With summer approaching, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has a message for those hitting the outdoors: leave baby wildlife alone.
It may sound cruel and counter-intuitive, but animal lovers with good intentions could do more harm than good.
Mark Hart, a public information officer with Game and Fish, wants people to know that while baby wildlife may be alone, it's unlikely they've been abandoned. He said this is particularly common with many newborn birds.
"What we typically start to see in the warmer weather months are a species known as Cooper's hawks," Hart said. "We have nestlings on the ground. The reason they're on the ground is not because they've fallen out of the nest, but because they learn to fly from the ground up."
While the parents are never far away, people may see them on the ground and assume they are in distress because of their ungainly appearance, Hart said.
In these situations, don't remove the nestlings from the area. If there is an immediate or potential threat of an animal attacking, pick them up and place them back in their nest or put them in a makeshift nest in a tree. Don't worry about the mother rejecting the baby if there is a human scent on them. That's a myth, Hart says.
Lou Rae Whitehead, senior animal care supervisor at the non-profit Tucson Wildlife Center, said baby birds are often unnecessarily removed from the Green Valley area and taken to the facility.
"They have a period of time when they cannot fly," Whitehead said. "They are learning how to fly and the mother and father are encouraging them to follow along. People see them and they pick them up because they think they're injured. They don't realize mom is still there. We get a lot of that kind."
There are cases where wildlife may be in distress, but experts at the Wildlife Center and Game and Fish want the public to seek advice before acting. This was the case May 17 when a Sierra Vista man correctly called the Wildlife Center about an owlet.
The Wildlife Center took immediate action because the man identified a dead owlet with the live one. That raised a red flag, Executive Director Lisa Bates said.
"It's instinct to ask, 'Should I help them or leave them alone,'" Bates said about finding baby wildlife alone. "We can help them determine that with a phone call."
While separating a healthy baby animal from its parent is bad enough, there are potentially more serious consequences.
Too much exposure to people, or even ignoring wildlife near homes or recreation sites, can cause animals to lose their natural fear of humans. That could result in the animals having to be permanently removed from nature or killed.
At the Wildlife Center, baby bobcats and raccoons are fed in silence and volunteers like Peggy Koch and Linda Merrick wear leopard-print ponchos or ghillie camouflage suits to keep the animals from becoming comfortable around humans.
Game and Fish advises that people should scare away wildlife when they come near homes and recreation sites. One common method is to rattle a soda can with rocks inside. Game and Fish also said people should not feed wildlife or make food and trash easily accessible to them. Access to food in populated areas can attract wildlife and contribute to making animals more comfortable around humans.
Separating healthy baby animals from their parents can also reduce the animal's ability to survive. In some cases, the animal will need to be placed in sanctuaries or killed if they can't be released back into nature. For example, Game and Fish warns that deer and elk taken from nature and hand-fed by humans may lose their fear of people. These deer and elk may then become dangerous and aggressive as they mature, which could result in them being killed rather than returned to the wild.
Another common arrival from Green Valley at the Wildlife Center are baby bunnies.
"People see a baby bunny running around and they automatically think, 'Does it have a mom?'" Whitehead said. "Usually, we tell them if it's bigger than the palm of your hand, if its eyes are open — leave it alone."
There is also a resource factor involved. The Wildlife Center is a non-profit organization that generates funding from donations and uses volunteers for much of the work. Unnecessarily removing wildlife from nature can use resources that could go toward rehabilitating injured animals. Tucson Wildlife Center takes in about 3,000 animals a year. As of mid-May, they had taken in 1,352, and have 320 on-site in their care. The Wildlife Center's expenses run about $1,100 a day or $400,000 annually.
Make the call
This is the time of the year when new-born wildlife begin making their way out into nature and sometimes into populated areas. With the increase in baby wildlife, experts want the public to know the best thing they can do when they see an animal they are concerned about is to leave it alone and call Game and Fish or a wildlife rehabilitation center for advice.
"It's a far better thing for people if they see an animal in distress, whether they think it's abandoned or in some kind of trouble or they think it's sick — call a professional," Hart said. "Call the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Call one of the many certified wildlife rehabbers in the southeastern Arizona area. Let them evaluate it. Don't take action on your own because while your intentions may be good the outcome may be bad."