The problem with wildlife

Had an incredibly difficult wildlife rehab shift last night, complete with drama, mystery and tragedy.

The short of it first:

I was medicating a Pileated woodpecker (think Woody the Woodpecker) that had been hit by a car and had some internal trauma that we were unaware of. I was finishing the first injection when suddenly it spat blood across the table and died instantly in my (and the poor volunteer that was helping me) hands. Then, on Monday someone had brought in a nest of baby red squirrels, after they had first put them in their bathtub with some fruit (because mom squirrels definitely feed their babies grapes…), then left for the weekend. Two died their first night with us, and I had to euthanize a third because he had become cold, limp, unresponsive and was seizing. Two deaths in a 4 hour shift – not great. I know that statistically, 50% of animals that enter a rehabber’s care will not make it, that I made the right decision with the squirrel, and that the death of the woodpecker was not my fault, but still. That was hard. It wasn’t even the worst part of my night though.

A woman had called earlier in the day to say she had an abandoned fawn. The mother had given birth to twins, moved one of them, and hadn’t come back for the second.

Fail #1 She did not call us before she took it. Fail #2 she fed it. These are the first two things we repeatedly, and in every format we have been able to think of, tell everyone NOT to do. She said she had done everything our website said to do, but obviously this was not the whole story.

The reason we tell people to call us before intervening is that it’s really hard to tell the difference between a fawn that has been “parked” by mom, and one that has truly been orphaned. Fawns spend most of their days alone. Mom puts them in a safe spot and leaves, spending most of her day away from the fawn so predators don’t find it. Fawns are also really bad at walking and running so if it were with mom and a wolf finds them, baby is an instant snack. The fawn stays curled up and doesn’t move, hidden, scentless. And yes, it will cry for mom from time to time but unlike overprotective human parents, she is not going to immediately appear, especially if there is a big, smelly, bumbling human standing there.

As for the feeding, the internet is wrong. Whatever you find telling you to feed x-animal y-food, it’s wrong. What we feed an animal in our care varies widely depending on species, age, condition, whether it’s injured, orphaned or healthy, the amount of time it spent away from it’s mother, how much time it spent with humans, and so on. There are too many variables to make a blanket statement regarding what the animal you have should eat. The fact is, there is nothing you can buy at the pet, grocery or other retail store that will meet that animal’s needs. Goat’s milk is for goats, cow’s milk is for cows, squirrel milk is for squirrels, and deer milk is for deer. They cannot be interchanged, and depending on which animal you feed what milk, it may die a horribly painful death.

Fail #3 was, admittedly, on us. The woman said the fawn had been crying for hours, and if the fawn had indeed been crying for hours continuously, that would be cause for concern. However, we should have probed a bit more and asked a few more questions to get the truth. More often than not people stretch things to make the situation seem worse than it is because they want us to take the animal off their hands and consciences.

The person who took this woman’s call (and I am not blaming her; it could have been me on the phone and the same result would happen) took the woman’s statement at face-value and didn’t ask more questions. We told her to bring the fawn in.

In fairness to our staff, we made every attempt to get in contact with her again before her husband had driven too far (they were 1.5 hours away) to ask more questions, but she did not answer her phone. We had no choice but to wait and secretly pray something was actually wrong with the fawn so we didn’t have to have the awkward ‘put it back’ conversation. No such luck. I was there with our Exec Director when the fawn came in. He taught me how to check the condition of the fawn and asked the man the questions we should have asked earlier. We determined that the fawn was perfectly healthy, uninjured and not abandoned. We had to tell them to put the fawn back where they found it.

They were not pleased and when the husband called the wife and told her what had happened she was furious. She called back and ripped me a new one, sobbing and yelling at me, telling me how the fawn was going to die and it’s my fault. I did my best to apologize, but it was hard to get anything in between the continuous ranting. She hung up on me. I called back, a glutton for more punishment I guess, and continued apologizing and rant-listening. I finally got her to stop long enough to explain why we had made the decision that we had made. She told me, “yeah I’m sure it will be just fine,” and I can’t be 100% sure because it was a little hard to decipher between the sobs, but I’m fairly certain she finished with, “and when it dies I’ll send you a picture,” and hung up again. I did not call her back a second time.

After reflecting on our “conversation” I can tell you that her biggest concern was not that the fawn had been abandoned, it was that her dogs were going to kill it. She made sure to repeatedly tell me they have “acreage” and no fenced-in yard, that their dogs had ripped apart a fawn last year and she was afraid they’d do the same to this fawn. Had she given me the opportunity, I would have told her what she didn’t want to hear: for a month or two, keep the dogs supervised and close to you when they are outside, or keep them on a leash if they won’t obey your commands. Inconvenient, yes, but we can’t do anything about someone else’s pets and we cannot take uninjured, healthy, non-orphaned animals into our care, legally or ethically.

She had a right to be angry with us for asking them to drive a 3-hour round trip for nothing, and I understand that completely. In that moment, we failed her. However, the bigger problem here is that she got attached to the fawn, did not abide by the advice she says she read on our website, and “fudged” the truth to get us to take the fawn. She was unable to see the logical and necessary path because she allowed her emotions to take over, and could not even allow those who were not part of the emotional circle to guide her. She had already decided what she wanted to do and acted on her desires before she ever called us.

Last Sunday someone called me telling me that they had a pigeon that was being attacked by crows. They scared the crows away and now had a bleeding, broken pigeon on their hands. He cleared his conscience by calling us, but was unwilling to do anything more. After explaining that I didn’t have any staff to send to pick up the pigeon, he refused to bring the pigeon to us. This man interfered with a natural process and expected us to fix his mess. The woman who kidnapped the fawn did the same thing. The goal and purpose of Wildwoods is not to fix nature, but to try to mitigate the damage that human beings do, willingly or not, to wildlife. Predator eating prey is not human influence, it is nature and we do not condone interfering with that process. If a doe is hit and killed by a vehicle, and a fawn is left behind, that is where we step in.

The problem with wildlife is not its wildness, the problem is people. Parents ridicule other parents on their parenting techniques, and we don’t spare those of different species from the same judgement. The doe hasn’t been back in 5 hours so she must be a bad mother. The crows are bullying the pigeon. Fruit is nutritious for my kids, so it’s nutritious for a baby squirrel. All of these individuals felt they were doing the right thing and none of them wanted any harm to come to the animals they believed they were saving. I am not suggesting that people are uncaring, rather that most of the animals that people bring in or call us about do not need any human intervention, and many people allow their compassion to overwhelm them and their ability to see and respond appropriately to reason. We cannot treat wild animals as we treat humans. They do not live by our rules and if they did they would not survive very long. We perceive it as harshness, but for the animal, it is wisdom.

Please, if you or someone you know finds a wild animal you believe to be in need, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area first before you do anything – literally anything – else to the animal. If they don’t pick up, there are legitimate sources out there you can use to find out what you should do. You can start here.

And on a personal note, please be patient with the rehabbers you talk to. We get yelled at, blatantly disregarded, and lied to constantly and so can come off sounding a bit jaded. We ask a lot of questions for very good reasons and can seem rude and unreceptive to your concern. Remember that the person you are talking to has a passion to heal and care for wildlife (and after reading this post you must agree that passion is required to put up with days like this), and is likely an animal-person, not necessarily a people-person. We are here for the animals. If we don’t get the full, complete, truthful story, we can’t hope to give proper care to our patients. Do not lie or bend the truth. Do not tell us the fawn has been crying for hours if the truth is you heard it cry, left for 5 hours, and when you went back it cried again. And please, please, please do what we ask you to do, even though sometimes it’s difficult or inconvenient.


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