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Wildlife officials implore public to resist ‘rescuing’ wild babies

In this photo taken last year, a newborn whitetail fawn curls up motionless where its mother left it between feedings. (Rich Landers)
In this photo taken last year, a newborn whitetail fawn curls up motionless where its mother left it between feedings. (Rich Landers)

Baby snatchers are at it again, state wildlife officials said Tuesday.

Despite annual spring pleas by fish and wildlife agencies throughout the Inland Northwest, the public has a weak spot for picking up fawns and other newborn wildlife they find outdoors.

“Calls are really rolling in,” said Madonna Luers at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional office in Spokane Valley.

People assume the wild babies found alone have been orphaned, said Patricia Thompson, one of the department’s wildlife biologists. “But most of the time they’re actually kidnapping a baby out from under the watchful eye of a nearby but unseen mother,” she said.

After nursing, a fawn naturally lies down, flattens to the ground and stays motionless to avoid detection as the mother wanders away to feed and lure the attention of predators.

A doe may not return to feed the fawn for eight or nine hours, biologists say, especially if there is activity in the area.

Thompson, who coordinates Washington’s licensed wildlife rehabilitator program, said she’s getting a rash of calls – an annual occurrence in June – from well-intentioned but uninformed people.

“Sometimes she can talk people into leaving the fawn where it is or putting the fawn back where they found it so the doe can reunite with her baby again,” said Luers, the agency’s spokeswoman. “But too often she has to enlist the help of a licensed rehabilitator trained in wild animal care.”

“An uninjured fawn really doesn’t need human care,” Thompson said. “It needs its mother.”

In most cases, fawns brought out of the wild are doomed, she said.

“Sometimes I think people just can’t help themselves,” she said. “When a wild baby seems helpless or abandoned, you want to help.”

A very young, un-feathered bird that falls out of the nest and onto the ground presents one of the few situations in which wild babies can benefit from human intervention, Luers said.

“If you can find the nest and safely reach it, pick up the nestling with a gloved hand and put it back in the nest,” Luers said, noting that a chick touched by a human will not be rejected by its parent.

However, young birds commonly leave the nest before they are fully feathered and are fed on the ground by their parents for a day or two until they are able to fly.

“It is common to see very young American robins, spots and all, on the ground waiting to be fed by mom or dad,” she said.

Thompson cited examples of people helping stranded fawns, such as untangling them from fences, and then watching them reunite with their mothers.

Recently, a fawn brought in to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator was returned to the pickup spot within 24 hours. When released by the rehabilitator, the fawn cried out and within minutes a doe appeared, stomping its feet, Thompson said.

The rehabilitator left so the doe and fawn could reunite.