DOW: Give young wildlife the space it needs
April 18, 2011
Spring has arrived in Colorado and it won’t be long before newly born wildlife take their first awkward steps, sometimes near watchful people.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife is reminding the public that the well-intentioned impulse to save what appears to be an orphaned or abandoned animal can often lead to unintended consequences, including the death of the animal.
For many people, a common reaction when they see young wildlife that appears to be abandoned is to treat it as they would a human baby and attempt its rescue. Giving human characteristics to animals is known as anthropomorphism. The concept is often seen in popular children’s books and movies. Division officials warn that projecting human behavior onto young wildlife often does more harm than good.
“A human baby that has been abandoned is a crisis that needs immediate attention, but this is not the case with baby animals,” said Watchable Wildlife and Volunteer Coordinator Trina Romero. “In fact, the instinct that leads a female animal to leave its offspring alone for long periods of time is a natural method of protection. The last thing it needs is human intervention.”
Deer are a common example. A fawn that stumbles about weakly while learning to walk will attract predators, so evolution has provided effective methods of protection. Newborn fawns are naturally well camouflaged, don’t emit odors that attract predators and can lie very still for a long time. As a result, they are actually safer if their mothers leave them on their own. Even a curious person watching the fawn from a distance could alert predators to the animal’s presence and prevent its mother from returning.
But in the rare case that the young animal’s mother has been hurt or killed there are some steps you can take to protect its orphaned offspring. If the mother of a young animal does not return for more than 12 hours, or it is obvious that it has been hurt or killed, it’s best to report its location to the Division of Wildlife.
“People who pick up animals risk injuring the animal or making it too comfortable with humans to be returned to the wild,” added Romero. “By leaving the animal alone and reporting its location to the Division of Wildlife, our trained personnel or volunteers can respond and make the determination about what is best for the animal.”
Many orphaned animals are taken to licensed wildlife rehabilitators who work hard to make sure the animal can be reintroduced to the wild. However, even rehabilitation has risks, with only a minority of rehabilitated animals being able to return to a full life in the wild. In some cases, it may be better for young animals to fend for themselves in their natural habitat.
“Every case is different, so it’s best to let trained wildlife staff and volunteers respond and make a determination,” Romero said. “Once a human intervenes, the choices for the animal’s future become more limited.”
People are cautioned to avoid “rescuing” the animal themselves or trying to keep it as a pet, which in most cases is illegal. Even the best efforts to rehabilitate an injured or orphaned animal by an unqualified person can instead lead to negative consequences, such as poor nutrition, stress and behavioral problems.
Because dogs will explore off-trail areas and search for smells and movement, people often encounter baby animals while walking their dogs. If they are allowed to run loose, dogs can present a serious danger to all wildlife. Domesticated dogs quickly revert to their predatory instincts and will often chase and severely injure or kill young wildlife and their parents. By statute in Colorado, law enforcement officers are authorized to immediately euthanize any dog observed harassing wildlife, and dog owners can receive a hefty fine. Division officials strongly recommend that people keep their dogs on a leash. It will keep the dog safe, and prevents injuries or death of wildlife.
The Division reminds everyone that evolution has given all animals effective instincts when it comes to rearing their young and it’s best to just let nature take its course. If you see a young animal that appears orphaned, keep your distance, don’t feed and don’t help. In most cases, not doing anything is the most responsible way humans can show their love for wild creatures.