- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) - No one can replace a mother.

But when it comes to saving a life, Mandy Cumming and her husband, Phil, try their best.

Cumming is a certified wildlife rehabilitator in Pitt County who cares for and gives first aid to distressed animals and can retrieve abandoned young animals, if called. She cares for small mammals including squirrels, rabbits and opossums and calls her rescue Maypop Wildlife Rescue.

Maypop, a variety of flower, also was the name of the opossum Cumming found a few years ago which inspired Cumming to become a rehabilitator.

“Since she was the reason we became interested in wildlife rehab, it seemed fitting,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to work with animals.”

There are several wildlife rehabilitators across the state who serve in this capacity, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission asks that people who see animals in distress, or young animals that appear abandoned, to call a local wildlife rescue like Maypop. Cumming is trained to recognize whether or not an animal is in need of assistance.

The Wildlife Commission each spring advises that people enjoy wildlife while treating it with respect and caution.

Encounters with wildlife increase in spring when many species bear young, according to the commission, and handling, feeding or moving wildlife can harm or ultimately kill the animal. Interaction also poses a risk for human health and safety. It is illegal in North Carolina to keep native wildlife as a pet.

“Well-meaning people can do tremendous harm when attempting to ‘rescue’ young animals,” Ann May, an extension wildlife biologist, said. “One of the best approaches to protecting young wildlife is to keep pets, especially cats, indoors.”

Many species, including white-tailed deer, do not constantly stay with their young and only return to feed them. While a fawn may look abandoned and alone, it is waiting for its mother to return. A fawn is well-equipped to protect itself. By the time it is 5 days old it can outrun a human and, within a few weeks of birth, can escape most predators.

“Fawns are well camouflaged and usually remain undetected by predators because they are spotted and lack scent,” May said. “The doe will return to the fawn several times a day to nurse and clean it, staying only a few minutes each time before leaving again to seek food. Taking a fawn from the wild will do more harm than good.”

For other species, a parent could return and become aggressive in an attempt to defend its young. This is particularly true of bears. With the statewide population of black bears on the rise, sightings or interactions with bears are more common. A black bear sow can become aggressive when she believes her cubs are threatened.

The commission recommends leaving the animal alone for 24 to 48 hours if not in immediate danger or unless a dead adult is nearby.

While the animals that Cumming typically handles are much smaller than bears, she said it still is important that people leave them alone and call someone like her to evaluate the situation before doing anything.

“I tell people that if the animal is in immediate danger, like there’s a dog around or something, bring the dog inside and maybe move the animal to get it out of danger,” Cumming said. “But don’t do anything else - don’t feed it or give it anything to drink. You could make it much worse. Just call a rehabilitator.”

There are specific rehabilitators for different types of animals, including special rehabilitators just for fawns.

Due to risk of rabies, foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes and bats cannot be rehabilitated. Wild turkeys and adult deer also are not eligible for rehabilitation in North Carolina.

Cumming said at least one of the young squirrels in her care was brought to a person by their dog.

May and Cumming both recommended that dogs be kept on leashes and cats be kept inside especially during this time of year to prevent such incidents.

Cumming, 27, originally is from Florida. Her family moved to Greenville when she was 13. Her husband, Phil, is English and moved to the area for Cumming.

Both are animal advocates. About a year ago, Cumming began her training to be certified as a rehabilitator. Her first rescue was a red tailed hawk with a broken wing.

“That was intimidating,” she said. “They’re pretty intense. But it was good experience. It was kind of confirmation for me that this was what I was supposed to be doing.”

Cumming realized that small mammals fit her best, so those are the creatures she is certified to help.

Right now she is caring for four young squirrels, none of which are related.

“There’s an adjustment period,” she said. “We’re hoping they all get along.”

The squirrels have to be fed a special formula Cumming purchases online. They are fed the warmed formula with syringes.

She also has five young opossums who are eating mostly solid food, she said.

“Their mom was hit by a car while the babies were still in the pouch,” she said. “They were just all out on the road. But they’re doing well now.”

It has been a learning process for Cumming and her husband. The opossums had to have a custom-built cage the couple constructed themselves because they kept escaping a rabbit cage.

“They’re very smart,” Cumming said.

The siblings lay in a heap in a den Cumming made for them in their enclosure, blinking lazily up at her and squirming around and lashing their pink tails.

While the couple is affectionate toward the babies and gives each of them names, they said they do try to limit contact as the animals get older so they will have a better chance of surviving once released.

But getting to the point of release is a long, hard road, she said.

“The hardest part is when they don’t make it. And trying not to get discouraged,” Cumming said. “But we can’t replace mom. We can try our best to be a substitute, but you can’t be that for them. It’s not always enough.”

“One of the hardest things is having to accept that sometimes you just can’t do anything for them,” Phil said.

The job is a full-time one for Cumming and is rewarding as she sees animals improve and eventually released.

“Once you’ve taken a baby back from the brink, or seen it go from something totally pathetic or only half alive and see it grow into an adult that can make it on its own, it’s really hard to get calls and say no,” Cumming said.

The couple cares for 17 local cats that have been trapped, neutered and released at their home surrounded by trees and wooded areas. They also have a rescued rabbit and dog.

But with all of the little lives depending on them, Cumming said she and Phil still have to make time for themselves.

“If you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t help anybody,” she said. “But we still go without sleep and without eating sometimes just to make sure they’re getting the best chance they can get.”

The ideal that humans and animals can coexist peacefully is one that Cumming said she keeps close to her heart.

“A lot of the time the animals that we get in rehab are here because of people,” she said. “If there aren’t people willing to take care of them, they don’t have a chance. I know we’re not saving the world, but it means a lot to those little squirrels and if a lot of people are doing it, it makes a difference. Nobody deserves to be left without help when there are people out there who can help them.”?”We can give them a shot,” Phil said. “It’s been so rewarding.”

Maypop is not yet a certified 501 c3 nonprofit, but it does accept donations of supplies and funds to help keep the rescue going.

Cumming also is an artist, whose work can be found at www.etsy.com under the store name, PossumTree.

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Information from: The Daily Reflector, https://www.reflector.com

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