KCFP: Don't Try to 'Rescue' Young Wildlife — It Does More Harm Than Good

KCFP: Don’t Try to ‘Rescue’ Young Wildlife — It Does More Harm Than Good

  • This article was written by Valerie Blaine, environmental education manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

A robin hops clumsily on the grass. With its spotted breast and goofy-looking head, it’s clearly a “baby.” It seems pretty clueless, and it’s unable to fly away.

“Oh, it’s an orphan!” you say to yourself. You need to do something, but you’re not quite sure what. So you put it in a box and take it to the nearest nature center, feeling good that you’ve done the right thing.

But, was it the right thing?

Every spring, well-meaning people take hundreds of young animals out of the wild — robins, rabbits, squirrels, turtles, fawns, you name it. The common belief is that they are abandoned and in peril.

In the majority of these situations, the young animal is not abandoned. A parent is most likely watching its young the entire time the human is “rescuing” it.

The best thing to do is to leave the young animal alone. The mantra of many wildlife biologists is, “If you care, leave it there.”

“Many animal species will leave their young unattended for long periods of time (several hours),” according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Often letting some time pass will reveal that the parents have returned after a short foray to gather food or other important materials.” In the case of your robin, an agitated parent or two were probably protesting in the trees while you approached their youngster.

Newborn Fawns

Newborn fawns are a prime example of animals you shouldn’t try to rescue.

The white-tail deer is a perfect example of alone-but-not-abandoned.

Newborn fawns lie silently and remain still as statues for the first few days of their lives. Their spotted coloration keeps them well camouflaged in the dappled light on the forest floor. The doe feeds nearby and returns to the fawn to nurse several times a day.

“If human presence is detected by the doe, the doe may delay its next visit to nurse,” explained a biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Calories are critical at this early stage, so if you attempt to move the fawn you cause it to miss a meal.

Baby Owls

Owls present a similar situation.

Years ago, at Tekakwitha Woods, a great-horned owl nested near the nature center. We watched the progression of the nest from February through April.

One spring day, the big moment arrived and the owlets fledged (left the nest). A hiker on the trail spotted one of the owlets alone on the forest floor.

Convinced that it was abandoned, she attempted to rescue it. I stopped her just in time.

She was upset beyond words that she wasn’t allowed to save it. I assured her that it didn’t need saving, and it would be fine. As if on cue, the parent owl swooped down to let us know we needed to skedaddle.

The next day, while leading a group of second graders on a nature hike, I noticed the owlet on a tree branch above us. The kids all oohed and aahed, and I was thrilled to see the owlet progressing to its next stage of development.

Again on cue, the parent owl swooped down from the treetops. No worries about child neglect here! The adult was keenly aware of its young at all times.

Had the well-meaning visitor the previous day removed the owlet to “save” it, what would its future have been? Could it have been re-introduced in the wild? If introduced in a place other than its natal woods, would it immediately be rejected by the residents already living there?

Yellowstone Bison — Not a Happy Ending

Bison at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. (CREDIT: Fermilab)

A story that made national news reveals an extreme case of harm in a rescue gown awry.

(CREDIT: National Geographic)

In 2016, a tourist in Yellowstone National Park saw a bison calf at the side of a road and jumped to the conclusion that it was abandoned. He loaded the calf in his SUV. (This alone boggles my mind since I have trouble getting my dog in the back of my SUV!)

This bison story does not have a happy ending.

“Once he turned it over to rangers,” reported the National Geographic, “park biologists made several attempts to reunite the youngster with its herd, but when the calf was rejected, they euthanized it.”

Most rescue attempts, whether bison or a bunny, don’t end well for the animal. Often the animals must be kept captive.

They may pick up germs in captivity or become habituated to feedings and un-natural foods. “Rescuing” may make the human feel good, but the end result may not be a rescue at all. It may mean life imprisonment, or a death sentence.

Here’s the hard truth: Picking up young wildlife usually does more harm than good.

But What If It’s Injured?

This is a tough question, with a tough answer. No one likes to see wildlife suffer. If the injured animal is an endangered species, contact a wildlife biologist immediately.

It’s against the law to possess an endangered species, so you should not pick it up yourself.

In fact, the Forest Preserve District and other agencies with natural areas have ordinances prohibiting the removal of any wild animals or plants, common or uncommon, healthy or injured. Even if it’s a common species like a mallard, you should leave it where it is.

Nature is at once beautiful and terrible, comforting and shocking, nurturing and (seemingly) cruel. Above all, nature is impartial.

Although it’s hard for us to see an injured animal, the big picture is what’s important. Prey species like rabbits and squirrels have evolved to produce numerous offspring each year, with predation built into the equation.

And even predators die at some point, supporting the scavengers and decomposers in the grand scheme of the ecosystem. Nothing goes to waste in the circle of life.

The best thing we can do for wildlife is to restore and preserve communities of animals and plants, not just individuals. Individuals are part of populations, and interdependent populations make natural communities.

In a healthy, diverse natural community, populations — not necessarily individuals — thrive over time. It may be tempting to try to “rescue” a lone robin or raccoon, but remember, it’s small piece of a bigger whole. “If you care, leave it there.”

For information on how you can restore healthy natural communities, visit the Forest Preserve District of Kane County’s website www.kaneforest.com, call 630-762-2741 or email volunteer@kaneforest.com.