2006-06-29 / Columns

Outdoor Matters

Helping Abandoned, Injured Wildlife May Cause More Harm Than Good
A column from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

It is common to see fawns alone for long periods of time in the wild. The doe often will leave the fawn for hours between nursing sessions. Sometimes people think a lone fawn has been abandoned, but the DNR cautions that the doe is likely close by. Wild animals should be left in the wild. Removing them from the wild usually does more harm than good. (DNR photograph by David Kenyon) It is common to see fawns alone for long periods of time in the wild. The doe often will leave the fawn for hours between nursing sessions. Sometimes people think a lone fawn has been abandoned, but the DNR cautions that the doe is likely close by. Wild animals should be left in the wild. Removing them from the wild usually does more harm than good. (DNR photograph by David Kenyon) It happens often. While hiking or driving, you see a fawn all on its own, seemingly abandoned by its mother or you find a young bird sitting on the sidewalk. You feel like you must do something to assist the animal, but should you?

Assisting injured or abandoned wildlife often poses a dilemma. You want to help an animal in crisis, but will your assistance just make the situation worse for the animal?

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) prefers that wild animals be left in the wild, unless they are visibly injured, or in the case of baby animals, it is clear that the adult has been injured or killed.

Wildlife rehabilitation is often a labor of love. Few rehabilitators get paid for their work. Wildlife rehabilitators in Michigan are required to have permits from the DNR for the work they do. Rehabilitators who work with birds are required to have additional permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wildlife rehabilitation is not the practice of turning a wild animal into a pet. Wild animals are only held in captivity until they are able to live independently in the wild. Steps are taken by rehabilitators to ensure that a wild animal remains wild. Animals in rehabilitation are not marked or tagged in any way.

Fear of humans and the ability to find food are necessary survival traits for wild animals and every effort is made by a rehabilitator to minimize human contact and prevent the taming of a rehabilitating animal. This is often an elaborate and time consuming process.

Wildlife rehabilitators often work with veterinarians to assess injuries and diagnose illnesses. Rehabilitators must be able to administer basic first aid and physical therapy, which is often far more complicated than providing first aid to a person. Rehabilitators also have extensive knowledge about the species in their care, including natural history, diet, behavioral issues, and caging considerations. They also understand the danger the animal can be to humans.

Animals that have injuries or illnesses that prevent them from being returned to the wild are usually euthanized.

In rare instances, animals that recover from their injuries but are not able to survive in the wild are placed in educational facilities.

"Animals that are handled too much often become very stressed or habituated to people, and that reduces their chances for survival," said Bill Moritz, chief of the DNR Wildlife Division. "In almost all cases, the best thing a person can do for a wild animal is to simply leave it in the wild. Many people who 'rescue' young wildlife are really doing more harm than good, even though their intentions are good."

If you find an injured or seemingly abandoned animal, the best thing to do is call the local DNR office or check the DNR Web site for the name and number of the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. Often because of their training, rehabilitators can help concerned people decide whether an animal truly needs help. Young birds and mammals should be returned to their families if at all possible; even well trained rehabilitators are not replacement parents.

In the spring and summer, it is common for many people to mistakenly think a fawn all alone is abandoned. The spotted coat and lack of scent make a stationary bedded fawn difficult for predators to detect. A bedded fawn is not abandoned. In the case of white-tailed deer, the first eight to 10 days of a fawn's life are a period when it is left alone for six to eight hours at a time, but the mother is always near, said Rodney Clute, DNR big game specialist.

"Typically, the doe will visit the fawn, feed it, and move it to a different location three times a day. The rest of the day the fawn and its mother are separated," Mr. Clute explained. "Where good fawning sites are limited, a doe may keep a fawn in one location longer or use the same location repeatedly. In areas of higher deer densities it would not be unusual for different does to use the same location to bed a fawn."

Mr. Clute added, "When a fawn is located, remember the doe is watching. Enjoy the moment and move along. Let the fawn's mother raise the fawn."

Young birds often spend some time on the ground or on low branches until they can fly well. Great-horned owl chicks, for example, often spend two or three days on the ground. This is a natural phenomenon that requires no action on our part. The best thing to do when a bird is encountered is to vacate the area and keep pets away from it.

If you find an injured or apparently abandoned wild animal, you should first attempt to locate a wildlife rehabilitator. If you must keep the animal overnight, leave it alone in a secured cardboard box with small holes cut into it.

The more you handle or look at a wild animal, the more stressed the animal will be, reducing its chance for survival.

Do not give the animal anything to eat or drink, especially milk or lettuce. Many baby mammals are lactose intolerant and may develop diarrhea from cows' milk, and many birds are not adapted to feeding on vegetables.

If you find a cold or featherless/ hairless animal, put a heating pad on low underneath half of the box. Do not hold the animal to try to warm it. Holding it in your hands will take heat away from it.

Finally, in those very rare instances where an injured or truly orphaned animal is found, remember it is important to contact the rehabilitator as soon as possible.

Often, well-meaning citizens think they can keep an injured animal and make it a pet. In almost every case, keeping a wild animal for any time longer than it takes to transfer it to a rehabilitator is illegal.

Native wildlife species are protected by state laws, federal laws, or both. To keep a wild animal in captivity for any length of time, for any purpose, requires a special permit for research.

The best advice is to leave wildlife in the wild. While it is natural to want to help an apparently abandoned or injured wild animal, it often does the animal much more harm.

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