Keep the Wild in Wildlife

By Nancy Warren
From National Wolfwatcher Coalition

Leave wild animals in the wild. I am fortunate to live in Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula (USA) on 280 acres bordering the Ottawa National Forest. My property is rich with wildlife and I am thrilled whenever I find wolf or coyote tracks and I still get chills when I hear them howl. I also share my land with black bears, bobcat, white tailed deer, beaver and an assortment of other wild critters. Although I often find their sign, I rarely see them except when captured on one of several trail cameras scattered across the property.

I follow basic “common-sense” rules to minimize conflicts with wildlife.

Never approach any wild animal or allow it to get close to you. Even a cute, furry squirrel can inflict a painful bite leading to a trip to the emergency room for a rabies shot.

View wildlife from a distance. If an animal, especially a large carnivore such as a wolf or bear, begins to approach, make noise, flail your arms. Make yourself look bigger, stomp your feet. Pick up a rock or stick and throw it at the animal. Stand your ground, running can trigger their instinct to chase. Don’t let any wild animal become comfortable in your presence.

Do not feed wildlife directly or indirectly. Wild animals have a natural fear of humans but will easily become habituated by food. A backyard feeder full of sunflower seeds can be too much of a temptation for a hungry black bear. The primary prey of wolves is deer and deer being fed by homeowners will attract wolves. Nearly all complaints of wolves in residential areas are a direct result of deer feeding.

What is so wrong with feeding wildlife, just “this one time”? The answer is plenty. There are far too many scenarios to discuss so I will just illustrate one. Imagine camping in the Northwoods. After a day of hiking trails where you found wolf, coyote and bear scat, you fall asleep listening to the night sounds. Breaking down your tent in the morning and packing up, you realize you have some water-logged meat in your cooler that will likely spoil before you get home, so you decide to dump it in the woods. A wolf (or coyote or bear) finds it and gobbles it down. Another camper finds your perfect spot and leaves behind just a few uneaten hot dogs. Over the course of a few weeks, the site has been visited by a number of different campers who think discarding food, just one time, could not possibly do any harm. But, in reality, the area wildlife has become habituated to the sights, sounds and smells of humans and now associate humans with food.

Unattended pets can become easy prey for large carnivores such as wolves and bears. A pet can be sprayed by a skunk or injured by a porcupine. Smaller pets can (and have been) swooped up by eagles. Walk pets on a leash and feed indoors; Leave no food outdoors (even a suet feeder can attract wolves and coyotes); Dispose of all food and garbage in cans with secure lids; Turn on outside lights and scan the area before taking a pet out at night.

If pets must be unattended in the yard, they should be kept in a kennel with a secure top.

Habituation is different than socialization. Habituated adult animals are rarely brought into captivity. Most often they are killed because of the risk they may pose to human or pet safety.

Socialization is a process of training animals to depend upon and trust humans so that they can be kept in captivity. Socialization is best begun when the animal is very young. Attempting to socialize an animal later in life can be more stressful and risky for the animal and human involved.

Young animals can become orphaned if the mother is killed during a forest fire, logging operation, accident or through hunting. Whenever possible wildlife rehabilitators minimally handle animals to avoid imprinting, choosing instead a surrogate animal to nurse and teach the youngsters. It is always their goal to release the displaced animals back in the wild. However, if for some reason, the animal cannot be released, the animals will be sent to a zoo or a wildlife facility where the socialization process will continue.

If you encounter a young animal never assume it is orphaned and resist the urge to “help”. Very often baby animals die if removed from their natural environment, and some have diseases or parasites that can be passed on to humans or pets. Many species of wildlife “cache” (hide) their young for safety. These babies are not abandoned; they simply have been hidden by their mother until she returns for them. Contact a licensed rehabilitator if it is obvious the parent is dead or the animal is injured.

Zoos and nature preserves provide valuable educational opportunities for the public to learn and observe animals they may never otherwise see. However, as advocates, we want what is best for wildlife and that includes the ability for each animal to live its life in the wild and fulfilling its ecological niche as nature intended. Keeping wildlife wild will accomplish this goal.