Leave cute little baby animals in the woods

It is mid-May, and a group of hikers find a newborn fawn curled up in the ferns along a forested mountain trail. The fawn lets them approach and even touch it. The hikers admire its large eyes and stunning white spots. Since no doe is visible, they are concerned for the fawn’s wellbeing. After a brief discussion about what to do, they assume that the fawn has been abandoned by its mother, and they carry it home to care for it.

Each year at this time, the Pennsylvania Game Commission puts out a news release urging well-meaning people to leave wild animals in the woods.

In the coming months, it will become common to find young deer, rabbits, birds, raccoons or other wildlife that may appear to be abandoned. Rest assured that in most cases, the young animal is not an orphan or abandoned, and the best thing you can do is to leave it alone.

Centre Wildlife Care in Port Matilda, the closest licensed wildlife rehabilitator, will soon be overflowing with animals “rescued” by well-meaning people. Some of these animals will truly need help, with others — they would be better left alone.

In the above example with the fawn, the solution is clear. The hikers, although well-intended, were just wrong and, on top of that, what they did was illegal. Their judgment was off because they did not know either the law nor the habits of deer.

It is illegal to take wild mammals or birds from their habitat. It is also illegal to hold them in captivity in an attempt to make a pet. Under state law, the penalty for such a violation could be a fine of over $1,000 per animal. Another misconception — Many people think that they can “rescue” a wild animal and then obtain some sort of permit to keep it. There is no such permit.

A good, caring white-tailed deer mother leaves her fawns unattended for long periods of time every day. A fawn hides scentless and motionless in the cover while its mother feeds nearby. The doe returns only a few times a day to nurse her offspring. This is a deliberate strategy intended to keep predators away from the fawn. Even with this strategy, about half of the young fawns are lost to bears, coyotes and bobcats. Nature can be cruel by our human standards.

While the fawn example was crystal clear, in real life, the “waters” are often a little murky. Deciding on the best course of action in each case can cause an ethical and/or moral and legal dilemma for this writer and many others.

During my 35-year career as a nature-loving high school biology teacher, I was faced with such decisions over and over again. When I was lucky, it was a question at school or an evening phone call about a rabbit nest that was hit with a lawnmower or a baby robin that had fallen out of its nest in someone’s backyard tree. On my less fortunate days, it was a knock at the door – a neighbor with two baby opossums that their cat had brought in or a box full of baby rabbits delivered to my classroom.

If you have a classroom full of teenagers or your own young children (and sometimes not-so-young children), “letting nature take its course” might be the best answer, but it is often not a very workable solution. Each case is different and I always attempted to make the best informed judgment possible.

Thump – a bird flies into one of our windows. It is upside down quivering in the snow. Birds in such condition rapidly lose body temperature, go into shock and die. Let nature take its course? I’m sorry, but it is not what we do.

My wife or I gently pick up the stunned bird, bring it inside and cup it in our hands to keep it warm. Within a few minutes, the bird usually becomes more alert. When we think that it has recovered, we open the door and open our hands. Nine out of ten times, the bird flies away to resume its normal wild bird life. According to the letter of the law, I am suspect that what we did was illegal, but I do not think that it violates the spirit of the law.

In an extreme case, in late September one year, my daughter found a barely-alive hummingbird on the ground beside our house. We gave it sugar water and it soon perked up. A wildlife rehabilitator was contacted and the hummingbird got a free ride to Florida and was released there.

Last summer I discovered an injured rose-breasted grosbeak. It seemed to have a broken wing. I took it to Centre Wildlife Care and it was determined that the bird indeed had a broken wing and the break was actually at the site of a previous break. The broken bone was repaired.

Sometimes current law is rooted in history. For example, it is illegal to have in your possession an egg, a nest, an egg shell or even a feather from a federally-protected bird species. Is there harm done if someone collects a sparrow nest in the fall and spray-paints it gold for a decoration or picks up a shed blue jay feather from the forest floor? No harm, but definitely illegal. These laws date back to the 1800s, when birds were killed or active nests disturbed by collectors for their eggs, feathers or the nest itself.

Other risks involved with handling wildlife include ticks, fleas and diseases such as rabies. Care should be taken if you find an injured animal and want to take it to a rehabilitator. The only local rehabber in our area is Centre Wildlife Care on Skytop Mountain Road near the base of the mountain just north of Port Matilda 814-692-0004.

In no way should readers take any of my comments as an endorsement for removing an animal from the wild. My very human feelings are part of the problem, not a solution. No matter what one’s feelings might be at the time, the safest and the only legal thing to do is to leave uninjured wild animals in the wild.

Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com

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