Wildlife ‘orphans’ should be watched before action taken

This baby screech owl was dropped off at the emergency clinic without any information about where it was found. It might not have been an orphan at all.

Volvo is coming to the Lowcountry promising thousands of jobs. Boeing is growing steadily, and Charleston was named the best city in America and second best, only to Florence, Italy, in the world.

There is no denying that the Lowcountry is changing fast, and this change means that much of our beautiful wild spaces are under development, and our wildlife is being quickly displaced, and crowded out.

We are increasingly living in close proximity to wildlife as recently wild places are transformed by suburban sprawl. This brings us, and our pets into contact with wild animals, and most of these encounters don’t end well.

In the spring, the most common encounters are between baby animals and people or domestic pets.

It’s a rite of spring that our emergency clinics in Mount Pleasant and North Charleston are besieged by “orphans.”

As I (Henri Bianucci) left from work recently, there were four baby raccoons, a nestful of baby birds, a baby opossum, a fawn and a baby screech owl. That’s in one day.

Although a baby, the owl still appeared wise. He stared intently at all who stared back in marvel of his beautiful liquid onyx eyes. He snapped his beak “pop-pop-pop” in a warning to those who came too close.

This little guy was healthy and strong but, sadly, his future was now, unnecessarily, in doubt. The fact is that orphaned animals reared in captivity and then released are often not adequately prepared for life in the wild, and the survival statistics are uncertain. This baby was, most likely, not an orphan at all.

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 very poor sense of smell. Unfortunately, this baby was dropped at the front desk during a rush at the emergency room and left no details about where or when the owl was found.

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 if it rains.)

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 to 36 hours before being deemed orphans.

Although our natural impulse is to help, when you encounter a baby animal, the best 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, move them out of harm’s way, but don’t necessarily remove them from the area.

Once they are in a relatively safe place, monitor them for 12 to 24 hours. Next, determine whether they appear healthy, or are 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..

If your situation is not clear, you may make use of the Internet, your veterinarian, 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, while they are understaffed and underfunded. Many of these babies are orphans of well-meaning ignorance. They could have remained in their parents care and had much better odds of survival.

There are a few things that we all should do.

1: Don’t create orphans. It’s spring, but that tree could be cut down later in the summer after the baby birds have left. Let the mother raccoon finish raising the babies in your garage attic, then seal the hole so they don’t come back next year. Be advised, most pest removal companies do not relocate the animals you call about, they kill them.

2: Get information. Before intervening, quickly educate yourself on how to best handle your wildlife situation. Call your vet, emergency clinic or a rescue organization. Keeper of the Wild, the Lowcountry’s largest wildlife rehabilitator, can be reached through her website, Keeperofthewild.org. Any rehabilitator would rather spend a few minutes advising than many hours and dollars unnecessarily raising an orphan.

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 or not, 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 like groups are there to prevent suffering in animals that have no patron. 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 petdocs@postandcourier.com.