Don't assume lonely animals are orphaned

Sunday, July 3, 2005

Special to the Southeast Missourian

With summer in full swing, we see a noticeable increase in outdoor activities. This applies not only to humans, but to many species of wildlife as well.

On one hand, we have youngsters out of school with plenty of time and energy. We also have moderate weather. Later, when we reach the "dog days" of summer, high temperatures will tend to move many activities indoors. But, for now at least, many people are spending a great deal of time outdoors. Which is when we encounter wildlife.

This also is the time of year when the young of many species have matured to the stage that they leave their nest or den. Wildlife populations are at peak levels. Young animals are active, learning to find food and establishing territories.

When you combine increased human activity with increased wildlife activity, the end result is an increase in wildlife sightings. This can be both enjoyable and educational for humans but all too often proves to be harmful to wildlife.

The harm inflicted is, in most cases, completely unintentional. It occurs when well-meaning humans pick up what they assume to be orphaned animals. When we encounter a deer fawn or a young raccoon or fox for instance, we tend to judge the situation from the human point of view. We look around and don't see an adult and many of us come to the conclusion that we have discovered an orphan. We then capture the animal and "rescue" it by taking it home with us.

In reality, what we have done is removed the animal from its natural environment and greatly reduced its odds of surviving. Wild animals often leave their young unattended for extended periods of time. The fact you don't observe adults in the immediate area doesn't necessarily mean that they won't return to tend their offspring.

What should we do when we encounter young wildlife? The best course of action, both for human and animal alike, is to simply observe from a safe distance.

Even though young animals look cute and cuddly, resist the temptation to pick them up and handle them. Remember that they are still wild animals and, in most cases, have sharp teeth and claws.

Leave the animal alone for a minimum of 24 hours. In most cases, the young will be gone when you return. If not, and you feel the animal is truly orphaned, contact your local conservation agent for instructions. Many times it is best to simply let nature run its course.

Should circumstances warrant it, the animals may be transported by the agent to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. These individuals are trained in the care of wild animals and their main goal is to return the animals to the wild.

In Missouri, it is illegal for unlicensed individuals to possess certain live wild animals in captivity. You should consult the Wildlife Code of Missouri for details.

In summary, remember that most of the young wildlife we encounter are not orphaned and do not require "rescuing." When you encounter wildlife, young or adult, it's best to look but not touch. Leave the animal alone for at least 24 hours prior to contacting a conservation agent for instructions. Do not pick up the animal and try to raise it yourself.

Gene Myers is an agent with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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