HARRISBURG – According to Pennsylvania Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management director Cal DuBrock, many well-meaning people not only break the law every spring, but also put themselves and their pets at risk by handling – and taking home – young wildlife found in the outdoors.
Almost always, young wildlife that may appear to have been abandoned are in all likelihood awaiting the return of adults searching for food. Adult animals often leave their young while they forage for food, and wildlife often relies on a natural defensive tactic called the "hider strategy," where young animals will remain motionless and "hide" in surrounding cover while adults draw the attention of potential predators or other intruders away from their young.
"While it may appear as if the adults are abandoning their young, in reality, this is just the animal using its natural instincts to protect its young," DuBrock said. "Nature also protects young animals with camouflaging color to avoid being detected by predators.
"Wild animals are not meant to be pets, and we must all resist our well-meaning and well-intentioned urge to want to care for wildlife. Taking wildlife from its natural settings and into your home may expose or transmit wildlife diseases to people or domestic animals, as wildlife also may carry parasites such as fleas, ticks or lice that you wouldn't want infesting you, your family, your home or your pets.
"In the coming months, it will become common to find young deer, rabbits, birds, raccoons or other wildlife, some of which may appear to be abandoned.
Rest assured that in most cases, the young animal is not an orphan or abandoned and the best thing you can do is to leave it alone."
DuBrock said that each year people ignore this advice by taking wildlife into their homes and then are urged to undergo treatment for possible exposure to various wildlife-borne diseases, such as rabies.
"In nearly all cases, people's well-meaning and well-intentioned actions still require that the animal be put down in the interest of public health," DuBrock said. "Unfortunately, pop-culture has instilled in people a certain stereotype of what a rabid animal looks like.
"While some animals will act vicious and even foam at the mouth, many times an infected animal will be quiet and still, or simply appear uncoordinated or unafraid. Handling these animals can result in exposure to rabies and require that someone undergo treatment as a precaution, especially if the animal can't be captured for testing."
In addition to protecting public health, PGC Bureau of Wildlife Protection director Rich Palmer said that the agency also is concerned with wildlife implications from humans handling wildlife. He also noted it is illegal to take or possess wildlife from the wild, and that under state law the penalty for such a violation is a fine of up to $1,500 per animal.
"Habituating wildlife to humans is a serious concern, because if wildlife loses its natural fear of humans it can pose a public safety risk," Palmer said. "For example, a few years ago, a yearling, six-point buck attacked and severely injured two people, and our investigation revealed that a neighboring family had illegally taken the deer into their home and fed it as a fawn.
"This family continued to feed the deer right up until the time of the attack, and this particular incident was the subject of numerous news stories around the state, and serves as a fitting example of the possible consequences that can stem from feeding or simply getting too close to wildlife.
"Under no circumstances will anyone who illegally takes wildlife into captivity be allowed to keep that animal. While residents love to view wildlife and are very compassionate, they must enjoy wildlife from a distance and allow nature to run its course."
Palmer said that under a working agreement with state health officials, any "high risk" rabies vector species confiscated after human contact must be euthanized and tested, as it cannot be returned to the wild. Though any mammal may carry rabies, species identified in the agreement are skunks, raccoons, foxes, bats, coyotes and groundhogs.