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How to know when an animal is orphaned and when to help

Other posts by  |  Kevin OHara on Google+ |  April 8, 2014 | 0 Comments
Kevin O'Hara

Kevin O’Hara

Some would say the seasons are all to pot but I would point out that in my dairies, dating back many moons, things change year on year, all the time; some seasons are late, some are wet, and some are cold. This year so far it has been quite mild, little if any snow fall over the winter and the most severe frost we’ve had occurred around mid-March. This time last year I still hadn’t heard a chiff chaff or seen a sand martin, our earliest migrants. This year like clockwork I heard and saw them both in one weekend in late March both at the normal arrival times, give or take a couple of days that are recorded in my first diaries way back in the ….ties!

Call me a sceptic but I am still on the undecided side of the fence. I’ll touch briefly on the floods of the winter and their location. This is an area that floods every year, we know where im talking about, this year it rained a bit more, so more areas flooded. Up until a few years ago most was grassland and most were being paid for being wet, then maize and potatoes came and they wanted it dry for more money. Dredging river would not have made a difference neither will it improve it in the future. Recognising that you live below sea level and dealing with it responsibly and sustainably will; knee jerking political statements and actions will essentially make most of my working life a waste of time.

A baby mink is mistaken for an orphan

A baby mink is mistaken for an orphan

Anyway enough of that nonsense, as sure as the first chiff chaff sings and the blackthorn blossom arrives the annual wildlife rehabilitation effort starts. No matter how many times you tell people through as many ways as possible somebody will always think they are doing the right thing when they come across an (in giant inverted commas) ‘orphaned wild animal’. The clue is in the title ‘wild’, in nature these things happen, its not for us, ‘human animals’ to play ‘god’ an interfere, except in ‘extreme’ circumstances and even then we should think long and hard of the future repercussions of interfering with nature.

Facts – 99% of ‘orphans’ are not ‘orphans’, they may have been abandoned, but if this is the case, it is usually for a reason that our untrained noses are unable to detect, they have been left for a reason, they are infirm or diseased or something similar. Most are simply left for an undetermined period of time by their parents who are either off getting some peace and quiet or feeding. Once left most young wild creature will call pitifully for their parents this is NOT an excuse to believe they are in dire need of help. It is actually a call to YOU to get the hell out of there and let nature take its course, as in the very useful ‘leave me (baby birds) alone’ posters that used to adorn many public places.

An orphaned otter is taken care of

An orphaned otter is taken care of

The advent of TV shows showing the how brilliant it is to save wildlife etc. have a lot to answer for with this affliction as the truth is often harder to swallow and except. Every year I get calls from people or organisations that have ‘come across’ wild creatures that need a new home or saving. Well if they had been left alone they perhaps might not have needed a new home! This is the difficult bit that is just not thought about enough, it is simply not as easy as just opening the cage doors and letting them out.

I once had someone give me a north American mink as tame as a ferret they had ‘rescued’, mistakenly thinking it was an otter they raised it and they wanted it put back in the wild?? Unbelievable! but true and I could tell you more horror stories of ‘helping’ wildlife, needless to say the mink in otters clothing didn’t go back into the wild.

There will always be the happy success stories of ‘bambi’ being put back into the wild but believe me they are few and far between. So when I saw the number on my phone I knew exactly what was coming, Hi Kevin, I have an otter for you is there anywhere we can release it?

Well to many people that would be a simple enough request and one that should be quite exciting, which indeed it is sometimes, if it works but it hides the complexities people fail to realise when the first pick up that cute adorable helpless bundle desperately seeking human help…NOT.

I won’t go into the history of this beast but I knew it was coming, as the establishment involved with the early part of the story has a history of overreacting and prematurely interfering, despite knowing full well what protocol to follow. What is even more annoying are certain veterinary practices encouraging it further when they really should know better.

So what is wrong, well for a start, and otters are not alone at this stage, have a very long adolescence. The female will often leave them alone often in the early stages whilst she forages for food sometimes for many hours, at this point small cubs may wander from natal dens in search of company thus on finding this helpless squeaking creature you may at first think it needs assistance the reality is, its the last thing it needs or wants, to be picked up and rushed off to some animal hospital.

Look at it, say arrgghh as many times as you like, take a photo of it but just walk away and leave it at very last resort move it somewhere safer nearby so it wont get stood on, found by dogs (more like other people) or run over; but do not take it away to be ‘helped’ and that goes for any other wild creature you may come across especially with the breeding season upon us and also including injured animals. We cannot ever understand or comprehend the stress a wild animal goes into whether it is injured or not when handled by human helpers. It is this stress that so often kills the animal, not the injuries the stress of not being free.

With otters specifically, once in captivity the problems really start, they usually need a very long rehabilitation without any real human contact (this rarely happens they become humanised) so they don’t become familiarised. They also need other otters of a similar age to grow up with, this again is very difficult to achieve and they will never understand what is good and bad for them as all they ever get is good, food on a plate quite literally. The result being that many so called ‘rescued’ otters rarely survive adequately in captivity, many dying young and misunderstood. If they survive then you have to think where is the otter going to be released, a location close to where it originally came from and one ideally with no other otters. In Northumberland or most places in the country these days it is impossible.

Then you are faced with the ethical issue of releasing a highly humanly socialised animal back into the wild where none of the locals (otters that is) want it. I have released many otters now back into the wild, most are like pussy cats when they arrive, many have been killed on the roads within weeks of release and suffer many fight injuries from the locals. So is it right to put a wild animal through this and more for the sake of, ‘it makes some people feel better that they have contributed to wildlife conservation’, the fact is, in most cases they haven’t, they have made matters worse just because they didn’t walk away in the first instance.

Anyway now I have got that off my chest, (no doubt, I’ll be repeating myself in future just as I am now) now the thunder and lightning has eased and the hail stones have stopped bouncing off the roof. April is a very exciting time for all, the first wild flowers really start to bloom in abundance on the woodland floor and the dawn chorus starts to pick up with all the migrants returning. Look out for the kittiwakes on the Tyne bridge too, always a spectacular sight but more unusually if you’re in the hills on a warm day listen for a ring ouzel or watch for basking reptiles, especially adders there such awesome critters, but be aware they do bite if stood on, always carry some piriton. Im off to throw fish at an otter now so see you all next time and leave them little things alone let nature be the judge, juror and if needs be the executioner.

Kevin O’Hara is a Conservation Officer with Northumberland Wildlife Trust

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Category: Northumbria Wildlife

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