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Why spring is a busy season for animal care staff at a rehab center in D.C.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lots of wild critters start having their offspring this time of year. That makes spring a busy time for people who rehabilitate animals that are injured or orphaned. Jacob Fenston takes us inside an animal rehab center in Washington, D.C.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: There's a nondescript warehouse in D.C. wedged between a community garden and the metro train tracks. Inside, there's a warm room, about 80 degrees. A noise machine pumps out forest sounds under the fluorescent lights.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

FENSTON: Right now, it's baby squirrel season in much of the country. This room is filled with the furry little creatures.

ALESSANDRA FLORES: We could tell them apart because we paint their ears different colors. So right now, I'm looking for pink.

FENSTON: Alessandra Flores is on the animal care team here at the nonprofit City Wildlife. At the moment, a lot of her day is taken up hand-feeding baby squirrels. Some have fallen from their nests. Others were abandoned by Mom. Others come in hit by cars. Flores plucks the one with the pink-painted ears out of his cage.

FLORES: We're going to grab a syringe. I'm going to put this in there and heat up the milk that he's going to get fed.

FENSTON: This little guy has a catchy name.

FLORES: Patient 24113.

FENSTON: Flores holds the 7-week-old squirrel with one hand and with the other offers a small syringe with a soft nipple on the end. Don't try this at home, she warns -squirrels can bite, and these babies need specially made formula.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUIRREL SUCKING ON BOTTLE)

FENSTON: The squirrel grabs the bottle with his tiny paws, madly gulping down the warm liquid. Squirrels are among the most common wild mammals in North America, so you might be wondering, why bother? It's not like the Eastern gray squirrel is going extinct anytime soon. But Jim Monsma, executive director of City Wildlife, says it's not just about wild animals. It's also about us. The act of saving a tiny, helpless squirrel, he says, generates compassion.

JIM MONSMA: Some people say, well, you know, waste of time on squirrels, but, you know, if it's not like you're born with a finite amount of compassion. Once you use it up, that's it - you're a jerk. You know, it's not like that. You know, the more compassionate stuff you do, the more kind you become.

FENSTON: There are wildlife rehabilitation centers like this across the country. They take in all sorts of creatures in need, from turtles with broken shells to bald eagles with lead poisoning. These centers are often powered by volunteers like Julie Edwards. On this day, she's wrangling a rambunctious squirrel. His cage has a red label - escape risk.

JULIE EDWARDS: That was not the nipple. That was my finger.

FENSTON: In the midst of the midday feeding session, a new patient comes in - the 16th baby squirrel currently at the center. He's all black and seems terrified and may be malnourished.

EDWARDS: It just says that he was orphaned, so I'm assuming someone found him on the sidewalk or something. He is pretty thin.

FENSTON: The goal is to get the squirrels healthy and big enough that they can be released back into the wilds of suburbia. Jim Monsma says the vast majority of animals that come in are here because of how we've built our cities and suburbs.

MONSMA: We have changed our environment to make it very pleasant and efficient and comfortable for us.

FENSTON: Things like roads and cars, lawns, and lawn mowers - just about everything we humans do to make life easier for us makes it tougher for wild animals.

MONSMA: Every day is an obstacle course with fatal consequences, potentially, for any slip up. And so the victims pile up, and that's why we're here.

FENSTON: As spring turns to summer, there will be even more victims. After baby squirrel season, the baby rabbits start coming in, then the ducklings and mourning doves. By next fall, staff here will have rescued hundreds of urban animals.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston, in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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