Help Save Wildlife – Donate Zebra Mussels?

Do these cool fall temps have you thinking it’s time to pull in the pier? If so, be prepared to bring a whole lot of zebra mussels onto shore with it. But the Dane County Office of Lakes and Watersheds has an idea for what to do after you’ve scraped the Madison lakes’ newest invader off your pier legs and boat lifts – bag them up for some needy native wildlife.
Want a silver lining to our zebra mussel situation?,” an announcement read earlier this month. “The Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center is looking for donations of zebra mussels as they are excellent nutritional food sources for some of the native species that they rehabilitate.

This injured snapping turtle would love to chow down on some zebra mussels. Photo: Sarah Richardson

That’s right, folks at the Wildlife Center are asking for donations – of zebra mussels. Willing lakefront homeowners can scrape the clingy invasives into a bag and either head right over to the Wildlife Center’s red building at 5132 Voges Road or store them in a freezer for up to 30 days.
We just had to learn more, so we reached out to Sarah Richardson, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator at the Wildlife Center, with a few questions.
Where did the Wildlife Center get the idea to use invasive mussels as food for injured native animals?

A former volunteer of ours actually had access to the edge of a Madison lake where they noticed the zebra mussels building up on the dock. They knew that zebra mussels were invasive and removed them, but instead of throwing them away thought to bring them to us. Having foods that an animal would find in the wild is a good source of enrichment for our patients, even if it is an invasive.
There are quite a few species that we get here at the wildlife center that eat native mussels as a part of their natural diet. It is then a logical extension that they would eat the invasive zebra mussel as well even if they have not been observed eating them in the wild.

So, if I bring zebra mussels into the Wildlife Center, what kinds of animals are going to eat them?
After being well cared for and well fed (perhaps with zebra mussels?) this common map turtle is released back to the wild. Photo: Sarah Richardson

Many turtles such as the common map turtle, painted turtle, snapping turtle, and spiny softshell turtle. Some bird species that we admit and eat mussels include the common goldeneye and herring gull. We also occasionally have muskrats, which would potentially eat zebra mussels as well. We have not tried feeding zebra mussels to many of these species because we do not get donations of them often, but in theory they should since they all eat native mussels. The common map turtle is the only one we have given zebra mussels to, and it did eat them.
Do you have to prepare them in any way?
Since the species we would give zebra mussels eat mussels in the wild normally, no preparation is required. The animal can either swallow them whole or bite/tear pieces off themselves.

Are there any other invasive species that may wind up on a wildlife rehab dinner plate?

The rusty crayfish is another invasive that we would accept as a food source for our patients. This invasive could be eaten by most of the species listed above and more.  
But I thought it was illegal to transport invasive species.

Zebra mussels are classified as a restricted species and their transport is not allowed without a permit UNLESS it is for disposal or education.  We have been in touch with the Wisconsin DNR and they have said that using the mussels as a food source at the wildlife center is considered disposal.

Patched back together with plates and screws, this painted turtle wouldn’t mind an invasive snack every now and then while it recuperates. Photo: Sarah Richardson

Interested in making a donation? Contact the Wildlife Center at 608-287-3235 or email Brooke Lewis at blewis(at)