Be a dear, don't interfere


My office manager picks up the phone. Again. “Des Moines County Conservation…”

A pause.

“You should leave it be. The mother is probably nearby…”

Another pause.

“…Then you need to contact the local DNR Officer. His name is Paul. Here’s his number…”

This scenario plays out several times a day at my office this time of year. Concerned residents call about what they assume are injured or abandoned baby animals.

It seems like a lot of calls, but for Paul Kay, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer for Des Moines County who is the one that actually handles the “rescued” animals, the rate is more like 70 to 80 calls per week.

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Now here’s the bad news, most of those “rescued” animals are actually just the opposite. Removing a baby animal from its natural environment is, more often than not, a death sentence.

Let’s take a moment to understand how a baby animal’s world works. The animal is small, gangly, uncoordinated, and unsure on its feet. Its best defense is to hold still and hide within its natural surroundings. At times, the mother simply has to wander off to feed or do whatever animals need to do at times without being burdened by offspring that can barely get around.

As a dad, I can certainly relate.

Or sometimes, like with deer, the parent senses danger. Like when a bumbling human and his gangly kid comes along looking for mushrooms. Knowing its size makes it easier to spot, the parent will slip away quietly, leaving its motionless, hard-to-spot fawn behind to remain undetected. Unfortunately, sometimes paths cross and that seemingly abandoned fawn is scooped up and hauled away, often right in front of the mother’s eyes as she watches from cover not far away.

It’s not only tragic. Removing wild animals from the wild is illegal. Only properly permitted or legally authorized conservation professionals are allowed to do that.

Even though wild animal “rescuers” have the best of intentions, removing that fawn from the wild prevents it from learning the critical survival skills only its mother – and the experiences it has in its natural habitat – can teach it. No amount of bottle feeding or human-led rehabilitation will turn that fawn into an adult deer capable of surviving in the wild.

Not only that, but the state doesn’t allow deer to be privately rehabilitated and released into the wild. Why? A fatal neurological disorder called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is spreading across Iowa’s deer population. Caused by a deformed prion protein, the disease spreads among deer, elk, moose, and caribou populations through transfer of saliva, urine, blood, and feces. Once it’s introduced into the environment, like within the confines of a rehabilitation pen where multiple deer may be in contact over time, the disease agent can infect live populations for years.

There’s no way to test for CWD in live deer so there’s no way to know whether a rehabilitated deer may carry the disease. In areas where the disease has existed the longest, populations are declining.

Thus, it would be best to heed Officer Kay’s advice: “When it comes to deer, don’t interfere.”

But the same holds true for just about any other species of wildlife out there. Few animals are ever truly abandoned. Sure, there are times when young venture out on their own. When they stray away to spread their wings (literally). When they begin to exert some independence.

Again, as a dad, I can relate.

There are no “helicopter parents” in the wild. Most wild animal babies venture out before they can fully care for themselves. They may venture a fair distance as they gain more independence, but still be under the care – lessening though it may be – of their parents.

Certainly not all of them will make it. In the case of birds, generally only about 20 percent will make it to adulthood. But that 20 percent will be the toughest, smartest, best suited individuals to carry its species into the next generation.

That’s called natural selection. And it’s worked just fine for like a bajillion years now.

So when is it reasonable to assume an animal needs human interference? When should you call a conservation professional to intervene? In short, rarely. But if you see an obvious debilitating injury or you know for certain the parent is dead, feel free to pick up the phone.

“Parents don’t go around abandoning their young,” says Kay. That would not bode well for the survival of the species.

So the next time you see what looks like an abandoned baby animal, give it at least a day. Don’t interfere with the animal or its surroundings. Chances are, its mother will recover it or it will move off on its own.

That’s just what young do.

This piece was originally published in The Hawk Eye as part of my monthly "Living Land" column.