Is it better to help injured animals or let nature take its course? It's a question that people who spend much time outdoors sooner or later must confront. And it's a question that appears quite often on eNature's Ask an Expert forum. With that in mind, we've decided to reprise an article first posted last spring under the title "Think Twice."
You're on a hike not far from home, a child or two in tow. The weather is ideal -- warm and cloudless, with the occasional breeze. But now it's time to head back. You pause for some water, pass around the bottle, then notice, lo and behold, a small animal beside the path. Perhaps it's a chick or a lizard or a shrew. Whatever species, it doesn't flee when you approach. Even a child's attention won't scare it off. Is the animal hurt? Abandoned? On the one hand, you know better than to disturb it. On the other hand, a rescue seems in order. "We can't just leave it here and let it die!" The child's words echo in your ears.
A common dilemma, but one that needn't cause distress. The fact is that in almost all cases wild animals should remain wild. With baby cottontails, for example -- which make most children weak in the knees -- no amount of human attention can substitute for the care that a mother rabbit provides her young. All the blankets and eye droppers in the world will never match what happens outdoors. And if for some reason, despite the odds, an animal found in the wild survives under human care, with time it often loses those qualities that first made it an attractive pet. Instead of cute and cuddly now it's clawed and temperamental.
Another reason to leave animals where you find them relates to territorial issues. Turtles and other reptiles taken from the wild for pets are almost always released at some point in the future when their owners tire of caring for them. The problem then is that unless these creatures are deposited in the same spot where they were originally found, they will likely suffer. And since people move or simply forget where their pets were first picked up, the animals often find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, sometimes with insufficient food, inadequate shelter, even new predators.
No doubt the most commonly rescued animal is the infant bird, fallen from a nest or in the course of an early flight. Surely a cat will find the bird sooner or later. Yet it's also true that the bird will have a better chance of reaching adulthood if left alone. Besides, federal law prohibits anyone but licensed officials from being in possession of nongame birds -- a detail worth mentioning the next time the kids make their case for saving a supposedly helpless chick.
An alternative to leaving an injured animal to fend for itself is to contact a local nature center or Audubon Society chapter. If there's a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in the area, either of these organizations will be able to notify him or her.