Written By Katie Vincent

Most people who spend time in nature will at some point see an animal that appears to be abandoned, suffering, or otherwise in distress. Animal lovers will often feel the impulse to help the animal somehow. But when is helping an animal actually helping, and when does it do more harm than good? The answer isn't always easy.

Recently in Yellowstone National Park, well-meaning tourists found a bison calf that appeared to be abandoned and in distress. Fearing for the calf’s welfare, the tourists put the calf in their car and drove it to a ranger station for assistance. Rangers attempted to reintroduce the calf to its herd, but the attempt was unsuccessful and the calf had to be euthanized. Without knowing if the calf truly was abandoned, it is difficult to say whether it had any chance at survival before being handled by humans, but the car trip and time away from its mother may have sealed its fate. (Read more about the story here.)

When is helping an animal actually helping, and when does it do more harm than good? The answer isn’t always easy.

Baby animals that appear to be abandoned often pull at heartstrings the hardest. When I attended an exotic animal training college program, two of the animals I was assigned to train were a mule deer and a coyote, both animals that had been “rescued” as babies by individuals who believed that the animals were abandoned, but it was more likely that they were just alone for a few hours. I was very grateful for my time with these animals, but they never should have been removed from their homes. While baby mammals are often incorrectly perceived as abandoned, baby birds are much more frequently assumed to have fallen out of their nests and been abandoned when they are actually still fledglings that are still being cared for by their parents.

Sometimes human actions have directly caused distress to animals, such as instances where animals are shot, poisoned, trapped in fencing, or attacked by dogs. These are obvious situations to get animals help. If humans caused it, humans should fix it. Sometimes the animals in distress are domestic animals that have escaped or been dumped.

Blueprint Earth founders Jess and Carlos Peláez have rescued Gregory, a king pigeon.

Blueprint Earth founders Jess and Carlos Peláez have rescued Gregory, a king pigeon.

Blueprint Earth founders Jess and Carlos Peláez rescued their second king pigeon from their backyard. They found their first pigeon, Alonzo, in the talons of a hawk, which Carlos successfully frightened away before bringing the pigeon to a vet. They now have Gregory, who was sitting on a neighbor’s lawn. As white, fat meat pigeons, they were both very visible to predators and ill-equipped to flee from them. Gregory and Alonzo are undeniably lucky; not only were they saved by Jess and Carlos, but they are now their pets. These are domestic animals, not wild, so there was not much hope for them outside of being found and cared for by humans.

If you ever see an animal whose welfare you are concerned about, it’s usually best to call an expert, such as an animal control officer, a park ranger, or a local wildlife rehabber before you make any attempts to touch, interact with, or help the animal. This is the safest option for both you and the animal. An expert can determine whether intervention is necessary or advisable.

Attempts to help wild animals can be disastrous if the animal has a fighting spirit, a disease, or an angry mother nearby. Some important rules to keep in mind when you see wildlife are to keep children and pets away from them, never to give food or water to an animal unless instructed to by a professional, and to never keep a wild animal as a pet. Doing so is frequently illegal and possibly detrimental to the animal in question.

The desire to help animals in trouble is a reflection of our caring, compassionate nature, but always take a step back and think before you react in order to ensure the best possible outcome for yourself and for the animals you care about.

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