If it's wild, vets say keep your hands off

Veterinary technician Tammy Evans feeds three baby finches being cared for at the Useless Bay Animal Clinic. This spring, as in the past, many island residents are bringing into vet clinics wild animals that may or may not need medical attention. - Matt Johnson
Veterinary technician Tammy Evans feeds three baby finches being cared for at the Useless Bay Animal Clinic. This spring, as in the past, many island residents are bringing into vet clinics wild animals that may or may not need medical attention.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

As helpless and heartbreakingly cute as that newborn fawn might look stumbling through your yard, chances are you should follow your head rather than your heart and leave it be. Mom's probably just a few feet away, hiding or feeding.

As spring sends more baby animals bounding all over the place, island veterinarians are warning locals to keep their hands off. Even if the animals seem to be abandoned or in some sort of trouble, it's best to let nature run its course, because nature knows best.

Dr. David Parent of the Useless Bay Animal Clinic and Dr. Susan Fraley at the Animal Care & Laser Center in Oak Harbor said this week that many newborn wild animals people have brought to their clinics this spring would have stood a better chance if left to nature's care.

"A lot of people with the best of intentions are capturing wild animals and bringing them to us," Fraley said. "They're found without their mothers, but it's normal behavior for mothers to go off for days or hours at a time."

Fraley said many people worry about baby animals and bring them to their local veterinarian. Oftentimes, these animals are being taken from parents who would have returned.

Parent said that in some cases, people pick up young animals they think are lost, drawn in by the cute factor. He said the consequences can be unfortunate, even if the animal lives. It is common, he said, for a bottle-raised deer to come back to the family that raised it and destroy the yard or stomp on family pets. In other cases, like one in which a family took home a baby seal, the animal is too unusual to be cared for.

"Someone will put it in a bathtub for three weeks and say 'What do we do now?"

Both doctors agree that unless a baby animal in the wild appears hurt or maimed, the guiding principle should be "hands off." While the old wives' tale that human scent on a newborn animal causes the mother to reject it is not true, Parent said some scentless baby animals -- like fawns -- become much easier for predators to find if they have the smell of a human on them.

Fraley said that even when the newborn looks dangerously out of place -- even if it is wandering on a busy road -- its odds for survival are better in the wild than when raised in human care.

So far this year, both island clinics have taken in their share of wild animals. At present, Parent is caring for three finches whose nest fell to the ground. They are almost ready to fly on their own and should survive.

But then there are the bunnies. So far this year, about 30 bunnies have been brought into Animal Care, plus two fawns -- Fawnzie and Juniper. Survival rates for newborn rabbits raised by professionals are low, due to the fragility of their systems and their need for mother's milk, which pushes the development of grass-digesting enzymes. Only about 1 in 10 bunnies raised by people live, Fraley said.

The biggest problem in removing newborn animals from the wild is that they are robbed of needful nutrients. Also, in the process of being raised by people, they become domesticated, or habitualized to being hand-fed and pampered. For obvious reasons, this often leads to tragic consequences when such animals are reintroduced to the wild, Fraley said.

"People should be skirted rather than relied upon for food," Fraley said.

Though both Fraley and Parent warn animal saviors away in most cases, both will treat injured creatures when they come through their doors. Parent said he requires people who bring animals into the clinic to wait -- if an animal is healthy, he wants the people there so they can return it to where they found it.

The Freeland and Oak Harbor clinics are the only two on the island licensed to care for and keep wild animals in captivity. Parent has both state and federal licenses that allow him to do this.

But if it is not an emergency, the vets would prefer to see no animal visitors from the wild. In other words, let nature take its course.


If you have questions about what to do with or how to approach an injured or infant animal found in the wild, call the Useless Bay Animal Clinic at 331-3100 or Animal Care clinic at 360-679-6796.

Record editor Matt Johnson contributed to this article.

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