HARRISBURG – Whether hiking in the woods, driving through the countryside or simply enjoying nature, outdoor enthusiasts encountering wildlife, especially young wildlife, are encouraged to leave the animals alone and not remove them from the wild.
“Being outdoors in the spring is an enjoyable way to spend time and learn more about nature,” said Calvin W. DuBrock, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management director. “In the coming months, it will become common to find young deer, rabbits, birds, raccoons or other wildlife that may appear to be abandoned. Rest assured that in most cases, the young animal probably was not abandoned and the best thing to do is not disturb it.”
DuBrock noted many adult animals tend to forage for food and bring it to their young. Also, wildlife often relies on a natural defensive tactic called the “hider strategy,” where young animals will remain motionless and “hide” in surrounding cover while adults draw the attention of predators or other intruders away from their young.
“While it may appear as if the adults are abandoning their young, in reality, this is just the animal using its natural instincts to protect its young,” DuBrock said. “Nature also protects young animals with camouflaging color and by giving them little scent to avoid being detected by predators.
“Wild animals are not meant to be pets, and we must all resist our well-meaning and well-intentioned urge to want to care for wildlife. Taking wildlife from its natural settings and into your home may expose or transmit to people or domestic animals wildlife diseases. Wildlife also may carry parasites – such as fleas, ticks or lice – that you wouldn’t want infesting you, your family, your home or your pets.”
To emphasize his point, DuBrock noted that in 2003, a Crawford County woman picked up two young raccoons along Canal Road between Hartstown and Conneaut Lake, and took them home with her. They had been found along the road where a female raccoon had apparently been killed by a car. One of the young raccoons appeared sick, so the woman contacted the Game Commission and a Wildlife Conservation Officer went to her home. A few days later, the animal tested positive for rabies, and the woman had to begin the post-exposure shot regimen.
“This is just one example of what we hear every year; people having to subject themselves to treatment for possible exposure to rabies,” DuBrock said. “In nearly all cases, people’s well-meaning and well-intentioned actions still require that the animal be put down in the interest of protecting public health.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, there were 505 reported rabies cases in 2006, an increase from the 406 reported cases in 2005. The highest number of reported rabies cases was 611, which was recorded in 1990.
Protecting public health from exposure to disease is only one of the concerns, noted Rich Palmer, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Protection acting director.
“Protecting public safety also is an important matter for the Game Commission to consider when faced with situations in which people have removed wildlife from the wild,” Palmer said. “Habituation to humans is a serious concern, as wildlife that loses its natural fear of humans can pose a public safety risk.”
To emphasize his point, Palmer noted that, last November, a 1.5-year-old, six-point antlered deer attacked and severely injured a Clinton County couple.
“Our investigation discovered evidence and testimony that a family who lived near the victims had illegally harbored and fed the deer as a fawn, and had continued to do so up until the time that it attacked the victims,” Palmer said.
“This particular incident was the subject of numerous news stories around the state, as well as the focus of two news releases issued by the Game Commission, in our attempt to warn people of the possible dangers associated with feeding wildlife.”
In addition, Palmer noted that it is illegal to take or possess wildlife from the wild. Under state law, the penalty for such a violation is a fine of up to $1,500 per animal. The couple who fed the deer in the Clinton County case were found guilty by a district justice and ordered to pay a fine of $300 plus court costs.
“Under no circumstances will anyone who illegally takes wildlife into captivity be allowed to keep that animal,” Palmer said. “While residents love to view wildlife and are very compassionate, they must enjoy wildlife from a distance and allow nature to run its course.”
Palmer also pointed out that, under a working agreement with state health officials, any “high risk” rabies vector species confiscated must be euthanized and tested rather than relocated. Though any mammal may carry rabies, species identified in the agreement are: skunks, raccoons, foxes, bats, coyotes and groundhogs.
“Except for some species of bats, populations of all other rabies vector species are thriving,” Palmer said. “Therefore, to protect public health and safety, it only makes sense to put an animal down for testing, rather than risk relocating a potentially rabid animal.”
DuBrock said it always is wise to avoid wild animals and even strange domestic pets because of the potential rabies risk.
“Animals infected with rabies may not show obvious symptoms, but still may be able to transmit the disease,” DuBrock.
People can get rabies from the saliva of a rabid animal if they are bitten or scratched, or if the saliva gets into the person’s eyes, mouth or a fresh wound. The last human rabies fatality in Pennsylvania was a 12-year-old Lycoming County boy who died in 1984.