Wild Animals as Pets

For two years I have been a volunteer with my local wildlife rehabilitation facility and this year they have made me a part-time paid staff member. This means I get to participate in more complicated procedures, handle a wider variety of animals, and learn more about rehabilitation, but it also means I am exposed more and more to the harder side of things. Euthanasia, specifically. The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to rehabilitate wildlife so they can continue to live a full life, in the wild, as they were intended to do. One thing that really hampers this effort, I am learning, is what people do to the animals before they bring them to us. Take, for example, a young squirrel I had to euthanize yesterday.

Instead of immediately bringing the orphan to us, the college boys that found him took him in and kept him for three days, hoping to raise the squirrel as a pet. By the time they realized this wasn’t going to work and brought the baby to us, he was severely emaciated and dehydrated. He was starving to death.

We did everything we could for him but it was too late. By the end of the day he had begun seizing and became lethargic and unresponsive. We were forced to put down this young animal that could have had a full squirrel-life had those that found him brought him to us immediately. These boys did not intend to cause harm, they just didn’t think it through. They allowed compassion and the natural human need to care for things, as well as the desire to have a cool story and be the hero, to cloud their judgement and they made a poor decision.

I understand it is nearly impossible at times to override compassion, take a step back, and think about a situation rationally. Whether it involves animals or not we all have a hard time separating emotions from good choices. We are at a further disadvantage because our culture has raised us to believe that we have a right to own anything we want. Now add to that the immense pressure of our own pride. We want the rescue story to be our own. We want others to be impressed by and interested in us. We want to be the heroes. It’s no wonder these boys made the choice they did. But humans make horrible parents for wild animals. Even rehabbers cannot fully take the place of a wild animal’s mother or father.

What it takes

In the state of Minnesota, it is illegal to possess a wild animal unless you are transporting it to a licensed rehabilitation facility, or unless you are licensed yourself. To become licensed as a Novice you must take a written examination, have prior experience in wildlife care (like being a volunteer at a wildlife rehab center), find a Wildlife Rehabilitator with a Master level license who is willing to mentor and teach you, and find a veterinarian who will support your activities and provide care when it is beyond your abilities (x-rays, medications, etc). After you have met those requirements the DNR will inspect your facility to determine if you are ready and able to handle the animals that will enter your care. If they license you, you may only care for healthy orphaned animals, none of which can be threatened or endangered species, or migratory birds unless you also have a license from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. After 4 years you may apply for a General license, two years after that a Master license. Each level has different regulations and even more educational requirements than the previous level(s). The licensing program is rigorous and thorough, and is designed to ensure that the individuals rehabilitating the animals are not causing undue harm or prolonged suffering.

Even after all the licensing, studying, learning and experience, rehabbers still make poor substitutes for an animal’s mother. So there is absolutely no way that those who are not licensed would be qualified in any way to provide adequate care for a wild animal, regardless of how much information he or she has found on the internet.

The internet is wrong

By default it is wrong. Licensed wildlife rehabbers will not post online any instructions on how to care for an animal because there are so many variables involved. It takes a qualified person to properly evaluate the condition of an animal and develop a treatment plan. The rehabber needs to know the specific species, the animal’s nutritional needs, behavior, history, how they normally live in the wild, life cycles, habitat requirements, social needs and hierarchy rules, and a host of other information that is not easily assimilated and translated into a valid treatment plan.

For the life of me I can’t understand why we’re willing to seek out professionals to diagnose and treat issues for our pets, but when it comes to wildlife everyone believes they have all necessary knowledge, skills and resources to adequately care for a wild animal on their own.

Domestic vs. Wild

Your dog is a domestic animal, appropriate for the home, because of thousands of years of breeding for certain qualities. Everything that makes your dog suitable for life with you has been specifically bred for (yes, even your mutt). It’s not because of your awesome training skills. You can’t take a wolf out of the wild and expect it to behave like a domesticated dog after a round of obedience classes. You can’t take a wild squirrel into your home and expect it to be a good pet. You can’t meet a wild animal’s needs, and it doesn’t need you to. So it will find a way to meet them one way or the other. Everything you own will be destroyed and you and your guests will be scratched, bitten or otherwise injured.

People who find themselves in this situation will eventually realize this isn’t what they signed up for and will often times drive out to the country to release them back into the wild. The animal will then die because it has not learned proper survival techniques and doesn’t have a family to help it. Or they may bring it to a wildlife rehabber who will have to euthanize it because it is non-releasable. In any case the animal will not survive.

Who is this really for?

If you come across a wild animal, before you do anything else, ask yourself, “is this what the animal needs, or is it for my own pleasure or comfort?” If the question isn’t “should I take this animal to a wildlife rehabilitator?” then the answer isn’t, “this is what the animal needs.” Petting a wild animal is for you, not the animal. “Taming” a wild animal is for you, not the animal. Listening to the advice of a wildlife rehabilitator is what’s best for the animal, though it may be very emotionally difficult for you.

Please. Whatever you do, do not get attached to any wild animal you find. Do not try to make it a pet. Do not bow to the demands of your children when they want to raise it. Wild animals don’t belong to you. Don’t keep them. If you want to be the hero, to have the story to tell, become a volunteer at a licensed rehab facility. It just takes a quick Google search to find rehabbers in your area.

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