Coaxing a very sleepy beaver out of its snug "nest" and into its morning bath is a skill in and of itself.
DaLyn Erickson-Marthaler is down on her knees, crawling inside a wire pet crate.
"I know, it's terrible to wake up like this," she says softly to the beaver as she scoops him up in her arms, one hand under his big, flat tail, and whisks him off for a weigh-in and then the tub.
It's the start of another day in the rehabilitation journey of six beavers injured in a recent diesel fuel spill at Willard Bay. For more than 40 days now, the animals have received care for burns, skin abscesses and gastrointestinal problems in their new "lodge" at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah.
Every day is a litany of routines -- feeding the beavers, "swimming" the beavers, medicating the beavers, cleaning up after the beavers.
Besides logging exhausting 14-hour days caring for the animals, center executive director Erickson-Marthaler says, "It's been an emotional roller-coaster ride."
One moment, she says, she's heartened by the outpouring of community support for the animals. The next, she's so angry at seeing the beavers' pain and suffering "you want to sit down and cry with them."
Now that nearly six weeks have passed since the first two diesel-soaked beavers arrived at the Ogden center, let's take a behind-the-scenes look at their ongoing care.
Each beaver's "name" is written on its tail in black magic marker, to keep the six animals straight.
But the names are actually numbers, assigned in the order the beavers arrived at the wildlife center after the mid-March pipeline leak sent thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into the marshes of Willard Bay State Park.
No. 1 and 2 were admitted March 19, followed by No. 3 -- who may or may not be a relative -- on March 21. All three of their pens are clustered together in the center's lobby area.
The other trio -- a mother and two youngsters -- were found in their diesel-drenched lodge more than a week later. Beaver No. 4 is Momma, who, as an adult, lives in a kennel run in a more private back room. No. 5 and No. 6 are believed to be Momma's offspring and were the sickest of the animals, so they are housed in cages in a quieter, less-trafficked area off the main lobby.
All five kits are about 1 year old, Erickson-Marthaler says, and weigh around 20 pounds each. Their genders are unknown (the sex organs are internal) so volunteers alternately call them "he" and "she."
The animals may eventually be named, through a naming contest, but when asked how long that might be, Erickson-Marthaler -- cleaning dirty linens out of another cage -- quips with a laugh, "As soon as we can."
Until then, the beavers also have a plenty of nicknames to go around, ranging from "Lumpy" to "Sweet Cheeks" to "Munch."
And the center is investigating the possibility of doing DNA tests on the animals, to determine who exactly is related to whom, the wildlife specialist says. That information is key to successfully releasing them back into the wild, she says, because beavers live in family units.
* 10 a.m. -- Morning is "surprise time" as volunteers arrive to see what the nocturnal animals have been up to the previous evening, be it overturning their food dishes or rearranging their towels and sheets in the cages into "nests."
What seems like mayhem is actually a good thing, Erickson-Marthaler says, because it shows the animals are improving and acting more like ... well, healthy beavers.
"We want their cages to be a disaster when we get here in the morning," she says.
Over several hours each morning, the beavers are removed from their pens one at a time for tub time, and sometimes, for weighing. While some volunteers supervise the baths, others rustle up breakfast for the animals or clean out each cage and add fresh bedding.
* 2 p.m. -- After the hectic morning rush, afternoons allow a little time to "coast," says Erickson-Marthaler. The beavers do a lot of their sleeping in the daytime.
The second round of tub times begins in the afternoon, cages are cleaned again and bedding is straightened or changed as needed.
With one sheet and three towels lining each beaver pen, loads of laundry are thrown into the center's only washing machine every hour, all day long.
"If that washer's not running, we're in trouble," Erickson-Marthaler says.
Of course, those sharp beaver teeth mean that not every sheet is salvageable, she adds: "After they're shredded to a certain point, they're no longer useful."
* 8 p.m. -- Dinner time begins, along with the third round of baths. These are the "picking sessions," Erickson-Marthaler says, when abscesses must be lanced, drained and cleaned. No. 5 and No. 6, particularly, had dozens and dozens of these pockets of infection on their bodies after giant clumps of their undercoats fell out due to exposure to the diesel fuel.
Sometimes the beavers whine a little baby-like cry during this treatment, the center director says, so, "I hate doing that."
Before the day winds up -- often around midnight or later -- No. 5 and No. 6 get in the bath a fourth and final time.
Any hour of the day, chances are good there's a beaver in the bath tub.
The animals are always hand-carried to the tub in the same order -- 6, 5, 1, 3 and 2. Only Momma, who is too big and strong to handle at 50 pounds, doesn't get to indulge in this ritual.
The bath water is always warm, to prevent the beavers from getting chilled due to the loss of their thick protective undercoat, Erickson-Marthaler says.
Some of the beavers actually do paddle a bit in the tub; others just rest quietly in the water. The animals are closely watched because they can't close off their noses and ears as they normally would if they were to submerge, due to burns from the diesel fuel, the wildlife specialist says.
Tub time also helps the kits stay hydrated, by keeping their scaly tails wet and giving them the chance to drink water. The bath is first filled to the "sweet spot" where the youngsters can easily get a drink, Erickson-Marthaler says; then more water is added to allow them a better chance to swim.
The tub encourages the beavers to groom themselves, and the condition of their skin and fur can be evaluated. And a "successful" session also involves the animals going "potty."
Meals and meds
Fed twice per day, the beavers receive salad greens, carrots, yams and rodent pellets, as well as plenty of fresh branches to nibble on.
"Right now, the aspen and the willow are their favorite, so that's their main diet," Erickson-Marthaler says.
A dietary supplement is given daily to No. 5 and No. 6, a nutrient-rich powder mixed with water that the beavers find less than palatable. So Erickson-Marthaler dresses it up by adding a half-jar each of baby food carrots and sweet potatoes.
"They find that scrumptious," says the wildlife specialist, who stirs the concoction and then lets No. 6 guzzle it down, her little beaver feet clutching the syringe like a child holds a baby bottle.
As the beaver swigs her supplement, Erickson-Marthaler also slips in a dose of pain medication. Numbers 6 and 5 still receive this daily due to their scores of abscesses. Antibiotics to fight the infections were a daily routine at first, but have been stopped for most of the beavers.
"We seem to be getting a handle on the abscesses," Erickson-Marthaler says. "It's slowing down and looking a little better."
While recovering from their injuries, the beavers have been housed in separate quarters, although some of their pens are placed side by side. The mother is separated from her young because the kits need frequent attention, Erickson-Marthaler says.
If they were with Mom, "that would be eight times a day we would have to tear her babies away from her. ... Having the young with her would not help her or them right now," she says.
The pens of the five young beavers are routinely covered with blankets to give them some privacy. Humans have to interact with the wild animals to care for them, but they also try to keep their lives in captivity as stress-free as possible, Erickson-Marthaler says.
The beavers sometimes growl or "huff" to warn folks to back off.
"They're beavers and they're showing us they don't love us -- which is good," the director says.
Tail slaps -- that classic beaver warning communication-- are something the wildlife expert doesn't want to see because it means the animals are upset.
"We want them to feel comfortable; we want them to feel safe," she explains.
Volunteer Derek Brown, who supervises many of the tub times, says the beavers have their own personalities. No. 1, for instance, is calm and easygoing; No. 2 is aggressive and tries to intimidate people.
"No. 3 is very active. He likes to move around when he's in the tub," Brown says. "He gets very curious about things that are on the counter."
The animals are more active in the evenings, Brown says, and when he goes to fetch them to the tub, some of them come out of their cage on their own once the door is opened.
The beavers recognize Brown and associate him with pleasant activities, Erickson-Marthaler says.
"They don't necessarily love him, but there's a certain level of trust there," she says. She, on the other hand, is the "bad guy" of the pokings and proddings and treatments.
"Which kind of stinks," she says, "because I want to be the good guy."
Only five percent of a rehabilitator's work is the glory of releasing animals back to the wild and 95 percent is cleaning, messes and heartbreak, says volunteer coordinator Jen Dummer. Yet working with these beavers -- or any of the 156 other birds and mammals at the center -- is unforgettable.
"You are going to have experiences here that you will never have in five lifetimes," she says. "Have you ever been nose to nose with a beaver? Have you ever looked into its little eyes?"
Soon, work will begin at the center on a "beaver room" -- complete with a large metal pool -- where the animals will have more space and can live with others.
The beavers must be healthy before the move can happen, Erickson-Marthaler says, plus they must be carefully introduced to each other to see if they are compatible.
The five kits are young enough that they should get along fine, even if not all of them are related, the wildlife specialist says. But how the mother beaver will react to offspring that are not hers could be an issue, she adds.
The big question, of course, is: When can the beavers be released into the wild?
"We have to wait for the group to get better, not just a couple (of animals)," Erickson-Marthaler says.
If all goes well with their recovery, late June would be the earliest time for release, the center director says. If it isn't possible by August, the animals would need to stay at the center until next year, because they wouldn't have time to build a new home or store food before winter sets in, she explains.
Should Momma not "adopt" the first three kits found at Willard Bay, the animals would need to be divided into two groups, Erickson-Marthaler says. Those without a mother wouldn't be accepted by other beaver families, so they couldn't be released until they were 2 years old and able to be on their own.
But she says, "The ultimate goal is, we really would like to unite all six and have them be a happy, healthy functioning unit and go out together."