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Why Handling a Wild Animal Can Be Deadly

handling wild animals

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2015, at least five people were gored by animals while trying to take selfies at Yellowstone National Park
  • It is illegal to take animals from the wild and care for them without a license to do so
  • If you see a wild animal you think needs help and don’t know what to do, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator

By Dr. Becker

Many people heard the story earlier this year of a bison calf in Yellowstone that was picked up by tourists. A photo of the calf in the back of an SUV was widely circulated online. There are several accounts of the story.

One claims the tourists picked up the calf because they believed it looked cold and took it to a ranger station for help. The rangers then tried to re-introduce the calf to the herd, but when it would not be accepted back were forced to euthanize him.1

Another version states the calf had already been abandoned or otherwise lost its mother. It was running alongside vehicles looking for help, so the tourists picked it up.

The animal was already doomed in this case, as another herd would not accept it. The rangers then euthanized the calf as the most humane decision, rather than let it die slowly in the wild.2

Both versions of the story are heartbreaking, but the first version places far more responsibility for the calf's death on the tourists. Either way, it's a powerful lesson that, in nature, interfering with wild animals could result in their death (or yours).

Social Media Triggers Unsafe Tourist Behavior at Yellowstone

In the last couple of years, increasing numbers of visitors coupled with more dangerous incidents with wildlife and natural areas prompted Yellowstone officials to add a full-time social scientist who works, in part to educate visitors about park safety.3

The social science program is also intended to help Yellowstone rangers understand more about visitor behaviors and their influence on the area's natural resources — especially in an era of selfies.

Pete Webster, Yellowstone's chief ranger, told Montana Public Radio about dangerous visitor behaviors that are becoming increasingly common:4

"People taking selfies while driving … And having a bison on the edge of the road and driving past and taking a selfie. So, certainly that's not encouraged. You can't make this stuff up is what we say …

We're finding out about all these incidents on Facebook and from the Internet, from news articles, because in general, people aren't reporting this to us.

… I think it's just the phenomenon with selfies and social media that people want to get something interesting, get a cool photo of themselves and share it with the world … It does seem that the incidents are becoming more frequent."

4 Rules Everyone Should Know Before Visiting Yellowstone (or Any Wilderness Area)

In 2015, at least five people were gored by animals while trying to take selfies at Yellowstone, though likely not due to a lack of warnings.

Safety signs are posted in eight languages around the park, including the message, "No selfies with wildlife." Yellowstone also states that everyone who visits should be familiar with the following regulations:5

The animals here are wild and should never be approached, no matter how calm they appear to be.

Always stay at least 100 yards (91 meters [m]) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other animals, including bison and elk. Never leave small children unattended near wild animals.

Stay on boardwalks and trails in thermal areas. Hot springs have injured or killed more people in Yellowstone than any other natural feature. Keep your children close and make sure they understand the danger posed by boiling water.

Use pullouts to watch wildlife and let other cars pass. Do not stop in the road or block traffic in any way. Stay with your vehicle if you encounter a wildlife jam.

Never feed wildlife, or leave food/garbage unattended. Animals that become habituated to human food may display aggression toward people and have to be killed.

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Respect Wild Animals' Boundaries

It's not only in Yellowstone where a run-in with wildlife could end up altering the animal's life detrimentally. This is why there are laws in place that forbid taking wild animals into captivity unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Even handling a wild animal could end up leading to its demise.

This happens particularly often with baby animals, such as skunks, raccoons, woodchucks and foxes. If a human handles one of these animals, it may have to be put down to be tested for rabies.

In other cases, handling the animal may cause it to become separated from its mother. In many cases, the baby will not be able to be successfully introduced to the wild after human contact.

In some cases, even when you think you're helping you may be making a natural situation dangerous for the animal.

Mother rabbits only nurse their young at night, so litters of baby rabbits are left alone all day in their fur-lined nests. When humans stumble upon a litter they may erroneously assume the babies have been abandoned.

In the case of deer fawns, mothers may leave the fawn alone for hours before returning. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department explained:6

"White-tailed deer fawns use their spotted coats as camouflage and remain motionless to avoid detection from potential predators, including humans.

If you see a fawn curled up at the edge of a path or field, leave the area immediately and do not return. Your presence will prevent the doe from returning to her fawn for periodic nursing.

While they may appear abandoned, they are not abandoned — the mother only returns a couple of times a day. This is true even if the young animal appears hungry or seems to beg from you."

Sometimes humans intervene, believing the fawn needs help, but then it may become permanently separated from his mother. David Sausville, a biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, told NCB 5, "We can't treat them like our house pets … The best thing to do is just leave (the animal) in place and let nature take its course."7

In the Wild, When Is It OK to Intervene?

There may come a time when you come across a wild animal that is injured and seems to need your help. As a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I understand the desire to care for such an animal but legally, only licensed wildlife rehabilitators can legally care for wildlife.

This is primarily for safety reasons — yours, the animal's and the environment's. So if you find a wild animal in need and don't know what to do, call a wildlife rehabilitator. He or she will be able to tell you whether the animal really needs help or is doing just fine on its own. To find one, contact one of the following:

  • Your state wildlife agency, local humane society or the Audubon Society
  • A wild bird store, your city animal control officer
  • Veterinarians who treat wildlife or exotics or a small animal vet who can point you in the right direction
  • The Coast Guard or Marine Patrol (if you live on the coast and find a marine mammal)
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory

If it's not possible to talk with such an expert before handling the animal, be sure to consider your safety first and then the animal's. You'll need to wear gloves and be careful travelling onto roadways, cliffs or other precarious spots to retrieve an animal. You will then need a container to safely transport the animal. A cardboard box lined with a soft cloth or pet carrier with a lid will work in many cases (be sure to make air holes if necessary).

If the animal is a tiny newborn, even a paper bag with air holes will suffice. Do not attempt to give the animal food or water and do not hold him. Once the animal is in the container, cover it with a light sheet or towel. If the animal is shivering or it's cold out, you can place a heating pad under half of the container (leaving half without the heating pad so the animal can move to a cooler spot if desired.

Make a note of exactly where you found the animal, which will be very important if the animal is able to be released. Keep the container in a dark, warm and quiet place and then find a local wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife veterinarian to care for the animal. If possible, call the facility first, as certain facilities may not accept every type of wild animal (only certain facilities are authorized to accept threatened and endangered species, for instance).

If you're interested in helping injured wildlife in your area, consider donating to wildlife rehabilitation centers in your area. Many post lists of items they need on their websites. If you're considering learning to be a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, this is truly a labor of love. To learn more, watch my interview with Kai Williams, the executive director of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC), below.