Wild at Heart, Why It’s Best to Let Wild Animals Take Care of Themselves
Forest Park is a great place for everyone —except animals who don’t naturally claim it as home.
“Forest Park is a complex, structured ecosystem,” says Forest Park Forever’s Park Ecologist Amy Witt. “It already has a lot of human pressures on it, and when we affect that balance there will be consequences.”
Every year, Witt sees those consequences in the Park. Sick animals. Dead poi or goldfish in the Park’s water ways. Animals that attack humans looking for food. Even distressed plant populations.
“Anytime you introduce an outside animal to the Park, you don’t introduce just the animal itself but also its past — how it was raised, the diseases it carries, its experiences with humans — and competition for food and space,” Witt says.
People release animals in parks for various reasons. Maybe they received an “exotic” animal like a turtle, raccoon or rabbit as a pet and they’re not sure how to care for it. Or maybe they’ve found a wild animal that appears to be abandoned and want to rescue it, or have an unwanted wild animal on their property.
Regardless, dropping an animal in the Park is never a good idea — and it’s against St. Louis City code.
“It is unlawful for any person to turn any animal loose in any street of public place within the City limits,” the code states.
“Animals may carry diseases that can be harmful to wildlife,” says Missouri Department of Natural Resources Conservation Agent Denise Hunsaker. “Even bobwhite quail purchased from a licensed breeder may not be released.”
Animals raised with humans present other problems, Witt explains.
“If you have an animal that you have been providing for, it is used to that provision,” says Witt. “As a result, they will pursue getting food from humans — either in a nice way or in an aggressive way.”
Recently, a large, domesticated goose released in Forest Park became a problem when it began aggressively seeking food from Park goers.
“One experience of being attacked by a goose in the Park can drive someone away,” Witt notes. “That is the exact opposite of what we want people to experience in Forest Park.”
And while it may seem hard to believe in a park as large as Forest Park, even for a small animal, it’s not that much space.
“The animals living in the Park have very limited ranges,” says Witt. “Competition for space and food is high, and introducing new animals makes it harder for all of them, for Forest Park Forever staff and for everyone who enjoys the Park.”
However, as Kim Rutledge, executive director of the Wildlife Rescue Center in Ballwin, says, it can be hard for people to know what to do when they find an animal that seems to be distressed or abandoned. They may want to help by returning it to a “natural” environment, like Forest Park.
“Our instinct as humans is to help and do something,” she says, “but intervention is not necessarily in the best interests of the animal.”
In addition to having the same disease and parasite problems that plague pets, animals that seem lost are usually just fine.
“Just because you find an animal alone doesn’t mean it’s an orphan. Wild mothers don’t usually abandon their young,” Rutledge explains.
Hunsaker agrees, adding that even injured animals would be better off left alone.
“We suffer more watching injured wildlife than the wildlife itself suffers,” Hunsaker says. “I once saw a doe that had had two broken legs. She hobbled a bit, but she had fawns, and she took care of them.”
And just as dropping wildlife is generally against the Wildlife Code of Missouri, so is taking wildlife. Your best bet is to call an expert, like someone at the Wildlife Rescue Center or Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, to make an assessment.
What if you are trying to get an unwanted animal off your property? In that case, taking it someplace else is unlikely to solve the problem, anyway.
“Relocation is not as humane as people think,” Rutlege says. “Animals will try to get back to their home territory, and they have amazing homing instincts. Plus, in a new environment, they may not know where to find food or water, and they may not be aware of dangers like traffic.”
In fact, when Rutlege and her 10 staff members and 120 volunteers rehabilitate young injured animals at the Wildlife Rescue Center, a big part of their job is mimicking the animals’ natural habitats, teaching them to fend for themselves and encouraging them to be leery of humans.
In the center’s squirrel rehabilitation area, climbing branches are hung on wires so they will move as they do in the wild. Lawn-mower-injured turtles hang out with other lawn-mower-injured turtles. And foxes and coyotes are raised by one person as much as possible to limit human exposure.
“When we get a new fox, I’ll ask, ‘How’s it doing?’” Rutlege says. “If the answer is, ‘He hates us!’ that’s great. We want a young fox to maintain its aversion to people and be here just long enough to learn it is a fox.”
So if you have a pet you’re not happy with, an unwanted animal on your property or find an animal in the wild, contact an expert for a solution.
“The main thing is to be responsible and to do the right thing for the animal,” says Rutlege. “It’s great to show enthusiasm for nature, but don’t forget that the ‘wild’ world is not just all around us — we are part of that world, too.”