“If you care, leave them there”
By Paula Musto
The signs of spring are in the air and, like clockwork, new life is popping up all around us. This includes wildlife offspring—those adorable babies, be they tiny songbirds, bushy-tailed bunnies or wide-eyed fawns.
March is the start of baby season in the wild. Through the early summer months, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians reproduce in droves. We can expect to encounter the newborns nesting in our backyards, along hiking trails or just about anywhere a nurturing mother thinks is a safe haven away from predators. These predators, though, include well-meaning humans.
While it is very tempting to investigate a young chipmunk on the ground or aid a baby bird floundering under a tree, by rescuing these animals you can unwittingly put them in jeopardy. Human contact, no matter how well intended, can prevent the animal from ever growing up, at least not in the wild where it belongs. It may sound harsh, but wildlife rehabilitators say these good intentions are akin to kidnapping.
“Often, these babies do not need our help,” says Savannah Trantham, a certified wildlife rehabilitator and executive director of Appalachian Wildlife Rescue (AWR). “What we see might look abandoned, but often it’s not. Chances are the mom is not far off, most likely just out foraging for food. Just because a baby is alone does not mean it is in trouble.”
Trantham says springtime, when juveniles begin arriving at the AWR’s care center, is her organization’s busiest period. The Candler-based nonprofit, which she co-founded in 2014, provides care for injured and orphaned wildlife, but always with the goal of returning the animals to the wild.
Young animals need time to explore and learn the survival skills essential for living in the wild. Human contact derails the process.
“All babies are cute, and we want to help,” Trantham says. “But there is so much more to supporting wildlife than feeding an animal and thinking we are doing a good job keeping it alive. We want these animals to not only survive but thrive in their native habitats.”
She points to baby fawns as an example. In the spring, a mama deer will place her offspring in a grassy area, instinctively camouflaging the little one, while looking for food nearby. Baby fawns have not yet developed a scent that would attract predators, and they have a tawny coloring that blends into the brush. If you stumble upon a fawn, it is best to leave the little one alone. The same goes for birds, rabbits and other critters.
If an animal appears to be truly distressed or visibly injured in some way, Trantham advises contacting a wildlife rehabilitator before intervening. AWR operates a hotline (828.633.6364) staffed by trained volunteers who will help determine whether the animal actually needs rescuing and, if so, what to do. Most likely, you will be advised to place the animal in a small box away from loud noises and take it to a rescue facility. Rescuers should not feed the animal or touch it unnecessarily.
Trantham warns that it’s best to be skeptical of advice on the internet since social media is full of misinformation on animal care. Most importantly, you should never consider adopting a wild animal as a pet.
“People get emotional and really connect to the babies,” she says. “But, as humans, it is our responsibility to return these animals to the wild and allow them to develop survival skills. Wild animals need to learn how to hunt, fly, climb or swim. They learn from their parents and do these things instinctively in the wild. Too many baby animals suffer and die at the hands of well-meaning humans who do not know their needs.”
In recent years, exceptionally mild winters have meant an earlier start to the reproduction cycle, with newborns popping up as early as January or February. Thought to be due to global climate change, this disruption in the seasonal life cycle can have profound effects on ecosystems, including species that have evolved to reproduce during peak growing seasons when food is most plentiful.
In coming weeks, as the weather in Western North Carolina warms and days grow longer, the frequency of human-wildlife encounters will increase. Springtime babies to be on the lookout for include squirrels, bunnies, woodchucks, chipmunks, beavers, raccoons, opossums, white-tailed deer, foxes and many bird species.
If you are lucky enough to spot a young one, remember the old adage that most often applies: If you care, leave them there.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To help save wildlife, donate and learn more at AppalachianWild.org.