Shutdown means fewer dead possums, more baby squirrels at rescue center

The (Allentown) Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — You know who's enjoying Pennsylvania's stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic? Opossums.

With more of us working from home, there are fewer cars on the road, so opossums — and other animals — aren't getting run over as often on the Lehigh Valley's highways.

"This time of year we're usually flooded with calls to help opossums that get hit by cars with babies in their pouch," said Katherine Uhler, director of the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Hamilton Township. "This year, not one."

Baby squirrels and rabbits are being rushed to the center in record numbers though, as stuck-at-home residents putter around their yards and disturb bunny nests to plant victory gardens. Last week's windstorms sent trees swaying, creating a shower of juvenile squirrels that residents scooped up and brought in. As of Thursday, volunteers at the nonprofit were caring for 90 of the bushy-tailed rodents, an 18% increase over this time last year.

"That's a lot of squirrels," Uhler said.

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While the COVID-19 crisis has created untold hardships for people, it's been a boon for wildlife. Animals appear to be taking advantage of quieter streets and less industry to explore new areas. So far, this doesn't seem to be causing a problem for people locally.

"From dusk til dawn, there are deer out just everywhere," said W. Tyler Kreider, the state game warden who oversees Lehigh County. "At the same time, we're not getting as many calls for deer-vehicle collisions."

Across the country, people are taking to social media to post photos of emboldened wildlife venturing into locked down communities. Though some of the accounts turned out to be hoaxes, like the story of dolphins swimming in Venice's tourist-free canals, photos of goats lounging on the steps of shuttered buildings in North Wales and bobcats enjoying a human-free stroll through Yosemite National Park have been verified.

Sharon Wycoff, left, a volunteer at the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center removes squirrels to move them to another part of the facility as Katherine Uhler, director of the center observes Friday at the center in Hamilton Township. Baby squirrels and rabbits are being rushed to the center in record numbers though, as stuck-at-home residents putter around their yards. (Rick Kintzel/The Morning Call via AP)

Closer to home, Emmaus resident Jenae Holtzhafer was surprised enough to see a large fox sauntering down Seventh Street on a recent evening as she was making a quick trip to CVS that she pulled out her cellphone and started recording.

"We do have fox here, but they usually don't come out until after dark. This one was just walking down the street, as calm as can be," she said.

While sharing the streets with the occasional fox doesn't sound so bad, city dwellers in some areas are experiencing a more skin-crawling brush with wildlife. Rats, accustomed to feeding from restaurant trash cans that have been empty for weeks, are being seen out in the open more often as they scavenge for food near residences.

In New Orleans, city pest control employees were working overtime to stop the army of rats frightening people in the French Quarter, a scene captured on a viral video of rats scampering down a vacant Bourbon Street.

The jury's still out on how the coronavirus stay-at-home order is affecting local birds, said Peter G. Saenger, president of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society. Though he's heard from society members that migrating waterfowl are taking to local lakes in higher numbers than usual, there's no hard data yet.

"I am sure fewer birds, as well as other wildlife, are being hit by cars with the reduction in vehicles on the roads, but with birds, probably not a significant number. To the best of my knowledge COVID-19 has no direct effect on birds, but with many of us staying home, less human activity can't hurt," he said.

Hard data will eventually be available, as naturalists will no doubt study the effect of the pandemic for some time. But for now, people who work with wildlife say they're convinced reduced human interaction is benefiting animals.

Katherine Uhler, Director of the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center handles a pouch filled with baby squirrels at the center Friday in Hamilton Township. Baby squirrels and rabbits are being rushed to the center in record numbers though, as stuck-at-home residents putter around their yards. (Rick Kintzel/The Morning Call via AP)

Kreider, the state game warden, said nuisance calls from residents about wildlife have been down overall. Conversely, animal activity has increased.

"Black bears are on the move this time of year, and we are seeing them, but with the exception of a bear we trapped in Northampton County (last) week, they don't seem to be encountering humans as often," he said.

On his pre-dawn patrols around the county, Kreider said he's been struck by the number of deer herds he's seeing, some in places he's never seen them feeding before. The county's three bald eagle nests are also full with chicks or eggs about to hatch, and he hasn't responded to any reports of people hassling the raptors.

With fewer cars running and many industries shut down, the air seems to be cleaner, Kreider said, though he stressed he did not have any scientific measurements to prove that.

Researchers say it's too soon to say if the U.S. is experiencing lower pollution levels during the pandemic, but in China, where lockdowns started in January, NASA satellite images show a sharp decrease in smog, resulting in clearer skies over populated areas. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant primarily from burning fossil fuels, were down as much as 30%, NASA said.

What is on the rise are reports of illegal trash dumping, Kreider said, especially construction debris on state game lands. Though dumping is a problem every spring, it's "drastically jumped" in recent weeks.

"We don't really have wildlife problems, we have people problems," he said.

Another concern is the increased risk of brush fires as an influx of people have taken to the Appalachian Trail over the last month. So far, despite the weather being mostly dry before last week and reports of illegal camping, there haven't been any significant fires, Kreider said, but game wardens remain vigilant.

Uhler, from the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, said she's encouraged by news that more people are taking up hiking or discovering local parks due to the coronavirus stay-at-home order. Animals who live in parks are already accustomed to steering clear of the walking paths and trails used by humans, but first-time visitors are still reporting thrilling glimpses of colorful birds and mammals.

"It's good for people to be out learning about the natural world and the animals we share it with," Uhler said. "If it can be said there's anything positive about this pandemic, that would be it."