For many years, the modest stretch of forested land surrounding our office in Maryland has offered a refuge to wild animals whose habitat is shrinking around them. Year after year, our staff members excitedly share sightings of our wild neighbors: the mama fox who births kits in a den under our utility shed; the bees and butterflies who feast on the native plants we leave around our perimeter; the deer who graze in the woods, new fawns in tow. We observe from afar, taking snaps on our phones and sharing them with our equally excited colleagues but never getting too close, because we know that wild animals do best when they’re left in peace.
I didn’t always know that. When I was a child, our home was often a makeshift animal hospital for wild birds who needed our help—or so we thought. There was Lucky Duck, the injured duck we found close to our house in Massachusetts, and Birdy, a starling we found as a baby in the street. There was an injured blue jay and a goose with a limp (we called her Golden Goose).
All of them came home with us for a time, and all of them received what we thought was the care and love they needed. I remember feeding Birdy wet balls of bread dipped in sugar water and kissing Lucky Duck every opportunity I could. We didn’t think these wild animals were so different from the pets who shared our home—including Dolly, my sweet golden retriever. Birdy even took baths in Dolly’s water bowl, and Dolly waited to drink until bath time was finished.
Being a child, it never occurred to me that these wild creatures might not want this kind of love and attention, or that getting them comfortable with people might not lead to the best outcomes once we released them back into the wild. (Imagine poor Birdy thinking all dogs were as docile as Dolly!) Without the benefit of licensed wildlife rehabilitators or wildlife centers or even all the knowledge now available on the internet, we did what we thought would be best for them.
I know many of you feel just as excited as our staffers do when you spot wild creatures in your own backyards. Maybe you, too, have memories of “helping” wild animals the best way you knew how. Maybe you “rescued” a baby bird who was in actuality just a fledgling learning how to fly, which I now suspect could’ve been the case with Birdy. But back then, I didn’t know that even if Birdy had fallen from her nest, I could’ve scooped her up and put her back in. We now know it’s a myth that a mother bird won’t touch her baby if she smells a human.
After decades as an animal welfare professional, I look back on the parade of animals who came through our home and cringe a bit. I now know that without the right information, sometimes our instincts to protect animals have the opposite effect. I’m reminded of this unfortunate fact every spring, when wildlife rehabilitators and wildlife centers across the country become inundated with baby animals “rescued” by well-meaning persons. The sad truth is that many of these juveniles didn’t need rescuing in the first place. But if they can’t be reunited with their parents, and have been removed from their habitat, these babies become the responsibility of human experts, whose facilities are often already overwhelmed by animals who truly need care.
That’s why we’ve built our programs to help on training animal care and control professionals to respond to conflicts with wildlife. In many locations without dedicated wildlife centers or rehabilitators, these local agencies wind up handling most of these cases—and they’re often the first to get a panicked call from someone who’s found an injured bird or is freaked out by a bat in the attic. Through resources, webinars and in-person trainings, we teach professionals who are more accustomed to dealing with dogs and cats how to respond to wildlife calls. When these professionals, who often serve as the hub of animal knowledge in their communities, know more about the wild animals who live there, they can provide better information to human residents, steering potential conflicts to more effective and humane resolutions.
There’s always room to learn from our mistakes and to do better the next time we’re confronted with a challenge. This spring, I hope you’ll learn a little more about your own wild neighbors, including what to do if you find juveniles who seem to be orphaned or injured. Take some time to look up wildlife rehabilitators in your area—you can even save their numbers to your phone in case you need help while on the go. Because as wonderful as my memories with Birdy and Lucky Duck and Golden Goose might be, I know that for their sakes, it would’ve been better to let them remain in their own outdoor homes, wild and free.