To Save or Not, Here’s the Question With Distressed Animals

Maybe it’s a baby rubella that falls out of a nest in the backyard, or maybe twin deer have left orphans after their mother is hit by a car or eaten by wolves, or maybe a bald eagle, behaving strangely, swaying on the ground and incompetent. to fly.

When wild animals seem to be in trouble, do humans have to intervene to save them or is it better to retreat and let nature go its way?

This existential issue is being discussed again after a recent incident in Yellowstone National Park with a bison that raised eyebrows and attracted international media attention.

Earlier in May, a Canadian tourist grabbed a wild bison calf with his bare hands and loaded it into his SUV. The man, Shamash Kassam, said he found the animal alone and trembling along the road in the rich Lamar valley of Yellowstone. After he handed it over to rangers, park biologists made several attempts to reunite the young with its herd, but when the calf was rejected, they euthanized it.

Kassam was fined $ 110 for violating park regulations that strictly prohibit contact with wildlife, and is expected to go to court in June. Meanwhile, the event sparked emotional exchanges on social media, from condemnation to the tourist to claims that Yellowstone officials responded heartlessly.

Did the bison have to be sent to a rehabilitation facility or returned to its natural environment, where it faced a high probability of falling predator or dying of starvation?

Yellowstone, which has the most abundant and diverse set of large wild mammals in the Lower 48, has struggled with the dilemma for decades as part of its “natural regulation” policy. The approach is designed to maintain minimal human interference and it is a philosophy generally supported by most state and federal nature agencies across the country.

“The general rule is that if human activity causes injury or an orphan to an animal, we may intervene. If not – if something happened naturally – then we won’t do it,” says ecologist Doug Smith, who oversees the wolf and bird management of Yellowstone.

“Of course, as with everything, there can be exceptions and mitigating circumstances. Intervention requires justification, “adds Smith. (Read more about problems in Yellowstone.)

The Circle of Life

According to Jeff Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington, species considered common are less likely to run for intervention. Further complicating the case, Kassam appears to allegedly violate the code of federal regulations governing animals in national parks and forests, which prohibits “the eating, touching, teasing, intimidating or intentional disturbance of animal nesting, breeding, or other activities.”

Marc Bekoff, a retired professor at the University of Colorado Rock and a person at the forefront of what is called “compassionate conservation,” was both an animal researcher and a leading voice on animal rights. Bekoff adheres to Smith’s nuanced view.

If natural animal officials tried to save every animal in danger, it would be chaos, Bekoff says, and it would disrupt the function of natural ecosystems. Predators exist only by preying on other species – often the weak and vulnerable – and a large flock of scavengers also eat carrion.

“Animals need to be free to be what they are,” Bekoff says. “Death gives birth to life in nature. I’m sorry if you were born prey, but that’s the way it is.”

The tourist in Yellowstone claimed that the bison calves had been abandoned and would become roadside death. But for the inexperienced eye, aspects can be deceiving. In New Hampshire, the state Department of Fish and Game offers this warning to aspiring benefactors: “Seeing a deer (or elk calf) alone does not mean it has been abandoned. It is normal for a deer to leave its deer alone for a few hours at a time. , while she eats. She may not return until evening to nurse her deer. This actually helps keep the deer safe from predators. “(Read about the hardships of the New Hampshire elk.)

Different states have different protocols on whether to try drug therapy for injured animals or move immediately to euthanize.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has an official motto for treating sick, injured or orphaned animals: “If you care, leave it there. “The department offers this perspective on its official website, which details how to treat different natural species, especially young animals, that can make people believe they are abandoned or could be helped with veterinary medicine:“ The circle of life can be difficult observable at times, but no animal discards. Many species of animals depend on sick or injured animals to feed themselves and their young. “

If the person refuses to follow that guideline, the state advises contacting a local authorized rehabilitation center. It is strictly forbidden for a private citizen in Minnesota to rehabilitate a wounded wild animal by himself.

The Saviors

One such approved facility is the Montana Raptor Conservation Center in Bozeman, the largest in its state, with a service area spanning hundreds of miles.

“We treat each case individually,” says Becky Kean, director of the facility. “Our success, depending on the year, is between 35 and 40 percent.”

Once sick or injured birds are brought in, they are given an honest assessment, measuring the likely chances of recovery. Many rehabilitation centers consult veterinarians, but few can perform complicated surgeries, such as repairing broken wings.

For young birds lacking flying and survival skills taught by their parents, difficult calls must be made.

“If it’s possible to get them back to the nest at all, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Kean says. “Sometimes we’ll even make an artificial nest to keep them out of harm’s way.”

Not infrequently raptors in Yellowstone, when chasing winged or mammalian prey near roadside, get so caught up in their targets that they inadvertently hit passing cars during their rapid descents.

Last week a migratory hawk struck a vehicle and broke its wing. The bird, as it was injured by a human cause, was brought to Kean’s facility. Another patient was a white-headed sea eagle from eastern Montana, which suffered a gunshot wound to the wrist and earlier another white-headed sea eagle received treatment for lead poisoning, caused by eating game birds stuffed with lead from shotgun shells.

In 2015, the conservation center cared for a record 234 birds of prey and over the years has treated nearly 3,300. Here are thousands of birds of prey returned to the wild, not only fulfilling their ecological function, but breeding to produce new generations. Without rehabilitation, a huge percentage would not survive.

It is not always clear. Back in the 1990s, a strong storm blew bald eagles out of their nest in Yellowstone. Park officials said that because it was a natural event, they stayed on the ground to deal with any fate.

On the other hand, Yellowstone netted a wolf along the way, which was bloody and wounded. Smith said it looks as hit by a vehicle as possible. The wolf died shortly after being brought for veterinary care but an autopsy revealed that its wounds came from a battle with other wolves.

Every year animals in Yellowstone break through thin ice at rivers and lakes. In streams roaring with melting snow, young bison and moose, unable to navigate the stream, are carried away. Some reach the coast and others do not. It is somewhat speculated that the bison calves brought to Yellowstone guards were shocked and separated from its herd by a terrible river crossing.

Public Pressure

Smith remembers the day a bison calf fell into Blacktail Pond. Human spectators begged a seasonal guard to intervene as it slowly drowned. The guard rescued the animal even though it was against park protocol.

“There was a lot of discussion after the fact,” Smith says. “The consensus was that the guard did the right thing. Standing there doing nothing would damage our credibility. No one is perfect. There are inconsistencies.”

Bekoff remembers watching a documentary about Yellowstone wolves made by filmmaker Robert Landis. A woman sitting in front of him expressed outrage that one of the scenes depicts a bison trapped in ice and slowly dying of hypothermia before it was celebrated by lobes.

Landis saw several bison die that way and intervention was never a consideration.

“For me, if you’re making a film about wolves, getting a good prey sequence is a requirement, because it’s an essential part of the life cycle you’re trying to convey,” he says.

Landis’ film “Wolf Pack” won an Emmy for best science fiction film. He has a two-hour film appearing on the Hayden and Canyon packages, which he has been following for 10 years. The alpha pair of the Hayden Pack were killed by members of the Mollie Pack.

“Everyone wants a happy story, but if you’re a predator, another animal has to lose its life for you to live,” Landis says. “In nature there are no easy deaths, not for predators or for prey.”

Sometimes working on the system and bending hard and fast rules is necessary to perpetuate a species. Smith calls on Yellowstone’s trumpeter swan population, which has declined from 17 breeding pairs to just two. At remote Grebe Lake, where climate change has caused more flooding of nesting sites and increasing numbers of migrants and fishermen have caused a stir, Yellowstone has installed an artificial nesting platform and it has yielded the first successful swan harvest since 1952.

“Climate change negatively affects many species and changes the rules of the game everywhere,” Smith says. “Is it a natural or human cause?” If you conclude that it is the latter, you could argue for intervention with almost everything. With trumpet swans, I don’t want to see the park population go down the drain with my watch. “

Of course, one of the most contentious episodes in Yellowstone’s history occurred last summer when a grizzly bear with two cubs injured and partially consumed a migrant near the west shore of Yellowstone Lake. The mother bear was captured and ordered destroyed by park inspector Dan Wenk due to concerns that the gray man might attack again.

What to do with the surviving orphaned chicks generated hundreds of thousands of comments, including a petition that called on Wenk to send the mills to a rehabilitation center and then relaunch them in a natural environment. Wenk rejected that option and also chose not to euthanize them. Instead he sent them to the Toledo Zoo in Ohio.

Bekoff argued that the mother bear should not be fatally removed. He also believed that the chicks should – for their own dignity – be left in Yellowstone to try to do it on their own instead of spending the rest of their lives in a zoo. He doesn’t like zoos, he says, because they don’t allow predators to take off prey because the public has no appetite for it.

“This can be a difficult thing,” Wenk told me last year. “Not only do you make decisions about the life or death of animals, but with social media sometimes the whole world is watching. No matter what you do, people will say you were wrong. “

Todd Wilkinson, who has covered nature for 30 years, is the author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek. Follow him on Twitter.