By Paula Musto
Thinking back to childhood wildlife encounters conjures up memories of feeding ducks leftover bread at a neighborhood pond; rescuing baby rabbits found in the backyard, hoping to keep the kits as pets; and emitting strange sounds and squeals when spotting a wild animal in an effort to attract the critter’s attention our way.
We did not know that feeding ducks human food could kill them. Those baby rabbits were most likely not orphans (mom was just away foraging for food), and our good intentions were more akin to kidnapping. Noisemaking, whether a quiet hiss or a loud squeal, to garner an animal’s attention causes untold distress, not necessarily endearing you to the creature.
The goal of wildlife rehabilitators and rescue groups is to educate today’s more environmentally aware public on better co-existence with wild animals. In Asheville, local businesses have joined the effort, including Farm Bureau Insurance, an agency that insures farmers and hopes to be a catalyst in helping to protect wildlife.
“We lobby for agriculture interests, including water and land conservation,” says Patrick Cusack, manager of the agency’s Asheville office. “Wildlife protection is also part of this.” Cusack points to the many valuable roles wildlife plays in supporting agriculture, including helping farmers limit pesticides.
“A turkey vulture may be an ugly animal to some, but they are incredibly valuable if you consider what they consume,” says Cusack. “And look at possums. They eat thousands of ticks each summer.”
This summer, the Farm Bureau teamed up with Appalachian Wildlife Refuge (AWR) to give youngsters the opportunity to interact with wild animals—including raptors, snakes and opossums—without harming the critters.
Here are some ways families can help kids appreciate the rich assortment of wildlife so plentiful in Western North Carolina, whether along mountain trails, at parks and nature centers or even just in their backyards.
• Talk about the animals and their habitats, exploring their origins, habits and life cycles. It might take a little research, but children love learning interesting facts like these: What is the difference between a frog and a toad? Why do beavers furiously build dams? Why do hawks and other birds travel in pairs? What animals are nocturnal? How do they care for their young? Are some animals considered endangered? For a fun look at native species, the illustrated book Wild & Furry Animals of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is available at AppalachianWild.org.
• Explore all living things, large and small. While everyone loves spotting a herd of deer, a den of foxes or a bear with cubs, there is also much to be seen and appreciated closer up. You can focus on bugs and insects on the ground and overhead. Butterflies can be spectacular this time of year and have an amazing life cycle story as they emerge from fuzzy, crawly caterpillars. Spiders, bees and ants are fascinating for folks of all ages to watch.
• Make your overarching credo Do No Harm. Feeding ducks on a nearby lake may seem like a harmless activity, but it is never a good idea, for a number of reasons, to feed a wild animal. These animals have specialized diets and can become malnourished or die if fed the wrong foods. They can lose their natural fear of people with unfortunate consequences for both. They are susceptible to disease from human hands, often reacting badly to perfumes, soaps and insect repellents that are toxic to many critters. This applies to many species of animals.
More than 2,000 animals—birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—require help at the AWR care facility each year, largely due to human activity that is detrimental to wildlife. The agency hopes to reduce these numbers by educating people on how to better interact with wild animals.
“The more people know about wildlife, the better the chances of peacefully co-existing with them,” says Carlton Burke, a wildlife rehabilitator who operates Carolina Mountain Naturalists. “We need to be mindful and nonintrusive in our wildlife encounters.”
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild. For a free children’s wildlife activities booklet, visit AppalachianWild.org. Found an animal? Call the hotline at 828.633.6364.