Wild Animals May Be Friendly, but Don't Engage, Experts Say

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fear wasn’t a factor for either the wild buck that approached people on a Lake Michigan beach or those eager to pet it, but experts advise people not to approach wild animals of any kind
  • Authorities from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in Allegan County say that warnings to give wildlife a wide berth aren’t just about protecting people, but the animals
  • Does leave their fawns alone for hours at a time, so if you should find one, not only should you leave it alone, you should leave the area immediately
  • If you find a baby you think might be abandoned, watch it from a safe distance to see if its parent returns, especially if the baby’s parents are potentially dangerous, such as a bear, bobcat or wolf
  • Instances of attacks by bucks in rut are not as uncommon as you might think; injuries and fatalities to humans have taken place in the wild, in suburban areas and in cities

Many people think of animals in the wild with a sort of fascinated awe, especially when they live in regions where wildlife isn’t a common sight. They describe raccoons, deer and opossums as adorable creatures, particularly when the animals are babies, without a lot of thought regarding what the term “wild” represents.

In fact, there are park and forest rangers who say they’re baffled by the number of people who seem unaware that animals in the wild are not tame, and they’re not pets that happen to live in the forest or other unpopulated areas. Animals in the wild are just that — wild — and human interference can have negative consequences, even if the humans think they’re doing the right thing when they approach animals to photograph them, feed them or just get a closer look.

According to wildlife biologist Don Poppe, who works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Allegan County, warnings to give wildlife a wide berth aren’t just about protecting people from potential harm, but the animals; there could be circumstances and consequences that so-called “animal lovers” never considered.

Poppe recounted an incident that happened on a beach in Saugatuck Dunes State Park over the weekend of July Fourth, when a buck sauntered down from an area of large wooded dunes for a drink of water from Lake Michigan.

Seemingly oblivious of the 30-odd beachgoers, some standing mere inches away, the deer stood in the water, lapped it tentatively and at one point got close enough to lick one beachgoer’s knee, hanging around for about 30 minutes before heading back toward the woods.

‘Don’t Feed the Animals’ More Crucial Than You Think

A number of people captured the deer’s activities over several weeks. It’s clear from one taken of a young girl and her older brother carefully petting the deer that it wasn’t intimidated being in such close proximity to humans.

Poppe stated that DNR personnel were aware of the deer’s increasing interaction with people, but that it was preferable for wild deer to remain wild. While most are at least a little skittish even when they’ve become more accustomed to people, he hadn’t seen a deer get quite as comfortable as this one.

While, at least at the time, DNR authorities weren’t aware of people trying to feed the deer, they wanted it known that baiting deer or feeding them is against the law in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula — the mitten-shaped portion of the state.

“We don't want to encourage it or enable it by feeding it or petting it or getting too close to it,”1 he said, because soon, they become habituated, and that can be dangerous. Habituated deer, especially bucks during mating season (aka “rut”) when their testosterone levels rise, have been known to charge, attack and kill humans.

More than one suggested that the deer’s “tame” behavior might mean it had a disease of some kind, but Poppe said it was more likely that it was simply comfortable around humans. But that was the very behavior he said should be avoided. While he and other authorities say they’re keeping their eyes on the situation, Poppe added that you should not engage wild animals, even if they appear friendly and approachable.

What Should You Do if You Find a Wild Animal?

Animal experts will be the first to tell you that finding a wild animal by itself doesn’t mean it needs help. In fact, you may be doing more harm than good. Best Friends Animal Society cautions:

“Every year, many thousands of young wild animals are ‘rescued’ by kind people wanting to help them. Unfortunately, many of these young animals do not need to be rescued. They do not need help and, in fact, moving them means that they are being separated from their mothers.

It is usually a life or death choice whether to rescue or not to rescue a young wild creature. Separating an animal from his mother will certainly lessen his chances for survival.”2

Should you find a baby you think might be abandoned, watch it from a safe distance to see if its parents return. That’s doubly true if the baby’s parents are potentially dangerous, such as a bear, bobcat or wolf. Even seemingly harmless animals, such as a snapping turtle3 or baby hatchling alligator, can cause you serious harm. The University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory4 advises:

“Although baby alligators are docile, they should never be captured, even if the mother is not visible. She may be watching you and decide to take action to protect her baby. Mother alligators will sometime react by hissing, lunging, or swimming toward you but are just signaling you to go away …

Keeping a baby alligator as a pet is a foolish idea not to mention illegal in some states. Although they start out cute and small, they grow into the large predator that you observe outdoors.”

Best Friends Animal Society also warns that if you find a fawn, unless you see a dead doe nearby, it doesn’t need to be rescued. Does leave their fawns alone for hours at a time, and if you should find one, their instinct is to “appear paralyzed,” which convinces people they’re injured when they’re not. Not only should you leave it alone, you should leave the area immediately.5

Interesting Observations About Wild Deer

Although the buck in Saugatuck State Park videoed during the first few weeks of July wasn’t large, 3 or 4 inches of antler growth is clearly visible. Interestingly, a video taken just a few weeks later shows a deer of similar size and demeanor with several more inches of antler growth, approaching a family and sniffing their food bag.

While one might think it must be a different deer that may not be the case. An Outdoor Life article notes that deer antlers can grow a quarter-inch in a day, and in just a few weeks, can grow astonishingly large:

“To put that in perspective, imagine that one spring morning, you woke up and had two bones growing out of your forehead. In about a week, they would be 7 inches long, and two weeks later, you’d be knocking into every door frame you tried to walk through.”6

That’s relevant because instances of attacks by bucks in rut are not as uncommon as you might think. Lifehacker7 recounts a man being gored while picking tomatoes in his garden in California, a pet buck that gored and mauled another man in Alabama and an attack on a woman hanging laundry in North Carolina. Only the woman survived.

Rutting bucks have gored hikers and hunters and even crashed through windows into homes after seeing their own reflections.8,9 There’s also tick-borne diseases related to deer, which the CDC says more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, and Lyme disease was diagnosed in 82% of the cases.10 Poppe’s best advice:

“Keep your distance from the animal and operate as if it is a wild animal, and again, do not enable its comfort level with humans … I know (it) approaches people and it’s hard to do because it’s so cool to see wild animals up close, but the best thing for a wild animal is to be treated like a wild animal.”11

For information about how to handle an injured animal, see Best Friends Animal Society’s Wildlife Animal Rescue Safety Precautions.12 In case you do find a wild animal that’s injured, a listing of licensed wildlife rehabilitators by state can be found at the Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators Association site13 or the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.

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