Young wildlife is best left in the wild

News from the region
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JEFFERSON CITY – Resource Scientist Jason Sumners got a call recently from a concerned citizen who had a newborn white-tailed deer fawn. He gets them every year, just as every office of the Missouri Department of Conservation does.

The fawn had been near a highway with its mother when traffic spooked the doe, Instinct took over. The doe bounded into nearby woods, a move that normally would draw a predator’s attention. The fawn dropped to the ground, where it lay stock still.

So far, so good. However, the fawn was in plain sight of the highway. Traffic stopped, and a well-intentioned motorist decided the fawn was abandoned and scooped it up and took it home. Then they called Sumners.

“The fawn was fine where it was,” said Sumners. “Left alone, the doe would have come back and led its young to a safer place. But now you’ve got a wild animal out of its element, a nice person who has unwittingly broken the law and decreasing chances of the fawn’s survival with every passing hour.”

This situation plays out dozens of times each year, involving wildlife ranging from deer and opossums to robin chicks and tiny cottontail rabbits. People don’t see the animals’ mothers nearby and decide the young are orphans. Thinking they are doing a good deed, they bring the animal home. But these well-intentioned adoptions are not in the animals’ best interest.

Conservation officials say wild animals are better off in the wild than in captivity. Fawns that survive human adoption and are later released back into the wild lack survival skills normally learned from their mothers. One study tracked the survival of fawns rehabilitated at an animal rescue center and later released at Duck Creek Conservation Area. All died within six months.

Most young birds found on the ground have simply grown too big for their nests and are still being fed by their parents. Young birds or mammals brought inside can’t survive on bread soaked in milk. Human food is no substitute for the natural foods they receive in the wild. These often are partially digested or otherwise prepared by parents.

“I know many people pick up kitten milk replacer to feed ‘abandoned’ mammals,” said MDC Wildlife Veterinarian Kelly Straka. “This can be very dangerous to animals such as opossums that have unique vitamin and mineral requirements. Stunted growth and even severe deformities that interfere with normal walking are common and unfortunate results of well-intended supplemental feeding.”

If a child brings home a young animal, it is not too late to fix the situation. Explain to the youngster that the baby’s parents miss it, and you need to take it home. Have them show you where they found the baby animal and put it back. Then leave the area so the adults feel safe returning to their young.

Retrievers sometimes find cottontail rabbit nests and come to their owners to deliver saliva-covered but otherwise unharmed baby rabbits. Again, the solution is to return them to the nest. Finding the nest usually is as easy as accepting the dog’s gift, then telling it to “Fetch!” and following it back to the nest. Put the dog indoors, and then replace the bunny and cover the nest with material your dog may have nosed aside. Don’t be surprised if the nest is empty the next time you check it. After such a traumatic experience, a mother rabbit usually will move her young to a different location.

Similar solutions are advisable for deer fawns and other young wild animals found without obvious parental supervision. Many wild parents don’t act like humans, hovering around their young. A human mother would not leave a baby alone in clumps of grass, but this is normal behavior for white-tailed deer. Does visit their fawns only long enough to nurse them. By staying away the rest of the time, they avoid drawing predators’ attention.

Even knowing these facts, some people still can't resist adopting wildlife. Hollywood has created an immensely appealing image of playful, mischievous pets from the wild. But before you take home a cuddly raccoon kit, or a whitetail fawn, you should be aware of some not-so-cute facts.

First, it is illegal to possess wild animals without a permit. More important, there are no approved vaccines to protect wild animals against rabies and other diseases, many of which can strike humans as well. Wild adoptions put people as well as animals at risk.

Parasites present another risk. One example is Baylisascaris procyonis, a common parasite of raccoons. Eight of 10 raccoons have this parasitic round worm, but they have a natural resistance. Humans don't. Baylisascaris can cause serious illness in people, particularly children.

“This isn’t a disease where you can just get a pill from a doctor and fix it,” said Straka. “Baylisascaris can cause permanent blindness and even comas in people. It is an excellent example of why adopting wild animals is a bad idea.”

Scary stuff aside, wild animals don't make good pets. They remain wild, regardless of how they are treated. “Tame” white-tailed deer often become aggressive when fully grown and attack the humans who befriended them. Raccoons’ natural curiosity, combined with intelligence, strength, and climbing ability, inevitably leads to property damage. You Tube videos give an idea of how destructive raccoons can be.

Even under the best of circumstances most animals born in the wild don't survive to adulthood. Most fall victim to disease, predators, inclement weather, or just bad luck. That is why they produce many more young each year than are needed to perpetuate their species. Death is a necessary part of life in the wild.

This knowledge, along with an understanding of the dangers and problems involved, provide ample reason not to adopt wildlife.

- Jim Low –