One of the most embarrassing things I ever did was find a dog that wasn’t lost. It was near Second and Washington, while I was stuck in traffic. I saw a very adorable Beagle-y Bassett-y thing wandering along the perimeter of a park, but outside its gates rather than in. I drove around and didn’t see an owner anywhere — the area looked pretty deserted — so I concluded the dog was lost and in need of rescue. I pulled over, grabbed the befuddled dog off the pavement and stuck him in the back seat of my grandfather’s hand-me-down Oldsmobile. Then I drove somewhere quiet where we could talk.
“Are you lost?” I asked the dog, who stared at me with liquid eyes but said nothing. “Do you need my help, you precious cutie?” He did have a collar and tags, so I called a number and left a triumphant message: “I found your dog!” A few minutes later, a woman called back and said, “You found him! Thank god! We didn’t know what happened.” She said her husband took her dog to the same park every day, where he’d sit on a bench and read while the dog would roam around. Her husband always kept a close eye on him, she said, but on this day, when her husband raised his eyes from his book, the dog was gone. He ran around the entire park calling the dog’s name.
Where had this happened? I asked. Near Second and Washington, she said.
I brought the dog back and they were both incredibly grateful, as if I hadn’t stolen their dog for absolutely no reason. I went home that night thinking maybe there was something wrong with me — that is to say, something else, in addition to the other stuff.
I rationalized the experience by thinking of it as a learning opportunity — a window into the hubristic soul of the animal lover who thinks she knows best even in the absence of real information. Yet it didn’t stop me from being a putative animal savior a number of other times. Just a few months ago, in fact, I saw an emaciated, crusty-faced “stray” cat on the street where I live. Its fur was dirty and it looked about as tragic as a cat can look. I brought it some food and water, which it gobbled up, and was on the phone with an animal shelter when my neighbor came along and said, “Oh, how’s she doing? She’s been so sick. I know they’ve tried everything.” Long story short, I almost stole someone’s beloved, dying cat from the pavement right in front of its house, on one of its last days to feel the sun on its fur. Now that same cat is buried beneath a delicate memorial in the front yard across the street. Every time I walk by, I think, “I’ve learned nothing.”
THE HUMAN IMPULSE to help animals in need is a good one — and given how many crap human impulses there are, I think it should be acknowledged. The problem comes when we act on this impulse without enough information, as I have, and then screw things up. You hear stories about this kind of thing in the news fairly often. Take the recent example of the man in Yellowstone who actually took a baby bison from its herd and put it into his car because he thought it looked cold. Putting aside the fact that it’s expressly forbidden to interfere with wildlife in Yellowstone, I can’t imagine what made this man think he understood the reality of the bison’s situation. Humans routinely misunderstand the behavior of our own species — you’ll change a diaper only to learn the baby was hungry, let’s say — so why would anyone imagine they could more accurately decipher bison feelings?
Unfortunately, the baby bison was euthanized by Yellowstone after officials there were unable to return it to its herd. (It’s not like they could put it on Petfinder for adoption: “Moo-Moo the bison is a friendly guy just looking for his forever home. He’s not great with children or dogs, but he’s terrific with bison!”)
This sad tale is a good example, though, of people meaning well and not realizing they’re idiots. This man isn’t a serial killer (though the online outrage at him suggests otherwise); he probably doesn’t even cheat on his taxes. He’s just an animal-loving human who made the mistake of projecting his own feelings onto a wild animal — and who among us hasn’t done that? When animals are cute, as they inevitably are when they’re young, we forget the divide between us and them.
Michelle Wellard, a wildlife rehabilitator at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education‘s wildlife clinic, confirmed my suspicion that baby animals, in particular, trigger our best impulses but lead us to behave in destructive ways. “Just today I got five calls about baby fawns ‘left alone,'” Wellard told me, “but it’s natural for the mother to leave. The theory is that it’s safer for the baby to be alone because the mother can attract predators with her scent and her size. But to a human, a tiny, little Bambi-looking thing all alone just seems wrong.” It’s the problem of people mapping their own anxieties onto another creature, as though the mother deer has essentially gone into Target for two hours and left her baby in the car seat. “People walk in the door with fawns in their arms,” Wellard said. “They’re usually pretty good when I explain they have to put them back.”
People also call a lot about baby bunnies because they interpret their small size as vulnerability. “Baby rabbits are on their own once they’re softball-sized,” says veterinarian and rabbit-owner Natalie David, who notes that people will take baby bunnies home and give them milk. “Rabbits are not cows,” she says. “All species get different milk. Even at a rehab center there is a very strict rehydration protocol before giving milk or food. You can kill them by giving them milk while dehydrated.”
Once a baby bunny is taken out of its element, it’s not easy to rehabilitate it. “It’s really difficult. Mama Bunny does a much better job,” says Wellard.
I can’t help thinking of the time my father infamously “rescued” a baby bunny and wound up on the front page of the newspaper because of it. My parents still have the clipping: beneath headlines about Watergate, there’s a large photo of my dad giving a bottle (which he nabbed from one of my dolls) to an exquisitely tiny bunny in a teacup. Though my dad meant well, of course, we now know this is wrong, and not just because it threatened to upstage John Dean‘s guilty plea.
THIS TIME OF YEAR the Schuylkill Center deals with a lot of what they call “kidnappings” — like what I did with the dog, only with baby birds instead, who jump out of the nest a couple days before they can fly. These birds are still being cared for by their parents, but people scoop them up, thinking they’re on the brink of death rather than just rumspringing. Sometimes the kidnapped fledglings can be returned, but not always. “People might keep a bird for two days and then it’s too weak and has medical problems,” says Wellard. “Also, taking it away from its family before it’s ready is just not fair to the animal. Animals are always better off with their own parents. We don’t know what things they’re missing out on if they grow up with us instead of their real parents.”
Perhaps what’s confusing is that there are appropriate times for humans to intervene with wildlife, even baby birds. “If an animal is clearly injured, has been in the mouth of a dog or cat, if it’s a baby and the parents are known to be dead, then it may need your help,” says Dr. David.
Last week, for instance, ABC reporter Cecily Tynan posted videos on Facebook of her picking up an “injured” baby owl and taking it to the wildlife clinic. She did precisely what Wellard recommends and called the clinic first. Though the owl was not injured, it was very dehydrated — and likely would would have died without Tynan’s intervention.
“Her instincts just happened to be correct,” says Wellard of Tynan’s impression that the bird was in trouble. “But every case is different so it’s important to call first. A lot of the phone calls we get, we tell people, ‘No, this animal does not need help.'”
Even David, a licensed vet, says she wouldn’t touch a wild animal without calling a wildlife rehabilitator first, but that’s also due, she says, to the fact that animals can be dangerous.
Oh! Danger! Right. I always forget about that in the face of cute overload. When I saw that a black bear was spotted in the Wissahickon last week, for instance, I said to my friend, “I want to hug it!” like I was Timothy Treadwell, ready to go bounding through the park to find it. (Thankfully, I am not Timothy Treadwell, but Liz Spikol, who is too lazy to go bounding anywhere.)
“Any wild animal can have diseases, including rabies,” says Dr. David. “The species most likely to carry rabies include bats, raccoons, groundhogs and skunks. But anything with fur can have rabies.” If you must transport an animal to Animal Control or the Schuylkill Center — which sometimes can’t be avoided — “wear thick gloves, don’t let it bite you, get it into a secure box. Don’t mess with it or let all the neighborhood kids touch it before you take it in. If you have any safety concerns, call ACCT immediately. But in general, leave wildlife the F alone.”
It’s so much easier said than done. Just the other night, I took a break from writing this piece to walk my dog, and found a mother raccoon, teats swollen, digging around in the dumpster behind my building. I forgot absolutely everything I’d been told by experts during the day, including how dangerous raccoons can be, and got as close as I could to her, and talked to her in a high-pitched voice, saying the stupidest shit imaginable: “How are your little paws? Are you a good mama finding food for your babies? Don’t eat the chewing gum!” It was awful.
I will say this, though: I was not tempted to follow her so I could see her babies, to make sure they were okay. Nor will I ever “rescue” them from their perfectly normal fate. Before I ever do anything like that again, I’m going to call these people at this number: 215-482-8217. So should you.
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