‘Helping’ wildlife usually well-intended but potentially harmful, state officials say

Posted 6/7/19

When it comes to interactions between people and wildlife, state Wildlife Resources Commission officials offer clear advice to people: “Look, but don’t touch.”

Those who do otherwise are …

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‘Helping’ wildlife usually well-intended but potentially harmful, state officials say

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When it comes to interactions between people and wildlife, state Wildlife Resources Commission officials offer clear advice to people: “Look, but don’t touch.”

Those who do otherwise are almost always well-intended, acknowledges Wildlife law enforcement Officer B.C. Smith, who covers Chatham County.

“Probably every year around this time, we’ll have someone call us and tell us they’ve picked up a baby deer, a fawn, and taken it home,” Smith said.

But Smith and other state Wildlife officials say that’s almost always a misguided move.

Young wildlife ­— fawns, baby rabbits or other fledgling wild animals — that appear to people as if they’ve been abandoned most likely haven’t been and should be left alone.

It’s likely, officials say, that the young animal’s mother is nearby and will return when she feels conditions are safe to do so. Deer, in particular, use a “hider” strategy to protect their young, which means the female will hide her fawn in vegetation during the first two or three week of its life as she wanders away to feed, often for hours.

Left alone, fawns have an improved chance of survival, officials say. Dappled with spots and without discernible scent, the young deer are well camouflaged from predators as long as attention is not drawn to them. Fawns are also well-equipped to protect themselves, officials also note. By the time they are five days old, they can outrun a human. At six to 10 weeks of age, fawns can escape most predators.

Rabbits, like deer, try to hide their young, digging shallow nests for them in clumps of thick grass, under low-growing shrubs, or in the middle of a yard. Nests can be hard to see and often look like piles of messy or dead patches of grass.

The female leaves her young alone while she wanders off to forage, only visiting the nest a few times a day. In the nest, the young rabbits — called kits — are easily found by people who mistakenly think the young have been abandoned. If the kits appear uninjured, cover the nest and walk away, no matter how tempting it might be to “help” them, advise Wildlife officials.

“We know that people mean well when they want to help what they think is an ‘abandoned baby.’ However, handling a wild animal, particularly a young one, can stress it, sometimes fatally,” said Falyn Owens, the state Wildlife Commission’s extension biologist.

“The chances that a young wild animal will survive for long in the care of humans is pretty slim,” Owens said. “Even those that stay alive long enough to be released usually lack the skills to survive on their own. When people take in a wild animal, such as a fawn, and try to keep it as a pet, or even just to nurture it temporarily, not only are they being biologically irresponsible, they are also likely breaking the law. Taking a fawn — or most wild animals for that matter — out of the wild and into your possession is illegal.”

Owens also advises that people not feed young animals they may encounter in the wild. Doing so can often cause irreversible harm to the animal by providing the wrong food or feeding it in a manner that causes injury.

Instead of interfering in nature, Wildlife Commission officials say if you find a fawn that is calm and appears uninjured, leave it where it is and check on it the following day. If it is still there and bleating loudly, it appears cold, weak or thin, or its injured — it might truly be orphaned. In this case, do not take it out of the wild, but instead contact a local licensed fawn rehabilitator.

“If you do take a fawn out of the wild, as we know people do sometimes, and it has been less than 48 hours, please take it back to where you found it,” Owens said. “A doe will usually try to find her missing fawn for about 48 hours before she gives up. If more than 48 hours have passed, or you have tried to feed the fawn, contact a local, licensed fawn rehabilitator as soon as possible.”

Kit rabbits also can be observed from a distance to see if the mother returns. Female rabbits will avoid approaching the nest if they think a threat is nearby, including people, so officials advise not to stick around waiting. Instead, place some thin twigs in a tic-tac-toe pattern over then nest and check back in 24 hours.

“If the pattern is disturbed, you know the mother has visited,” Owens said. “Nests that have not been visited for 24 hours may be abandoned. Obviously injured, cold, or bony kits may need help as well.”

If you should happen to touch a fawn or a baby rabbit, Owens says, don’t worry. “It’s a myth that mothers will reject their young if they smell human scent on them,” she said. “As long as the young are returned to where they were found within the maximum time frame, they should be fine.”

Smith said it appropriate, when necessary, to help turtles crossing busy roads; but he advised one should only do so if your own safety isn’t jeopardized.

Questions about human-wildlife interactions may be addressed through the Commission’s N.C. Wildlife Helpline toll-free at 866-318-2401. The call center is open Monday through Friday (excluding holidays) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Additional information about co-existing with wildlife is available at the Commission’s “Tips on Co-Existing with Wildlife” page (http://www.ncwildlife.org/Have-A-Problem/Tips-on-Coexisting-with-Wildlife).

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at rigsbee@chathamnr.com.

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