Don’t ‘rescue’ young animals in the wild

Across the Rocky Mountain West, spring is a time of awakening and renewal. Throughout the highlands and plains, longer days and warmer temperatures spur the arrival of infant wildlife. While this can be an exciting time to view young birds, mammals and amphibians, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) again reminds us not to approach, relocate or handle natural newborns.

For many, the inherent urge to render aid to a troubled young animal is nearly irresistible. As a result, countless seemingly hapless creatures are “rescued” by well-meaning individuals every spring and summer.

Personally, I realize how easily one is moved to a position of concern. Early last summer, I encountered two spotted fawns that immediately invoked an abiding compassion for infant animals.

After spending nearly a month in Denver, Jackie and I had returned home to the beauty and relative quiet of our mountain surroundings. Not 10 minutes after walking in our house and opening the blinds, a healthy young mule deer doe casually strolled past the living room windows.

Minutes later, I again glanced through a window to see Bob, our indoor/outdoor cat, sitting dead-still, his attention clearly focused on something invisible to me. While carefully scanning the forest in the direction of his stare, I suddenly saw the slightest motion that, at first, resembled the movements of a bird foraging in the duff.

After quickly grabbing a pair of binoculars from my office, a closer look revealed a tiny spotted fawn lying in tall grass, in the open light of day. The movement I’d seen was only the occasional twitching of its long gangly ears.

Eventually, the fawn’s twin sibling emerged from the oak brush just a few feet away. At times, either or both would lumber short distances, usually seeking better cover or the comfort of shade. Both patiently awaited mom’s return.

As the day wore on, I glimpsed the fawns only another time or two, but never saw the mother at all. Nevertheless, I felt certain she was close by and would soon return.

To protect their offspring, mother deer or elk will commonly hide them, then wander some distance to feed. By doing so, they’ll avoid drawing predators to their young, before returning later in the day to feed or move them.

The fawns or calves, meanwhile, carry little or no scent in the first few weeks of life, and their spotted coats help conceal them from view. If approached by another animal, they simply remain motionless until the danger has passed.

In the spring, young birds will often appear to have fallen from their nests. While, in some cases, they may have, in others they are actually learning to fly.

If a grounded fledgling can easily be placed back in its nest or on a high branch, it will be safe. Adult birds, unlike many other animals, will not abandon their young in the presence of a human’s scent.

Unfortunately, it’s during a mother’s temporary absence that most “good Samaritans” feel compelled to rescue what they perceive as abandoned young.

According to Carol Withers of the Durango Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, eight fawns and three elk calves were delivered to the center in 2007. The calves were supposedly “saved” from abandonment, as were five of the eight fawns. In due course, all of the animals died while in foster care.

In part, due to specific dietary requirements, Withers insists wild animals are far more able to survive in the wild, than under human care. She suggests anyone happening upon a lone baby of any species leave it alone and not touch it. By stressing it, or transferring scent to the animal, a person or pet (dog) makes it vulnerable to every predator in the forest. Too, some animals may carry dangerous diseases, or become agitated and inflict serious injury.

Withers suggests, however, if someone is absolutely certain a young animal’s mother has died (hit by a car, for example), he or she should notify the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) at once, by calling 247-0855 during regular business hours. During regular or off-hours, concerned citizens can call Pat Jackson of the St. Francis Sanctuary and Wildlife Rehabilitation (near Arboles) at 946-7452, or (970) 883-2519 (evenings).

To protect young animals — and ourselves — we should always avoid removing them from the wild. While doing so is most often against the law, certain circumstances do justify limited intervention, but should only be undertaken by the DOW or certified wildlife experts.

Otherwise, count yourself fortunate for having seen one of nature’s marvelous young creatures.

chuck@pagosasun.com