At this time of year, wild babies are in our backyards, our parks and around our cottages . They are adorable.
But it seems being adorable (and pocket-sized) is problematic for wild babies, making it easy for people to take them home, erroneously thinking a squirrel, bird or snapping turtle would make a good pet or that it would be fun and educational to raise and release them.
Resist this urge.
Wild animals do not make good pets. However docile they may seem as babies, when they reach maturity and are prevented from following their wild instincts, they will be frustrated, bored and possibly aggressive.
Unlike domesticated animals, wild animals simply don't have the constitution for captivity. And remember, we are viewed as predators by many animals, so captivity can be a terrifying experience.
Wild animals are also difficult to properly care for. In two months, six months or even a year or more, Toronto Wildlife Centre’s wildlife hotline will get panicked calls from people worried the wild baby they are trying to raise is sick or not developing properly.
Like us, wild animals have specific nutritional needs that must be met during the critical early development stage. If you raise a baby squirrel on nuts alone, it’s like feeding a child chocolate cake for every meal. They’ll eat it (and you’ll be their favourite person), but they won’t get the nutrition they need for normal development. These deficits can be fatal.
Alternatively, even if the wild baby makes it to adulthood, releasing it also can have serious consequences.
Based on the anecdotal stories we hear from callers on the hotline and from acquaintances at dinner parties, many people have raised and released an animal, believing it will thrive in the wild. This is almost always a death sentence.
Without proper socialization and education from its family or peers, the animal is ill-equipped to survive on its own. It will not know how to identify correct food sources in the wild or how to interact with members of its own species.
And it won’t be scared of people. It will be habituated to humans and no longer instinctively afraid of contact with us.
This healthy fear means wild animals normally go out of their way to avoid people. A habituated wild animal may approach the wrong person: a homeowner not interested in dealing with an overly friendly raccoon or someone who might injure the animal because they are scared of its abnormal behaviour.
Proper nutrition is only one piece of the developmental puzzle.
For example, baby birds imprint (acquire behavioural characteristics from a parental figure) easily on humans and then won’t behave like normal wild birds. They must make a connection with their own species or they won’t learn the correct visual and sound cues to guide them in the wild.
They will be unable to socialize with their own species. An extreme example of this is an imprinted blue jay that was brought to the centre a few years ago. Instead of having a song like a blue jay, he mimicked a cell phone ring – a sound he heard during his developmental stage.
Truly caring about wildlife means you love it from a distance (unless it is sick, injured or orphaned - then you should call a wildlife rehabilitator like Toronto Wildlife Centre).
Julia Coey is a writer and development coordinator at Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC). TWC is a charity, relying on donations to run wildlife community education programs and an emergency wildlife hotline, dedicated wildlife rescue team and veterinary and rehabilitation programs that help about 5,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals a year. Visit www.torontowildlifecentre.com