Give Young Wildlife the Space it Needs

courtesy of the Colorado Division of Wildlife
by the Colorado Division of Wildlife

Spring has arrived in Colorado and it won’t be long before newly born wildlife take their first awkward steps, sometimes near watchful people. The Colorado Division of Wildlife is reminding the public that the well-intentioned impulse to save what appears to be an orphaned or abandoned animal can often lead to unintended consequences, including the death of the animal.

For many people, a common reaction when they see young wildlife that appears to be abandoned is to treat it as they would a human baby and attempt its rescue. Giving human characteristics to animals is known as anthropomorphism. The concept is often seen in popular children’s books and movies. Division officials warn that projecting human behavior onto young wildlife often does more harm than good.

“A human baby that has been abandoned is a crisis that needs immediate attention, but this is not the case with baby animals,” said Watchable Wildlife and Volunteer Coordinator Trina Romero. “In fact, the instinct that leads a female animal to leave its offspring alone for long periods of time is a natural method of protection. The last thing it needs is human intervention.”

Deer are a common example. A fawn that stumbles about weakly while learning to walk will attract predators, so evolution has provided effective methods of protection. Newborn fawns are naturally well camouflaged, don’t emit odors that attract predators and can lie very still for a long time. As a result, they are actually safer if their mothers leave them on their own. Even a curious person watching the fawn from a distance could alert predators to the animal’s presence and prevent its mother from returning.

But in the rare case that the young animal’s mother has been hurt or killed there are some steps you can take to protect its orphaned offspring. If the mother of a young animal does not return for more than twelve hours, or it is obvious that it has been hurt or killed, it’s best to report its location to the Division of Wildlife.

“People who pick up animals risk injuring the animal or making it too comfortable with humans to be returned to the wild,” added Romero. “By leaving the animal alone and reporting its location to the Division of Wildlife, our trained personnel or volunteers can respond and make the determination about what is best for the animal.”

Many orphaned animals are taken to licensed wildlife rehabilitators who work hard to make sure the animal can be reintroduced to the wild. However, even rehabilitation has risks, with only a minority of rehabilitated animals being able to return to a full life in the wild. In some cases, it may be better for young animals to fend for themselves in their natural habitat.

“Every case is different, so it’s best to let trained wildlife staff and volunteers respond and make a determination,” Romero said. “Once a human intervenes, the choices for the animal’s future become more limited.”

People are cautioned to avoid “rescuing” the animal themselves or trying to keep it as a pet, which in most cases is illegal. Even the best efforts to rehabilitate an injured or orphaned animal by an unqualified person can instead lead to negative consequences, such as poor nutrition, stress and behavioral problems. Young animals will often “imprint” on caregivers early in life, normally their mothers. Even if a person successfully nurses a baby animal, the young animal may learn to become comfortable around humans, which makes it necessary for the animal to remain in captivity. Associating with humans will also prevent the young animal from learning the skills it needs to survive on its own. A wild animal held in captivity by an unqualified caretaker can also present a public safety risk as it can bite or attack its caretaker or others.

Because dogs will explore off -trail areas and search for smells and movement, people often encounter baby animals while walking their dogs. If they are allowed to run loose, dogs can present a serious danger to all wildlife. Domesticated dogs quickly revert to their predatory instincts and will often chase and severely injure or kill young wildlife and their parents. By statute in Colorado, law enforcement officers are authorized to immediately euthanize any dog observed harassing wildlife, and dog owners can receive a hefty fine. Division officials strongly recommend that people keep their dogs on a leash. It will keep the dog safe, and prevents injuries or death of wildlife.

Another common sight in spring is young birds that have accidently fallen out of their nests due to high winds, or while learning to fly. Most of us have heard the “old-wives’ tale” about how a mother bird will abandon its young if it has been touched by a human, however the myth has no scientific basis and every effort to return the fledgling to its nest is a worthy endeavor if it can be done safely.

If you find a young bird on the ground and it is unable to fly on its own, don’t attempt to nourish it. Instead, immediately try to return it to its nest. A bird’s natural diet is difficult to duplicate and an attempt to feed it or give it water can cause it harm.

If you cannot safely reach the original nest, just placing it in a safe location near the nest will yield good results. The parents will hear its cries and will continue feeding the young bird. Put it in a small basket or box filled with paper towels or even dryer lint. Using grass to make a nest is not recommended because the moisture content in the grass can lower the body temperature of the bird.

Cats, being natural predators, are another serious threat to young birds and other small animals. Although hunting and killing is natural behavior for a cat, a responsible owner will limit a cat’s ability to destroy wild creatures.

“If your cat is used to being outdoors and there is little chance of it becoming an indoor pet, just place a small bell on its collar. This may be an effective method of keeping baby birds and other small animals safe,” advised Romero.

The Division reminds everyone that evolution has given all animals effective instincts when it comes to rearing their young and it’s best to just let nature take its course. If you see a young animal that appears orphaned, keep your distance, don’t feed and don’t help. In most cases, not doing anything is the most responsible way humans can show their love for wild creatures.

For more information on living with wildlife and laws concerning exotic pets, please see:

For more information about Division of Wildlife go to:

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