Most ‘abandoned’ animals will be just fine

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fawn laying down
A fawn that lies quietly in the grass all day is almost never orphaned or abandoned. Mom is merely out grazing and will return to feed the fawn, usually around dusk or dawn. Photo by Jamey Emmert

In Jurassic Park, the kids are told to keep still because Tyrannosaurus rex picks up on movement. That’s basically what a doe tells her fawn to do.

“You’re like the T. rex,” said Becky Crow, curator of wildlife at the Brukner Nature Center in southwest Ohio.

This is why the fawn you may have found in your lawn or near your house is lying motionless: It thinks you’re a predator. But don’t assume that because it stays in the same place all day that it is abandoned or orphaned. About 95% of the time, that’s not the case, Crow says, so resist the urge to pick it up, put it in the car and take it to the nearest wildlife rehab or nature center. Instead, call first and get some advice from the experts.

“As wildlife rehabilitators, our first job is to be educators,” said Crow, whose agency in Troy took in more than 1,800 animals last year. Most were treated successfully and released back into the wild.

Fawns

The peak season for does to “drop” their fawns is between May 10 and 15, she said. During their first two weeks of life, fawns are unable to travel with mom, so she has them lie very still during the day and usually comes back to feed them at night.

“We are fortunate that most people call for information first, so we’ve had a decrease in fawns brought in,” Crow said. “But there are still those who walk in with one.”

In that case, the fawn is given an evaluation. If it’s healthy, the humans are directed to take the fawn back to where they found it. “We usually get a call saying, ‘You were right, mom came back,'” Crow said.

If mom doesn’t come back, wildlife rehabilitators like Crow often rely on members of the Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitation Association, or folks who call to report that they’ve seen a fawn, so that perhaps a foster mother can be found. And that’s always a wild animal’s best hope for survival: being with its mother.

That’s why the OWRA and the ODNR Division of Wildlife try to put the word out — especially at this time of year — that people can do more harm than good by picking up wild creatures they assume are orphaned or abandoned.

“Humans are their last best chance for survival,” said Crow. “I won’t say their worst chance, but definitely the last.”

Human touch

Another assumption people make is that if they’ve touched a baby animal — or bird — the mother will reject it because of the human scent. That is why people often think they shouldn’t pick up baby birds they find on the ground and put them back in the nest. But the assumptions about human touch — and smell — are almost always incorrect.

“I ask people if they’ve ever abandoned their kids at the grocery store or the hardware because a stranger touched them,” Crow said, laughing.

Baby squirrels

Jamey Emmert, wildlife communications specialist for the District 3 office of the ODNR Division of Wildlife, said baby squirrels can survive falls out of nests that are often very high up in trees. But without fur, they probably won’t survive a cold, rainy night. If it’s impossible to reach the nest, a good solution is to put the baby in a box with a plastic bottle full of warm water. Then place the box at the bottom of the tree.

“Mom is strong enough to take the baby in her mouth and back up to the nest,” Emmert said.

Baby birds are sometimes knocked out of the nest by high winds or rambunctious siblings. Or, fledgelings have developed pinfeathers and are anxious to fly, but aren’t strong enough. In either case, use gloved hands to put the baby birds back in the nest, being careful not to injure them, she said.

What if you can’t reach the nest? Or what if the nest has blown away? Make a substitute nest from a basket, preferably made of wicker or something that drains well. Put a bit of leaf litter or grass in for bedding, then hang it in the tree close to where the original nest is, or was. It’s almost certain that mom will care for the babies, even if they are in a new nest, Emmert said.

Rabbit nests

As people are doing more mowing and weeding, they may uncover a nest of bunnies. The best thing to do is cover it up again, perhaps marking it with a flag. Mother cottontail rabbits feed their young at night, and in the most inconspicuous way: She hovers over the nest so the babies only need to reach their noses up to her belly to feed.

If you want to make sure mom is still around to do that, arrange some sticks in a tic-tac-toe pattern around the nest and check in the morning to see if any of the sticks have been moved.

Turtles

Both Crow and Emmert include turtles as something to avoid “rescuing.” If you see one crossing the road, pick it up and put it in a safe place, always facing in the direction it was going originally. But again, resist the impulse to take it to a wildlife center — or to your house.

“People often want to keep them as pets, but that’s illegal and a disservice to the animal,” Emmert said.

Exceptions can be made for injuries. If you see blood, a wing or leg pointed in the wrong direction or an animal lying on its side, there may be a case for rescue. If it’s obvious the mother is deceased, or the babies are in danger of being attacked by dogs, cats or other animals, they may need to be moved to a safe place.

In that case, put them in a box with a lid — with air holes so they can breathe — and put them in a quiet, dark place in order to lessen their anxiety. Do not attempt to feed or water them, Emmert said.

And again, she said, the best thing to do is to call first and get advice from the experts: licensed wildlife rehabilitators.

The Brukner Nature Center is licensed by both the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to care for birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, including bird and mammal species that are endangered in Ohio.

How do you find these experts?

The Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators Association has a link to “Find a Rehabilitator” on its home page, www.owra.org.

The list is divided by county and includes phone numbers. While some of the rehabilitation centers are closed because of the COVID-19 crisis, most will return phone calls in a timely manner. The Division of Wildlife also has an email that is monitored frequently: wildinfo@dnr.state.oh.us.

You can also call the Division of Wildlife office closest to you and they will direct you to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Ohio Division of Wildlife:

  • Northeast (Akron): 330-644-2293
  • Northwest (Findlay): 419-424-5000
  • Southwest (Xenia): 937-372-9261
  • Southeast (Athens): 740-589-9930
  • Central (Columbus): 614-644-3925

Pennsylvania Game Commission:

  • Northwest Region: 814-432-3187
  • Southwest Region: 724-238-9523

West Virginia: wvdnr.gov/contact.shtm

Keep in mind that social distancing may not be enough when it comes to wildlife. “If you’re in your yard and find a lone baby animal or a nest, step away, and keep kids and pets away,” Emmert said. “You want to monitor, but be sure you’re far enough away. Mom isn’t going to come back and grab the baby if we’re standing right there.”

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Barbara Mudrak was a reporter for 25 years, mostly with the Akron Beacon Journal, and recently retired from teaching English and news writing at Alliance High School. She can be reached at editorial+barb@farmanddairy.com.

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