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In The Country

Close encounters with wildlife in the baby season

John Zuke

(5/2014) With pleasant spring weather comes more time outside and more chances for encountering the many local wild animals and their young. This is a busy time of year in the cycle of life, and there will be lots of new babies for the next several months. For the safety of people and the well being of the animals we may encounter, it is useful at this time of year to understand some realities about our local wildlife. So often when we collect a wild animal as a pet or "rescue" one we believe is in need, we are really unintentionally harming the animal or the environment.

Maybe most importantly, wild animals should not be raised as pets. That cute little animal you found and want to bring home will grow up. It will have specific needs to remain healthy, such as being fed a specialized diet (every half hour in some cases), vaccinations or medicine, and particular habitat requirements. Also it may live a lot longer than someone wishes to keep a pet. Its behavior will change as it matures. Some animals imprinted on people when they are young become aggressive as they grow up. And removing animals from the wild can have negative impacts on the population of native species.

Baby animals that have been kept in captivity even for relatively short periods of time should never be released back into the wild. Being captive, they never learn how to find food and avoid predators and other social skills of their species, or they lose those critical skills quickly when cared for by people. Well-meaning people who decide to free their animal back to the wild are usually dooming them to starvation or death by predation.

Additionally wild animals can carry diseases, some that can be carried without showing symptoms. Bringing a wild animal into your home exposes your whole family and your pets to potentially fatal diseases. In fact, it is against the law to raise most types of wild animals in captivity. There are federal and state regulations that are intended to protect both people and our precious wildlife resources.

Often during spring and summer we can encounter baby animals that appear to be abandoned or orphaned and need rescue: a baby bird on the ground that canít yet fly, baby rabbits or squirrels or a fawn with no parent visible. We should only intervene when it is absolutely certain that the animal is orphaned, injured, or in danger. The best chance for the animal to mature and have a successful life cycle is for it to remain in the care of its parent.

When young birds are learning to use their wings for flight, they will often fall to the ground below their nest site. The parent is nearby and will continue to take care of the young. It may be a day or two or three before the baby can fly up into trees and bushes, but this is an important step in its development. What you can do that will help the most is keep cats away from the area. If the bird is feathered and can perch, place it in its nest or the nearest tree. If it canít perch, place it under a bush or a more protected area, but still accessible to the parents. If it is unfeathered, gently place it back into the nest. It is a myth that the parents will smell human on the baby and not take care of it. Most birds actually have a very poor sense of smell.

Owls and hawks are protected by federal law and should only be handled by licensed wildlife handlers. It can also be dangerous to try to rescue these birds of prey because the parents are very protective and have been known to injure people venturing near their young. They also have special dietary needs. Meat from the grocery store, no matter the quality, does not meet their needs, although they will eat it and appear none the worse for wear. A licensed raptor rehabilitator has the skills and knowledge to raise and release these birds back into the wild where they belong.

Rabbits, squirrels, and other small mammals are often seen in yards when they are first exploring away from their nests. They usually donít need to be "rescued" even if the parents donít seem to be around to care for them. The parents avoid the nest during the day to avoid drawing attention to the young to protect them from predators. They are vulnerable during this time in their development. Keeping cats and dogs and kids away from them for a few days will give them a fighting chance to mature.

Many times people hiking or working in fields or along the forest edge come across fawns that are curled up on the ground with no parent to be seen anywhere nearby. They are usually not abandoned! This is the normal behavior of the deer during the day. The parent is not far off and is still taking care of the fawn. If it is in a safe spot, it is best to leave it alone.

Many animals are "rescued" each year that would have been much better off if left in their natural environment. However there are some situations where rescue is necessary. Do rescue an animal that has visible injuries or that has been attacked by another animal, especially a cat. Rescue is necessary if the animal has been hit by a car or lawn mower, or if it is swarmed by flies or ants. Birds need rescue if they have flown into a window and remain stunned or unable to fly after an hour. Any animal tangled in netting, fishing line, or stuck on a glue trap needs rescue.

You can help protect many young animals by not letting your cat run free. Cats in the United States kill millions of wild birds, small mammals, and reptiles each year.

It takes a lot of skill and experience to be a wildlife rehabilitator. There are no days or even hours off when caring for injured wildlife. Rehabilitators are not funded by the government and rely on donations and their own funds for the food, medical supplies, veterinarian visits, cages and other equipment required to help wild animals in need.

The following websites have very useful information on wildlife rescue:

  • ! Opossum Pike Vet Clinic and Animal Hospital "Injured Wildlife"
  • ! Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, MD "Wildlife Rehabilitation" and "Rescue Guidelines"

This area of Maryland and Pennsylvania is home to many types of wildlife. They belong in the wild. Enjoy observing them and their young from a respectful distance as they grow and disperse, but remember that sometimes the most considerate thing we can do for wild animals is to not interfere in their lives.

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson