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Doug Leier: Let nature take its course and leave 'abandoned' wildlife alone

An animal has much better odds of surviving long-term in the wild if left alone versus being taken into captivity.

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It’s not easy to step back from the urge to “help” an animal and let nature take its course.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

WEST FARGO – I’ve connected with many compassionate people in person, on the phone and by email regarding situations with young wildlife, and I understand it’s not easy to step back from the urge to “help” an animal. Most people understand why the answer remains consistent, even if they don’t like it. The best advice has and will be “to let nature take its course.”

In the big picture, that is the best choice.

Questions about possibly injured, orphaned and nuisance wildlife are easily the most common question I respond to.

From seemingly abandoned deer fawns, to birds that fell from a nest, to a mother duck trying to lead her brood across a crowded city parking lot, people care about North Dakota wildlife and want to do what they can to help when these situations arise.

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However, the best thing to do in almost all such cases is to simply leave the young animal alone. While that is not always an easy thing to do, it helps to know that an animal has much better odds of surviving long-term in the wild if left alone versus being taken into captivity.

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That’s not to say that every animal that “appears” alone or abandoned will survive. But then again, not every young animal that looks like it could use some help is actually in need of help.

A common scenario involves young deer. When you find a fawn alone, the adult female is typically not with the fawn for a reason. Fawns are well camouflaged and have the instinct to lie very still to avoid detection.

The doe visits the fawn, or fawns, to feed them, and then moves off to rest by itself to avoid leading predators to her young. However, when people see a fawn with no other deer around, they often assume it is abandoned, and feel they can help it by picking it up and taking it home.

Certainly, there is a chance that the fawn truly is alone and would not likely survive for long if left alone. However, human intervention in a case like that almost certainly means that the animal would never be able to live freely in the wild even if it did survive to adulthood in captivity.

Another situation is when birds leave their nests. When baby birds fledge, they are learning to fly, and they do spend time on the ground. Depending on the species, the mother, father, or both will continue to feed the fledgling on the ground. The adult birds are not always in sight when people are around, and the fledgling appears defenseless.

Leaving young wildlife alone is also the legal course of action. Private individuals cannot take protected animals from the wild under any circumstances without a permit from the Game and Fish Department.

In addition, there is also a human safety element. Animals can and do carry different diseases, have ticks, or can bite or scratch.

Even animals that appear injured have a better chance of survival if left alone. Which goes back to the first point. The best choice is to let nature take its course. Trust me, I know it’s not easy.

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.
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