Let Nature Lie

Denise Flint
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Is that whale entangled in a net, or engaged by the boat?

Is that whale entangled in a net, or engaged by the boat? Pet and wildlife experts say unless animals are in obvious peril, leave them alone.

For several days, a strange cat lurks under a bush in the garden, looking wary and refusing to be tempted out. A bird, one wing dragging, cries raucously as it flutters across your path. A lone whale swims into a harbour, moving from boat to boat and looking up at the people on the dock who have gathered to watch it.
Is the cat lost, or has it simply moved into your neighbourhood with its owners? Is the bird hurt, or is it trying to lure you away from its nest by feigning injury? Has the whale been separated from its pod, or is it just on a journey of exploration?
How can you tell which answer is the correct one? And what do you do about it?
Every year, the St. John's SPCA takes in approximately 2,000 cats and dogs. They include strays, animals whose owners have moved and left them behind, animals that have been dumped on the building's front porch and animals that have been seized from their owners.
They manage to find homes for about 80 per cent of the dogs and nearly the same percentage of cats.
Joseph Griffiths, an animal-care attendant, admits it can be hard to tell if an animal is in trouble, especially a cat. The best thing a person can do if there's some doubt is call the SPCA or the City of St. John's animal-control division to see if someone has lost a cat of the same description.
Other places to call include local radio stations, veterinary hospitals and the police.
"But some people don't bother to report a missing cat," he cautions.
The City of St. John's animal-control service is pretty well known, but many people in smaller communities don't realize they might have an animal-control officer as well.
Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, for example, has an animal-control office.
With the advent of big-box pet stores, the SPCA expects to see a rise in the number of non-traditional pets at their shelter. Though they've never been called upon to deal with a truly exotic animal, they have placed rabbits, a goat and even a pig in new homes.

Salmonier Nature Park serves as a holding facility for injured, orphaned, problem or otherwise non-releaseable wild animals. They receive about five animals a week, mostly birds, and harsh reality forces them to perform what amounts to a triage procedure. That means they don't put a lot of effort into saving crows, pigeons and other common birds or animals with diseases that can easily be transmitted to humans. They expend most of their resources on rehabilitating animals that can be released back into the wild or can be sent to another facility.
The job isn't made any easier when animals are brought in which should never have been disturbed in the first place. Mac Pitcher is the animal curator at the park as well as the department program co-ordinator for captive wildlife. He says about half the time people interfere prematurely.
"Unless an animal is in direct peril, leave it alone," he advises. "Otherwise keep a safe distance and go back after a few hours to see if it's still there. I can't stress enough that most birds leave the nest not well flighted. For example, a bald eagle sitting on the beach is being fed there by its parents. But eagles have twice been captured and brought into the facility when they should have been left alone."
The same holds true for mammals. Often what appears to be an orphan is merely steps away from its parent. The parent may be in hiding and won't return to the animal until the humans have gone away, or it could be off foraging for food. Ironically, some parents protect their young by spending as little time as possible with them in order to avoid drawing attention to them.
Very young moose or caribou will sometimes "adopt" a human who gets too close. If the human adopts them back they can be left unable to survive on their own. Once a moose has been bottle fed it can never return to the wild, for example. Animals that are used to human attention may also wander into the road seeking people, which is dangerous not only for them, but for people using the road.

If you do encounter an injured animal, both Griffiths and Pitcher agree that personal safety should be of paramount importance. If you see an animal hit by a car, or hit one yourself, don't slam on the brakes and stop your car in the middle of the highway. Pull over safely.
Never touch an injured or dead animal. They can transmit zootic diseases like avian influenza and salmonella to people. If the animal is dead and you have a shovel or some other tool you can use to shove it to the side of the road, do so. It might save the lives of other animals that will be drawn to the area to feed on the carcass. Finally, call the police or the local wildlife office and let them know about the animal. They're the ones who know what to do, and when to do it.
If it's difficult to recognize what to do with a land animal, it can be even harder to recognize when a marine animal is in trouble.
Julie Huntington of the Whale Release and Stranding Group says that sometimes people viewing whales from high above, such as from cliff edges, think they've become tangled in a fishing net, but its only the greenish tint that flippers exhibit under water that they see.
Whales are probably in trouble if they are staying in one position for too long, which might mean they're tangled in fishing gear, or if they're young and on their own.
Sometimes an animal will follow along behind a boat or Jet Ski, attracted by the cavitation or underwater bubbling of the engines. It can be an exciting experience to look a whale in the eye, but it shouldn't go any further. Touching them can transfer diseases and there might be more immediate consequences of close contact.
"People don't realize it's not safe to get into the water with them," says whale rescuer Wayne Ledwell, speaking with 20 years of whale work experience under his belt. "Leave them alone and don't interact with them. Whales are unpredictable. Personally, I wouldn't kayak with them. Just look at them from a distance."
So the next time you see an animal, wild or domestic, keep an eye on it, enjoy the opportunity to see it and leave it alone. Call the proper authorities if you think it needs help and let them decide, but remember, the chances are nature is taking care of its own.

Organizations: Whale Release and Stranding Group

Geographic location: St. John's, Portugal Cove, Salmonier Nature Park

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