossums are valuable backyard visitors, and as Harvey says, “They’re just darn cute!”

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Marshall Creek


Ask the Expert: Kate Kinnear, Marshall Creek 

Rehabilitation Services: Squirrels, Chipmunks, and Rabbits

What is the most rewarding thing about working with these animals?

Many rehabbers would agree that release day is the most rewarding part of rehab, and that is true for me too. It’s tough to articulate what it’s like to watch them do “zoomies” up and down the trees, then run up to me as if to say “thank you” before running back to their freedom. Knowing that I helped them, and I made a difference, makes all the work and sacrifice worth it.

What is a common misconception that people have about squirrels?

A very frustrating one for me is the idea that squirrels make good pets. There are a lot of stories and videos on social media that show individuals making pets out of squirrels, but the truth is that no amount of habituation is going to take the wildness out of a wild animal.

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Ask the Expert: Alix Parks, Happinest

Rehabilitation Services: Raptors

What is one thing you wish more people knew about rescuing birds?

Young birds on the ground are not always abandoned or orphaned. They spend a week or two on or near the ground being protected and supported by their parents. Please take photos from a distance and contact a rehabber for directions before kidnapping them. Please do intervene and move the youngster to safety if he is in the road or in a dog lot, then call a rehabber for instructions.

What is a common misconception people have about raptors?

That head trauma patients are docile and enjoy being petted. In reality, they are in shock and terrified.

What is the most rewarding thing about working with raptors?

There is nothing like the joy of releasing a raptor that came to us near death and is now perfect to return to the wild!

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baby fox swimming at for fox sake animal rescue

For Fox Sake


The Apex Predators: Raptors and Red Wolves

At the top of the food chain, apex predators are critical components of a balanced ecosystem. Here in Chattanooga, this group includes raptors (birds of prey) and large mammals. 

Raptors like owls, hawks, and vultures are indispensable as apex predators. Parks of Happinest explains, “They help control the overpopulation of rodents and pest insects. They also remove old, sick, or injured animals and clear carrion from the environment.” Vultures may not be as easy on the eyes as songbirds, but they act as nature’s clean-up crew to remove rotting carcasses that would otherwise spread disease.

Without apex predators, herbivore populations go largely unchecked and rapidly consume vegetation. This leads to habitat destruction and leaves other animals without the shelter they need to survive. All of this, which we can see happening throughout the Southeastern United States, stems from significant losses to our population of apex predators. 

We have one apex predator that has suffered population loss so extreme that it was once considered extinct in the wild. The American Red Wolf, native only to the Southeast, is the most endangered canid in the world. Right here in Chattanooga, Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center is one of 44 facilities that are part of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, a captive breeding program.

The plight of the red wolf is a result of misguided fear and ignorance of the vital role these animals play as apex predators. “As settlers came to America, they exterminated the red wolf and other apex predators from fear and misunderstanding,” says Tish Gailmard, director of wildlife at Reflection Riding. Even today, red wolves are killed when they are mistaken for coyotes. Ironically, coyotes have expanded their territory and become a greater nuisance now that the wolves are no longer around to keep them in check. 

Red wolves are intelligent hunters that go for sick and injured prey. This limits the spread of diseases among wildlife, thereby reducing the risk of infections passing on to livestock. “The trophic cascade fueled by the wolves creates healthy environments, and when the environment is healthy, we humans are healthy,” Gailmard explains. “My commitment to this species is a commitment to saving our environment.”

Luckily, conservationists are committed to seeing red wolves thrive once more in their native lands. As Gailmard says, “The fate of the American Red Wolf is in our hands, and we intend to conserve this species.”

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Ask the Expert: Juniper Russo, For Fox Sake

Rehabilitation Services: Rabies Vector Species, Reptiles, and Bobcats

What’s a particularly rewarding experience you have had with an animal?

Faramir was a bobcat who was intentionally hit by a car. He arrived effectively dead, with a heart rate that was barely detectable. I couldn’t find a veterinarian for him so late at night, so I gave him a warm place to die peacefully. When I came to collect his body early in the morning, he was on his feet and mad as could be! He had a long recovery, but he made it and was set free in his original territory.

Is there a particular time of year that you see an increased need for rescues?

Absolutely. The animals I care for hit peak breeding season in May through July, and we get a ton of orphans during that time. There’s always a time in June when I feel like there’s no possible way I’ll make it through baby season.

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Ask the Expert: Jerry Harvey, Opie Acres

Rehabilitation Services: Opossums

Can you tell us about the animal that started it all?

It was one fat little opossum named Georgia at the Chattanooga Nature Center in 1983, I believe, that made my heart sing! She encouraged me to learn everything I could about the Virginia Opossum and proved to me that they needed an advocate.

What is a particularly memorable experience you’ve had with an animal in your care?

Carr was a sweet adult male opossum who was hit by a car. After several days, when he regained his awareness, he woke up to a soft bed, good fresh food twice daily, and a person who loved him very much. He was a snuggly friend to all who met him as one of our beloved education ambassadors.

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The Big Picture

The moral of the story is this: Each species that is native to Chattanooga is a necessary part of what makes us the Scenic City, and we can help to keep them safe. Each of these wildlife rehabilitation facilities relies on regular people to spot injured or sick animals and call a rehabber that could save their lives. “It’s easy to focus on big-picture initiatives,” says Kinnear, “but wildlife rehabilitation reaches people on a very individual level, and sometimes that’s just as powerful as larger, but more distant conservation efforts.”

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red wolves at reflection riding

Reflection Riding


Ask the Expert: Tish Gailmard, Reflection Riding

Sanctuary: Birds, Small Mammals, Reptiles, and Red Wolves

What kind of enrichment activities do the animals enjoy?

Food puzzles mostly – wildlife is motivated by food!

What is the greatest challenge of working with red wolves?

The constant need for education. Education is key to the survival of this critically important animal. We also need financial support to provide care for our red wolves.

What is the most rewarding part of working with red wolves?

Seeing the species thrive. I never get tired of their howl and their beauty. I’m blessed to be part of their lives and that they allow me into their world. 

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