Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Let Wildlife Stay Wild

Pet Column for the week of March 5, 2009

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

As temperatures begin to rise, and the snow starts to melt, a walk outside may sound more and more enticing. But if you stumble upon what looks to be a vulnerable Bambi look alike or a litter of little Thumpers, odds are they are in perfect health, quietly awaiting the return of their mother.

Dr. Julia Whittington is the head of the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. The spring brings a very busy time for the clinic. Although some of the animals they receive are true orphans, many are found by overzealous citizens who mistakenly believe the newborn has been abandoned.

"The general rule of thumb is if the animal does not have any obvious signs of trauma, is warm, active, and not vocalizing as if distressed, it probably is under parental care," says Dr. Whittington. She explains that many species use a survival strategy where they may visit their young only a couple of times a day.

For example, "Many prey species stay away from their young to avoid attracting predators," mentions Dr. Whittington. That is why many people stumble across a fawn that is tucked under a bush, or a nest of cottontail rabbits under a deck, but there is no mother in sight.

If you happen to find a young bird, bunny, or deer, do not intervene unless you are certain the animal is orphaned. Dr. Whittington suggests that, "if you are not sure if the mother has returned to tend to her young, put a string or leaf near the nest and see if it has been moved hours later," indicating that a parent has returned.

While the Wildlife Medical Clinic is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide care for patients, there is no substitute for a real mom. For example, many young wild animals that are taken to any wildlife clinic for care have a low survival rate for several reasons. The stress of being handled by a human can be overwhelming for some neonates, and despite advances in nutrition, there is no replacement for a mother's natural milk or feeding.

Although your motherly instincts may take over when you see a newborn whether it has feathers or fur, try to remember that most animals you come across are well cared for. If you are confident that the animal needs medical attention, Dr. Whittington cautions that, "you should always consider your own protection before attempting to capture a wild animal. Even small animals have defenses of their own."