Cotton-tail rabbit

New born Cotton-tail Rabbits rest in nest.

“Those who wish to pet and baby wildlife love them, but those who respect their natures and wish to let them live their natural lives love them more.”

Those words of famed naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edwin Way Teale need to be remembered every spring in the Ozarks. One result of having a thriving and diverse outdoor world around us is that spring is a time of birth and emergence. As we all know, that birth and emergence doesn’t always take place in the remote wilderness. Everything from that young bird hopping across your backyard to a nest of baby rabbits snugged into in an un-tended corner of your flowerbed tells you wildlife chooses some unconventional areas to birth and raise their young.

Seeing these wildlife offspring brings out the mothering instinct in many humans. However, before you take in what appears to be an orphaned animal and fill that eye-dropper with warm milk, tear lettuce into fine shreds or break up a slice of bread into small crumbs here are some words to remember:

Don’t do it.

With the exception of a few species (see the Wildlife Code of Missouri for details), it’s illegal to keep in captivity animals that come from native wildlife of the state unless you have the proper permits and housing facilities (cages, watering arrangements, etc.) The state’s wildlife regulations lists the requirements needed to possess live wildlife and most people’s homes don’t meet those specifications.

These human-made laws are based on Nature’s laws which are based on wildlife young being reared by wildlife parents. When humans enter the picture, it usually results in good intentions going terribly wrong. For example:

When people find young mammals, the first thing they want to do is give them warm milk. This sounds like a good idea but it usually ends up being a bad one. Young animals need milk that come from their mothers, they may have trouble digesting processed cow’s milk that comes from the store. The resulting digestive problems could cause severe illness or death for the infant animal.

Another example is the small, fully feathered but flightless songbirds we find hopping about our yards. They seem helpless, struggling and totally forgotten about by their parents. Actually, these are young birds learning how to fly. They do so by imitating their parents and through experimentation. Yes, it’s a dangerous stage of their lives, but it’s a vital one – one we shouldn’t impose upon if we want these birds to learn how to fly so they can avoid predators, visit our feeders and entertain us with songs and antics in the future.

These are just a couple of examples of how we humans, despite our best intentions, don’t have the instinctual knowledge or the physical attributes needed to care for young wildlife. When we try to lend a caring hand to young wildlife, we usually do nothing but throw a huge monkey wrench into Nature’s plans. Some young creatures we find are not abandoned. Some animals (rabbits and deer for example) are placed in hiding so the parent can forage. The mother leaves early in the morning and returns at dusk. This decreases the chance of showing predators where the nest is located. If humans take young animals from this type of setting, they don’t save orphans, they create them.

Some animals are left to fend for themselves at a young age and quickly adapt to their surroundings. They’re much more wily and agile than you suspect. A rule of thumb – if you have to chase an animal to capture it, it doesn’t need to be rescued.

There’s nothing wrong with taking steps to keep cats, dogs and other potential pests away from a discovered nest or offspring – as long as you don’t disturb the nest and as along as the steps you take don’t prevent the parents from getting to their young. In these situations, you’re not caring for the young animals, you’ve only made it safer for their natural parents to do so.

More information about local wildlife can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at http://www.missouriconservation.org.

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