Help wildlife help themselves by waiting, observing first
The mom and two kids exit the minivan and hurry to the clinic. There's no leashed dog or pet carrier. Just an improvised box, brimming with grass.
They are dressed like they stopped what they were doing and came straight in. They are good Samaritans, bearing a baby bird or mammal, and they are a frequent springtime visitor.
It's a baby barred owl. Grey and puffy, like a frosted astronaut, standing about 10 inches high with eyes like liquid onyx. We asked where they found it. “Along a bike trail behind our home.”
Was he alone, we asked.
“I don't know.” She replied “We just quickly got a box and brought him.”
Owl babies leave the nest at about 4 weeks of age, and they are reared on tree branches from then on. If they fall from a branch, they will often make their way back up. If not, they can be placed on a suitable limb.
It is a myth that their parents will reject them if they have been touched. Birds have a poor sense of smell.
Fortunately, this baby was returned to the place he was found, where another two were seen in a tree nearby, and his worried parents immediately resumed caring for him.
Many baby animals may appear to be orphaned when, in fact, they are not. Many fledgling birds are just days away from flight and their parents are aware of them.
They can be simply placed back in a tree or bush. Younger birds may be replaced in the nest, or placed in a makeshift nest, such as a strawberry basket. (Be sure its porous so they don't drown.)
Baby deer are often brought in under the mistaken belief that, because they were alone, they were orphaned. In reality, deer do not sit with their young. They don't want to draw attention to them, so the babies hide in the grass and the mother periodically returns to feed them. They should be observed for 24-36 hours before being deemed orphans.
Its like when you watch a nature film and wonder how the cameraman could not stop and scare the lions away from the baby elephant. The natural impulse is to intervene, but this is not always necessary or advisable.
The first thing to do is take a step back and determine if the animal is in immediate danger from predators, a swarm of flies, fire ants, etc. If so, then one should get them out of harms way, but not necessarily remove them from the area.
Once they are in a relatively safe place, they can be monitored for 12-24 hours. Next, determine whether they appear healthy, or debilitated from disease, cold or starvation. If they are compromised, cannot be made safe in the immediate area, or if there is no sign of parental support, they may be removed for foster care.
There are too many situations to cover here, so make use of the Internet, your veterinarian or veterinary emergency clinic, or local wildlife rehabilitators for information about how to proceed safely for you and the animal.
At this time of year in particular, rehabilitators are overloaded with work and expense. Many of their orphans could have remained with their parents, and the survival rates for these reintroduced, hand-raised animals remains unclear.
Keeper of the Wild is a local wildlife rescue organization, run by the Mother Theresa of Lowcountry wildlife, Janet Kinzer.
They have been a resource to our clinics for many years, providing care to thousands of animals every year. The economic downturn and an increasing number of animals needing care has strained them to the breaking point.
Recently, I got the heartbreaking news that they could no longer take orphaned animals. It hit me just how much we rely on them to care for the orphaned and injured animals that we take in.
It will be a serious emotional strain on our staff not to have a resource to turn to,when these animals need help. This is a huge loss to our community.
There are a few things that we all should do.
No. 1. Don't create orphans. Its spring, that tree could be cut down later in the summer after the baby birds have left.
Kinzer recently came to my office with two baby otters. Their mother had made a nest under someone's shed near Folly Beach. So, they had her removed and created two orphans for Janet. They had a child. Wouldn't it have been a nice lesson if they explained to their child that for a month or so they would keep the dog out of the yard so that the otters could raise their young? After all, they chose to live on the marsh where the otters have lived for millennia.
No. 2. Before intervening, quickly educate yourself on how best to handle your wildlife situation. Call your vet, emergency clinic or a rescue organization. Janet, can be reached through her website, Keeperofthewild.org. She or any rehabilitator would rather spend a few minutes advising, than many hours and dollars providing unnecessary care.
No. 3. Give. We give generously to the SPCA, Pet helpers and assorted rescue organizations. But the wildlife groups are often the overlooked stepchild.
Whether an animal is wild, it can still suffer, feel pain, know fear and respond to love and care. They all deserve care if we can give it, and so many wild animals are made orphans by our actions.
Please support your local wildlife rehabilitators, as you do for the domestic animal care givers. The SPCA and similar groups are there to prevent suffering in animals that have no patron. Organizations such as Janet's are no different.
Go to Keeperofthewild.org to donate or send to Keeper of the Wild, 181 Treefarm Road, St. George, SC 29477.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.