Animals face many hazards in the wild, such as predators, weather, disease and starvation.
Yet, human intervention — even with good intent — may be the most devastating threat.
In May, a couple picked up a baby bison at Yellowstone National Park because they thought it looked cold. They took it in their vehicle to a park office, but when rangers couldn’t locate the calf’s mother, it had to be put down.
The same month, a seal pup in Washington State had to be euthanized after a woman assumed it was abandoned and carried it home in her recyclable shopping tote.
DNR Conservation Officer Angela Goldman said that such actions occur every year. As soon as there are baby animals, there are well-meaning people snatching them from their wild homes and believing they are saving them.
“One of my biggest messages I can send to people is to let the animals be wild,” said Brown County State Park Interpretive Naturalist Patrick Haulter.
An animal that may appear in distress might actually be better off if a human doesn’t intervene, he said.
“They’ve been surviving in the wild for as long as — if not longer than — humans have,” Haulter said. “They can do it.”
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ guidance on dealing with injured or orphaned animals emphasizes how easy it can be to believe an animal is in distress when it is in no real danger.
“The worst thing that any of these plants and animals can come in contact with is a human being,” Haulter said. “We have these areas kind of cornered off in our societies that we allow these animals to live, and we should do that.”
Even if an animal does appear to be in immediate danger or injured, the DNR encourages people to call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or the local DNR law enforcement district office.
Goldman said the district office will most likely refer callers to a rehabilitator. However, in contacting a rehabilitator, individuals should also remember that those people are private volunteers with limited resources and time.
Haulter welcomes people to call or stop by the state park’s Nature Center with questions.
Seeking assistance should the first action, not the last, that people take, Goldman said.
Too often, in the spring, the DNR District 6 office receives calls from someone who first took an animal out of the wild, then called with questions.
Mother animals may leave their young alone for long periods of time while finding food, Goldman said. In fact, the reason a mother may not be present is because it is waiting for the human to leave.
Though it is not true that mother animals will reject young that humans have touched, a wild animal that has had prolonged exposure to humans will not know how to survive in the wild, Goldman said.
When conservation officers remove an illegally kept animal, they have no other choice than to put it down, as it would die slowly in the wild.
The safest action to take is no action, Goldman said.
It is also illegal to take in or try to make a pet out of any wild animal, she said. Even those licensed to rehabilitate animals do not make them into pets, but try to prepare them to live in the wild.
“Wild animals need to stay wild,” Goldman said.
There is a cycle and purpose to life and death in the wild, Goldman said. While it may break a person’s heart to think of a rabbit dying, that is precisely what has to happen for baby foxes to live.
Every mother animal has to feed its young, Goldman said.
Adult animals also can also be put in danger by humans who believe they are helping.
Box turtles, for example, have a “home range” where they live their entire lives, Haulter said. If they are removed from that range, the turtle can die trying to return.
“It’s not worried about eating, it’s not worried about drinking, the only thing on its mind is ‘get back to where I know,'” Haulter said.
The turtles are protected in Indiana, and in addition to being illegal to hunt, they are also illegal to remove from the wild or keep as pets. Even possessing a box turtle shell can put a person on the wrong side of the law.
Timber rattlesnakes — listed as endangered in Indiana — don’t have a home range quite like box turtles, but are connected to a specific area by their hibernaculum, a sheltered area where large groups of snakes spend every winter hibernating together, Haulter said.
Each snake only has one hibernaculum and cannot find or create a new one, he said.
If a timber rattlesnake is removed from its home area, it will do everything it can to return. If it can’t find its hibernaculum before winter, it will die of exposure.
A real nuisance?
Leaving nature alone can be a benefit to humans, as well, Haulter said.
Research has shown that the rise in tick populations may be related to a drop in timber rattlesnakes. In the course of preying on rodents, a single rattlesnake will destroy between 2,500 and 4,500 ticks a year, Haulter said.
Possums are another animal commonly seen as a nuisance, but which have a direct impact on ticks. Possums seek them out and consume them.
“Ticks are gonna hurt you way more than a possum is,” Haulter said.
For dealing with animals that could be a danger, such as venomous snakes, Haulter recommends that people maintain an area around their home that is cut back with no good areas for wild animals to shelter.
“Snakes don’t want to be out in the open, so they don’t want to be in your yard,” Haulter said.
For other animals, such as raccoons or coyotes, people can call licensed wildlife control operators who can remove the animals from the area, Goldman said.
Injured birds of prey such as owls and hawks
- Indiana Raptor Center: indianaraptorcenter.com and facebook.com/indianaraptorcenter, 812-988-8990 or firstname.lastname@example.org
List of DNR-approved wildlife experts
- Rehabilitators: in.gov/dnr/fishwild/files/fw-RehabList.pdf
- Nuisance wildlife: in.gov/dnr/fishwild/files/fw-Licensed_Nuisance_Wild_Animal_Control_Op.pdf
More DNR information online
Brown County State Park Nature Center
- Interpretive Naturalist Patrick Haulter, 812-988-5240 or email@example.com
Indiana Department of Natural Resources District 6
- Conservation Officer Angela Goldman, 812-988-9761 or icodist6@dnr.IN.gov