Late spring and early summer are the months when humans commonly encounter wild baby animals. While the urge to "rescue" these babies is strong and quite irresistible, more often than not, it is not in the best interests of the animal to be rescued. The zoo gets many calls this time of year from concerned and well-meaning individuals who have brought young wildlife into their homes. More often than not, the advice we give them is to return the baby to where they found it.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has an informative brochure to help people understand why wild babies should be left alone, or at least left in the wild. Copies are available at KDWP offices, as well as at the Finnup Center for Conservation Education at the zoo. However, for simplicities sake, I will share with you some tips from this brochure. If you do find a wild youngster this spring, we are always happy to try and answer your questions, but many factors ranging from disease risks to staffing and space, prevent us from being able to take all these adorable little ones into our care. So why should wild babies be left alone? Here are five good reasons.
1) What we believe to be orphans are probably not. Animal mothers frequently leave their babies alone during the day. They may be off searching for food, or in the case of deer or rabbits, may be keeping their distance so as not to give away the location of their baby. Deer fawns have excellent camouflage, and lack the scent of older animals. Therefore it is difficult for predators to detect them. Mothers "park" them in a safe spot, and return a couple of times a day to nurse them. Humans finding them in this situation often assume they are abandoned and pick them up, but mother is probably nearby watching and waiting for us to leave so she can return to her offspring. Removing them from their mother's care greatly reduces their chance of survival, and for a normal life in the wild.
Baby birds may fall or be blown out of the nest before they are ready to fly. When this happens, their best chance of survival comes from being returned to the care of their parents, whether that is in the original nest or a makeshift one nearby. Fledgling birds may not appear ready to take on the world, but if they are sporting a larger percentage of smooth flight feathers as opposed to fluffy down feathers, they only need to be moved out of harm's way (roads, cats, kids, etc.) and left to their own or their parent's devices.
Two years ago, we found a young owl on the ground at the zoo. The nest it fell from was beyond our reach, so we were unable to replace it in the original nest, but our maintenance crew secured a wooden crate in a lower branch of the tree. That baby fledged successfully from the box with the help of its parents, and the owls have enjoyed this man-made nest box for the last two years, raising more owlets.
The belief that animal parents will abandon young touched by human hands is false, so go ahead and put them back and give nature a chance to take its course.
2) It's illegal! Both the Department of Health and Environment and Wildlife and Parks have regulations preventing individuals from keeping native wildlife without the proper permits, and federal laws may also come into play. Fines in Kansas may reach up to $1,000. Why? Keep reading.
3) Wild animals may carry diseases, which are not always immediately apparent. Once the disease is discovered, many curious people and pets may have been exposed to diseases such as rabies, distemper or parasites like ticks, fleas, roundworms, tapeworms, mites and more. Babies may not show symptoms at first, but if they are truly orphans, it is likely the parent(s) succumbed to a disease that also has infected the babies. I recall an instance years ago of a litter of fox pups taken in by well-meaning people. All the neighbors (including children) that came to visit and handle the cute pups eventually had to receive rabies shots, as the babies were infected with this serious disease. Keep the health of your family, friends and pets in mind!
4) Wild animals do not make good pets. All baby animals are cute and cuddly, and the wild ones hold an allure all their own. However, when those babies grow up, they need the physical "tools" and survival skills that enable them to survive. Such weapons (claws, teeth, etc.), temperaments and social skills make them especially dangerous to have around a household. As they mature, they are more likely to assert their dominance, and by then, hand-raised animals have lost their fear of humans. That once-cute raccoon kit may suddenly view you as a competitor to finding food or a mate, and may behave accordingly. I have personally been on the receiving end of such normal behaviors from hand-raised raccoons and deer. Neither were experiences I care to repeat. Wild animals lack the traits that have been bred into domestic animals for tens of thousands of years, enabling the latter to live in close proximity to humans.
5) So what really happens when you rescue a wild baby? Even the most skilled humans are unable to provide the same nourishment, care and training that the parent animal can give. Lacking these lessons, wild animals are seldom able to live a normal existence if they are released into the wild. They must find natural food that they have not been taught to recognize, and protect themselves from predators, traffic and others of their own kind who may be defending a territory into which the newcomer has been thrust. If they are able to survive the first few days, they may turn to people (who they associate with food), and someone often gets hurt. Additionally, they may contract diseases from domestic animals they come in contact with, and when released into the wild, spread these diseases to the wild populations, resulting in the death of additional animals.
In the long run, wild babies have a better chance to live a normal life if left alone. Enjoy them from a distance, but remember, they probably don't need rescued. Nature can seem cruel, but having only the fittest animals survive to reproduce ensures the health of an entire species. It's a lesson that is difficult for humans to understand and accept sometimes, but it is nature's way.