Know How to “Rescue” Baby Wildlife
Social media sites like NextDoor.com are ablaze right now with warnings about how to save dogs from unusually aggressive coyotes during the February/March mating season.
San Antonio native Lynn Cuny, founder and president of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation (WRR) in nearby Kendalia, scoffs. To her way of thinking, the central Texas Hill Country has a people problem, not a pet issue. Coyotes don’t lure dogs away from backyards under any circumstances. And the howling is a song, not an implicit threat.
But she’s worried Canyon Lake’s two-legged residents could create even bigger concerns for the four-legged wild animals her organization protects. Most species of native wildlife give birth beginning in early spring (February/March), with wildlife baby season tapering off in late summer or early fall (September/October).
Spring Is Wildlife Baby Season
Hundreds of baby possums, squirrels and raccoons, deer, bats, skunks, snakes, deer and coyotes are now on their way, heralding the beginning of “spring baby season.”
Should you feel the need to “rescue” one of these animals in the months ahead, chances are your vet or neighbor will refer you to WRR, whose staff and volunteers take in around 10,000 native wildlife a year, including 3,000 birds, for the purpose of rehabilitation and release back to the wild. WRR provides permanent sanctuary to native and non-native species of wild animals, and also rescue animals commonly found on farms.
Cuny says the number of animals under WRR’s care might be reduced with a little public education. People living around the lake can’t unbuild their houses, uninstall pools, or easily avoid shopping at big grocery stores going up along Highway 281. But they can help keep WRR’s numbers down.
People can protect wildlife.
“The more people understand about native species, the less likely they are to inadvertently harm them.”
“The more people understand about native species, the less likely they are to inadvertently harm them,” Cuny says. “Wildlife can’t cause problems unless people create an environment in which they can do so. Instead of blaming the animals we should work together to find solutions satisfactory to both humans and wildlife.”
#1 Recognize that development in Canyon Lake, New Braunfels, Spring Branch, Fischer and Bulverde has displaced many native species. Animal moms are doing the best they can to survive and thrive in what to them is now a hostile environment. Residents should show compassion. There is no malicious intent behind any animal behavior. Living in the Texas Hill Country means embracing even predators like coyotes, bobcats and cougars as part of the natural order.
#2 Drought and climate change are game-changers. There’s no longer such a thing as “baby raccoon season” or “baby rabbit season.” Animals typically born in April are now arriving in February or March.
“Climate change is occurring so rapidly that wildlife is making survival shifts,” Cuny says. “Their baby seasons are less predictable.”
#3 Wildlife parents love their babies more than they fear humans. There’s an age-old myth that once a human touches a wild animal baby (a category Cuny says includes birds), the wildlife parent will reject that baby. This is absolutely false. Wildlife parents are not concerned about how their babies smell. They are concerned about being able to care for them.
#4 Don’t panic just because you come across a baby wild animal who appears to be alone. In fact, the mother is probably nearby.
“Wildlife parents and wildlife babies want to be together,” Cuny says. “They don’t want to be separated. In their case, that can be deadly. What’s really important is if you do see a baby wild animal and think he or she is in trouble, don’t just presume the mama’s gone away then take that animal indoors and start feeding him or her. Nine times out of 10 you will do more harm than good.”
She suggests evaluating the situation in the context of each species behavior. Points to consider —
- Cottontail rabbits are born in shallow burrows lined with their mother’s fur. Mama rabbits leave their babies behind for hours while they forage for food. Along comes the lawnmower and then comes the call to WRR. If you think you have disturbed a cottontail nest, here’s what to do: “We always say put the dogs and cats inside, cover the nest with grass and put two pieces of sewing thread in the shape of an x over the top. Go inside and leave the nest alone. Understand the mom is scared. Go back out in a few hours and take a look. Is the thread disturbed? Okay, she’s come back. If not, remember rabbits tend to be nocturnal. Call WRR to ascertain if you’ve waited long enough. But if the babies start coming out of the nest, that’s the sign they’re hungry and the mom isn’t feeding. Call us.”
- Opossums are marsupials. They’re not rodents. Babies grow and develop in their pouches then ride around on their mothers’ backs as they get older. When they’re of a certain age, they’re still with their mother. But when she stops to eat they will leave her back and eat alongside her. If the mother’s frightened off and starts to run, the babies may not have time to scramble back up. This results in a baby getting left behind. Call WRR and be ready to describe the opossum. Note his or her size, so WRR can advise as to whether the baby is independent or in need of rescue. However, if you see a dead possum lying on the road, check the pouch to see if the babies are still inside. Put the mama and the babies in a box and bring them to WRR. Babies will stay inside the pouch until the mother is cold.
- Don’t pick up whitetail fawns. From the mother deer’s perspective, you’re the predator. “Unless the baby’s really in trouble, leave her alone for the mama to come back. Keep in mind that whitetail mothers will go off and forage for several hours a day before coming back to feed their fawn. This is normal and natural, and not a problem for the fawn.”
- Baby squirrels can fall out of trees during severe storms. If the baby squirrel is immobile or cold, there are certain things that could indicate this baby needs rescue. The WRR will ask: Are his eyes still closed? Is he partially furred? Does he have blood coming out of his eyes or nose? These are factors that might indicate the need for rescue. Older babies that did not suffer injuries in a fall can be reunited with their mom with a little help from humans. To build a new, interim nest, find a box that’s “one and one-half shoe boxes deep” and line it with several t-shirts to provide insulation. Climb up the tree as far as possible and secure the box to a sturdy limb. It’s imperative that the box be secure. Go back inside and watch for the mother to return. Make sure the cats are with you. That mother may come back right away or in several hours, depending on circumstances. For example, if someone’s pruning a tree and cut off a limb, the terrified mother may not return for awhile.
- Don’t rush over to pick up a baby bird on the ground. Observe he or she (Cuny never refers to animals as an “it”) at a distance and with care so as not to scare off its parents, who might return. As with squirrels, baby birds can be placed in boxes and left in tree branches. Visit WRR’s website for more information about how to rescue birds during each developmental stage. Rescuing birds is more complicated!
- Always use soft t-shirts to keep babies warm instead of coarser towels.
#5 Never use glue traps of any sort or type, recommended by pest-control companies for catching rats and mice. Small birds, lizards, snakes and other small animals often get caught in glue traps and will lose skin, feathers and fur trying to free themselves, which they cannot do. To die in a glue trap means dying from dehydration, which is a very painful death. Cuny says no one should ever use glue traps for any reason under any circumstance.
#6 Never use HavaHart trap or any other type of device to catch wild animals for the purpose of removing them from your property. Animals who are trapped and driven miles away to be released are frequently separated from their dependent young. Their babies will slowly starve to death.
#7 Never trap wildlife period. It takes them away from their home base, where they are familiar with all food sources and shelters. They’re dropped into a foreign territory and have to totally reestablish themselves. Many of them do not survive this process.
#8 Many raccoons, squirrels and birds are killed or orphaned when the tree in which their nest is located is removed. Avoid cutting down or trimming trees in the spring or early summer unless you are certain they contain no wildlife species. Remove brush piles just a limb or two a day to alert animals that it’s time to move on.
#9 If landscaping to attract wildlife is your thing, be prepared to actually attract wildlife. Anything that attracts birds, for example, will bring squirrels. With squirrels come hawks and inaccurate Facebook posts about dangers to pets. Hawks are not dangerous to pets and, in fact, are federally protected.
#10 Don’t ever put corn out as food for deer. “It’s like giving a box of candy to a child,” Cuny says. “They will eat and eat and eat, and it causes all manner of health issues. Hooves will grow in strange shapes. It gets caught up in jaws and may be a contributing factor to lumpy jaw. Corn is poison. Don’t give it to any wildlife.”
#11 If you insist on feeding deer, ask why are you doing this? Are you doing this because you think they need it and want to help, or are you doing it because you want to be close to deer?
#12 Wildlife do not need relationships with humans. “Wildlife needs us to leave them alone,” Cuny says. “They need us to respect them and protect their habitat.”
#12 Roadrunners, like all species of wildlife, are struggling due to habitat destruction.
#13 The predator-prey balance works when humans stop destroying natural habitats.
Hope for the Future?
There’s one good thing about the rapid development of Canyon Lake: New people moving in from other states tend to have a greater appreciation for wildlife and nature. Guns, animal poison and trapping are more common in Texas than other parts of the United States, along with cutting down trees and clearing out underbrush — all of the things wildlife need to survive.
“These people can be a sea-change for a culture that’s been in existence since the beginning of Texas, that’s anti-predatory, anti-snake, anti-bat. If they’re moving in, there’s a better chance that the wildlife we have isn’t going to get gunned down.”
Want to Learn More?
For more information, visit wildlife-rescue.org or contact WRR on its 24-hour emergency hotline, 830-336-2725. Do not email about animals in trouble — time matters.