Most people see me as a pretty confident, self-assured person, but the truth of the matter is that when it comes to raising these wild animals, I am always worried that I am going to mess it all up. When they turn out good, I am sure that it was luck and I had nothing to do with it. Up until this point I had been pretty lucky but I was sure that this time my luck was about to run out. I was failing with this animal and success didn’t look like a probable outcome.
It all started with a big idea that I had. We were looking for something new to add or change in the museum for our members who have been to see us over and over again, so I suggested adding a beaver and some ducks to make the River Tank more authentic. Everyone loved the idea. “What did I just get myself in to?” I thought. It’s not like getting a dog, I couldn’t just go to the pet store or local shelter. This was going to be a challenge. Before then, every animal I had ever acquired was random. I had a list of potential animals we could have, and then waited for one to become available through a wildlife rehabilitator. This time, I had to actively find a baby beaver by the next summer.
After calling many of my contacts, I finally found a zoo in the midwest that had a pair of beavers who bred every year. Not having any way to prevent this, they had to find homes for the kits once born. There are always zoos who want them, so it hadn’t been a problem for them. I called and was told that I was the first on the waiting list for the year, so if they had kits, one was ours. So now all we had to do was wait. On June 23, 2014, she gave birth to three kits! We were so excited to get the youngster, but then we ran into a roadblock. They decided that they would not take the youngster from the group until it was at least 5 weeks old and weaned from the mom. I know that sounds pretty young still, but it was long enough for the kit to bond to the others and not to us, causing the kit to develop fear of humans. We wanted to be able to bottle feed him and wean him ourselves. That is the best, most successful way to bond with the animal. But no matter how many times I asked, they refused.
On August 12, 2014 I drove to the Sacramento airport to pick up our 7 week old beaver kit. He was adorable. It was really late and being a two hour drive home, we decided to get a hotel. I hadn’t checked to see if this place allowed dogs, but either way I wasn’t about to tell them I had a beaver with me. So, we got our room, parked the car near the side door and then quickly and quietly rushed in with his kennel. Whew, we got through undetected. I don’t know what I would have said had we been caught! We let him out to wander the room as he had been cooped up in that kennel traveling all day. Watching a beaver kit check himself out in the mirror was quite interesting. We then filled the bathtub with some water for him, but he wasn’t very interested in that, he just investigated the whole room. The night was uneventful and in the morning we packed up, snuck him back out to the car and headed back to Redding.
Once we got him home, the fear started to set in. He didn’t want anything to do with us during the day and would huff at us if we got too close to him. He was still on his nocturnal schedule and just wanted to sleep all day. Trying to wake a sleeping beaver was quite a feat. How were we going to bond to this little guy and teach him that we were not a threat? The only thing we could do: stay up with him when he decided to be up. I set up a cage in my spare bedroom with towels, a small water bowl, lots of sticks and a stuffed animal for him to cuddle up to while he slept. In the backyard, I placed a plastic baby pool with cinderblocks as steps in and out to give him easy access. Beavers need access to water, as they only defecate in water. This meant that at least once, if not twice a day, we had to get him in the pool so he could do his business.
There were so many challenges that I don’t even know where to start. He was so scared that I didn’t know how I was going to get him into the pool in a positive way and. more importantly, how was I going to get him back out of the water and into the house after. But surprisingly, once he was at my house, he did better. I was able to pick him up out of his cage and bring him to the pool. As his round pudgy body hit the water, a puff of white was expelled and then what seemed like more feces than any little animal should be able to produce! I had to get him out of that filthy water, but once he was in the water, he didn’t want us anywhere near him. We tried to get our hands on him, but he squirmed, jumped out of the pool and ran across the yard. We went running after him. I swooped him up, Wayne grabbed a towel and we towel dried him as we brought him back into the house. The next time we brought him out to the clean pool, we were ready. Armed with a small fine net, he hit the water, expelled his load of grossness and we scooped it out before it disintegrated into a sea of brown slush! This became our new routine.
Every night, around 9 or 10pm when he woke up, we allowed him to swim (or more often float like a log) in the pool for as long as he wanted. He had learned that he could just walk to the back door, we would open it and he would waddle out to the pool on his own. At times he looked like a furry alligator with only his eyes peering above the waters’ surface. We would sit watching, sometimes for hours. We couldn’t move a muscle or he would spook and slap his tail. This meant it would be at least another hour before he calmed enough to leave the pool. Once done, he would climb out of the pool on the opposite side we were sitting and run across the yard. Like every night before, I would circle in front of him and like a goalie and catch him in my arms before he could hit the fence line. Armed with a towel, I would scoop him up, wrap him in the towel, Wayne would hand him a big piece of his favorite treat–sweet potato–as I carried him back in the house. Then, one day, it all changed. I had the greatest idea: “Let’s sit on the opposite side of the pool, where he always gets out. Maybe he will get out across from us towards the door.” So, Wayne and I sat and waited until about midnight. Then, Timber climbed out of the pool at the cinderblock, and walked right to the sliding glass door and back into the house. He walked down the hallway and put himself away into his cage where fresh towels, his stuffed animal and sticks awaited him!
He was getting more and more comfortable with us. I would stay up with him after his swims, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning. He would crawl up on me, snuggle in and go to sleep. He investigated the house, chewed the doors of our new home, and played with his stuffed animals and twigs. He was learning cues like “come” and “rise” and understood that “good” meant his favorite treats were coming. He started to allow us to move while he was in the pool and even put our hands in the water with him. I would crawl into his cage with him and we would groom one another. He was making such improvements, but only at my house. Every morning, we would put him in the car and take him back to Turtle Bay. He was not comfortable there at all. He would sleep all day and the little moments he was awake he exhibited nervous behaviors. Although the other trainers could and did, interact with him, he was not making the strides there that we had hoped. It was great that he was comfortable and bonding to me at the house, but if he couldn’t get comfortable with everyone else and at the place he was going to live, what were we going to do? How could we give him the life he deserved? It had been months and we had made little progress.
It was now November and if we didn’t get him introduced and settled in his new home at the Museum Aquarium soon it would be too cold and he would have to stay with me all winter. As much as I loved the little guy, he was growing quickly and needed more space. His pool was becoming a soak tub as he no longer had room to swim down “deep”. One morning I had a thought, “He is comfortable with us at the house and at the water. He is very uncomfortable in the Animal Care area.” I paused as my brain was churning, “But he isn’t going to be living in the Animal Care area. He is going to be living in the Aquarium!” It was time to change things up. It was time to bring him to the Aquarium exhibit with the 22,000 gallon pool where he will live. The exhibit wasn’t fully ready for him yet, but it was good enough to start his introduction. Wayne got suited up in his wetsuit, we carried the 23lb beaver up the stairs and into the rocky exhibit.
As we released him onto the ledge in the shallow area of the pool, Wayne waited in the cold 53 degree water with treats in hand. Timber dipped his head down into water and glided the rest of his body in. He swam deep in the pool and popped back up to Wayne. He swam around Wayne’s feet and up to his shoulders. As much as I hate to be anthropomorphic, I felt like he had to be thinking, “It’s about time you guys got in here with me!” After a little while, we coaxed him out of the water and he went right back into his cage. No fear, no problems. We were finally on the right track!
After a few more of these successful introductions and when the exhibit was complete, it was time for an overnight. There was one big challenge and we had no idea how it was going to go. The new lodge that was built for him only had a tube entrance under the water. Not having been raised with such a different entrance point, Timber didn’t understand how to use it, so once he got into the frigid water, he didn’t know how to get out. We thought that if we locked him into the lodge, he would figure it out since it would be his only option. It was worth a try.
On the evening of November 13, 2014 we set up Timber’s lodge with all the things he was used to having: sticks, a little stump, his stuffed dog and towels that smelled like him and us. We carried his cage up to the Aquarium and across the shallow ledge of water to his lodge. We opened the door and let him out. We closed the back gate door of the lodge and left the area. From inside the Museum, we could see into the lodge and were set up to spend the night with him. We monitored everything he was doing for hours. At about 11pm that night, I called it off. He was not figuring out how to use the tube. He started chewing on the back metal gate door. I couldn’t watch anymore. We went up to the exhibit in the dark, balanced the cage at the back of the lodge and coaxed him back in. As I carried him back into my house and settled him in for the night I could not help but think I had failed.
Over the next few days we continued to work on the exhibit to make it more comfortable for Timber. We added a ramp out the back side of the lodge. We practiced with him in there more: swimming, climbing the ramp in and out, climbing the steep side out of the pool onto the land. It was time to try one more time. We prepared everyone for another overnight. I was going to stay the entire night and the rest of the staff and some volunteers would take shifts to join me. We released him into the lodge once again and left. I made a little camp in the Museum to observe him. As the sun went down, he walked to the back of the lodge and flopped right into the water. He swam and swam for hours. I watched worried. Would he get out on his own? Would he get too cold? Would he be scared? Only time would tell. Then it happened, he went to the backside of the lodge, walked up the ramp and sat on the edge his lodge grooming. After some time, he lay down in the back and went to sleep.
The next morning, I went up to the exhibit to a sleeping beaver, crawled into the lodge and we groomed for a half an hour. He then crawled out and climbed into my lap. I fed him some of his favorite treats and then packed up my stuff and headed home to bed. The house was quiet. Timber’s cage sat empty with torn up branches scattered about the room. We had done it!
Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs
“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”