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How to best help baby animals? Let them be

Published: Saturday, June 25, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, June 26, 2011 12:15 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Provided photo)
A baby deer with her mother in a backyard.

Today’s column comes courtesy of my friend Lisa, who conducted an intervention of sorts on your behalf the other night.

I’d anticipated – somewhat excitedly, in fact – that this week’s piece would describe the daily life of a delightful little critter known as the wood cockroach, Parcoblatta spp, and was telling my dear friend a few of the exhilarating details. (How wood roaches suffer because of the stigma surrounding their more famous cousins, how they are basically harmless creatures that decompose organic matter, and how they rarely colonize in houses because the lower humidity there dries them out.)

However Lisa, who’s an attorney by day and a covert nature admirer – from a distance – nights and weekends, made a little noise as I enthusiastically extolled the wood roach’s virtues. The sound, which started out as a small “Ick,” turned into a larger “Eww!” followed by a compelling plea for something other than “another bug story.” Specifically, Lisa wanted “cute, and fuzzy.”

So folks, here you go, 500-plus words on the cutest, fuzziest things nature has to offer:  baby animals.

Spring and, now, early summer, are the times of year when young wildlife abound. And while the majority of them do just fine on their own, every now and then there’s one that seemingly needs a helping hand.

Over the past several weeks we’ve gotten calls about baby birds that have fallen from nests, baby rabbits that appear abandoned and baby turtles that have magically emerged from the ground. (OK, so baby turtles aren’t fuzzy – at least the healthy ones aren’t. But they’re still darn cute.)

We’ve also been visited by a young fox whose sibling was killed by a car, a Cooper’s hawk too little to be out of the nest and a baby raccoon rescued from the raging current of a flooded Fox River. (The fox was released near where it was found; the Cooper’s went to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn; and the little raccoon, only a couple weeks old when it took its fateful tumble, is in the care of a private wildlife rehabilitator.)

In addition, I received a text message from one of our ever-vigilant park safety officers, Tim Timberlake, regarding a fawn on a lawn. His lawn, actually. Tim was off duty at the time and was about to do some home repairs when he came upon the young deer, curled up and looking virtually brand new, by the backyard shed.

He snapped a picture and texted it to me along with the questions we hear all the time: “What do I do? If I touch it the mom will reject it, right?”

Thankfully the answers are, 99 percent of the time, really straightforward. As for what to do, the right thing usually is nothing. That baby bird, with its juvenile coloration and not-quite finished feathers, needs to be on the ground for a while before it flies so it can stretch its wings and develop its flight muscles. Those furry brown baby rabbits, as small and helpless as they look, are designed to live independently soon after their eyes are open. (In fact, even when in mom’s care they only nurse a couple times a day; further, it’s never at times when people would be apt to notice.) And the baby turtles, believe it or not, know exactly where to go. They might need a lift to get over a curb or other obstacle, but most of them will be just fine on their own.

True, there are those cases where an animal clearly needs some help. The drowning raccoon, the too-little Cooper’s hawk – these animals wouldn’t have made it without help.

However ... providing help to the helpless, as admirable a trait as it is, can sometimes upset the natural flow of nature. The ugly side of cute-n-fuzzy is that not all baby animals are destined to live to adulthood. Typical first-year survival rates usually run well below 50 percent for many species; if they didn’t, we’d be overrun with critters of all kinds.

So now what? What if you really, truly cannot just walk away? Well, if the animal is undeniably in harm’s way but just needs to be moved a short distance, to a safer spot, go ahead and move it. Tim’s concern about the mother rejecting the baby stems from one of the most popular old wives’ tales of all time; the truth is, usually, an animal’s parental instinct will override any notion it may have that its young has cooties.

Whatever you do, don’t try to care for the animal yourself. Wildlife rehabilitation is tricky business, and one that should only be undertaken by trained professionals. Luckily, we’ve got some excellent facilities really close by. The Fox Valley Wildlife Center is in Elburn (www.foxvalley wildlife.org; 630-365-3800); Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation (www.flintcreekwildlife.org; 847-842-8000) is a bit farther afield, with locations in Barrington, Itasca and Northerly Island in Chicago.

Notice that the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center is NOT listed here. Though we love wildlife and have their best interests as our mission, we are not a wildlife rehabilitation center. We don’t have the knowledge or training it takes to properly care for something wild, and can do nothing beyond handing out the rehab facilities’ contact info.

Well, I suppose there is one other thing we can do: encourage people to support these all-volunteer organizations. A check or donation of “wish list” items (on the facilities’ websites) will do way more good than any sort of misguided attempts at hands-on help.

You might not get cute and fuzzy by doing so, but you’ll definitely get the warm and fuzzy feeling that accompanies a contribution to a worthy cause.

• Pam Otto, who’s now wondering if anyone has ever attempted baby wood roach rehab, is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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