Saving our wildlife from human harm

Screech owl

Call it the Circle of Life or Survival of the Fittest – wild animals in the wilderness die of starvation, diseases and predators. This is a natural part of life and most wildlife rehabilitators take a hands-off approach and let nature take its course. For instance, at Ano Nuevo I saw baby elephant seals lying on the beach in extreme distress. The ranger explained marine mammal organizations don’t rescue these animals, as heartbreaking as the situation is. Instead, their mission is to rescue those creatures harmed due to human causes, such as caught in fishing nets and choked by plastic six-pack rings.
About 90 percent of the animals brought to wildlife rehabilitators are injured, sick or orphaned due to human-caused circumstances, whether intentional or inadvertent. Oil spills, habitat loss and forest fires caused by campfires are responsible for devastating harm to wildlife, requiring the intervention of specialized rescuers. However, with just a little caution and foresight, people can do much to prevent accidental deaths and injuries to local wildlife. It can be as simple as putting decals on your windows to prevent birds from flying into them. By increasing public awareness, wildlife rehabilitators hope to encourage people to alter habits and thought processes, thereby reducing the need for rehabilitation.
Driving alertly and within the speed limits, especially at night, can save the lives of the deer, opossums, raccoons and skunks that are too often roadkill. Car collision injuries are the most common seen by wildlife rehabilitators, including a red-tailed hawk just admitted to WERC that was side-swiped and suffered a concussion.
Glue traps and poisons are indiscriminate killers and often end up being responsible for the death of wild birds, mammals and reptiles that die from struggling to free themselves or from starvation when they can’t.
A screech owl, pictured, got stuck in glue while hunting a trapped mouse. The skin ripped off its foot and the wounds became gangrenous. Sadly, it was necessary to euthanize the bird.
Anti-coagulant rodent poisons don’t kill the rodents immediately. They eat the bait, run out into the fields, and entice predators such as owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and even neighborhood cats and dogs. These animals then digest the poison too. Tragically, that’s not the end of it – carrion-eating scavengers such as opossums and turkey vultures may eat the dead animals and die themselves from third-hand poisoning. There is even fourth-hand poisoning such as the litter of baby opossums that died after they nursed from their poisoned mother. It’s ironic that those predators affected by secondary poisoning can do so much to control the rodent problem. A more humane (to wildlife) method of rodent control is the old-fashioned snap trap.
While outdoor cats may control the rodent population in barns and fields, they do much more damage to the bird population. Free-roaming pets kill millions of wild animals every day. A cat’s saliva can contain toxins and even a scratch can be deadly to the animal. Cat bites are the second most common reason for admission to WERC, including a mourning dove currently in rehabilitation with a neck wound and missing feathers.
Every spring, wildlife rehabilitators across the nation receive countless orphaned and injured baby birds and squirrels because they’ve lost their nests due to yard maintenance. Even trimming trees around the nests can be damaging because the nest’s covering may be lost, exposing the babies to predators and hot sun, wind and rain. It’s against state and federal laws to remove, destroy or disturb most nesting birds and squirrels, and their nests, eggs and young. And remember to check the grass before you begin mowing, rototilling or weed-whacking – animals such as rabbits and some birds nest and hide their young in the tall weeds.
The saddest of all cases in wildlife rehabilitation are those animals that are deliberately killed or maimed. That was the case of a crow I found struggling on my driveway recently. A BB had pierced a hole through its wing, fracturing the bone and causing the wound to become infected. The bird was euthanized. WERC has seen its share of animals that were gunned down: A mother bobcat dead from a gunshot wound, and next to her were two kittens, one dead of starvation; a turkey vulture shot out of a tree on Christmas eve; a great horned owl whose wing was riddled with buckshot causing permanent damage; a red-tailed hawk nicknamed Hope with at least six pellets in her wings, neck and beak; and a mother opossum carrying babies. The surviving bobcat was rescued just in time and was released after seven months; the vulture’s wound was much worse than first suspected and he was euthanized; the hawk required long-term care but was eventually released; the owl could never be released and became an educational animal at Happy Hollow Zoo; and although the mother opossum died, her joeys survived.
A WERC staff member once stopped several teens shooting birds out of trees at a local school because their cat was “too lazy to hunt.” It’s critical for parents to supervise and teach children responsibility and correct usage of pellet and BB guns, whether used for target shooting or for legal hunting.
Better to “shoot” with a camera. Your photo of a deer or egret will last longer than a memory. Let the wild critters live long and prosper.
The Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center rehabilitates native wildlife. It is supported solely by donations from businesses and the public. To contact WERC, call (408) 779-9372 or visit www.werc-ca.org.

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