Respecting the “Cute” Wildlife

Rehabilitation externs at the Wildlife Center of Virginia often spend the day running around performing the next thing on a 10,000-page to-do list. It’s hard, physical, mind-intensive work. The hardest part is not getting too comfortable when around patients. Yes, they are cute. Yes, they are beautiful. But, every day I had to make sure that I didn’t let myself get too caught up in that. In the midst of everything that an extern does, I had to take the time each day to focus on the individual animals I had in front of me at any given moment. When you are tired, accidents can happen. Being alert and giving an animal respect each time you enter their space can make the difference in reducing their stress and, ultimately, their health.

I do it, you do it, we all (at some point) forget that the cute, wild animal in front of us is exactly that -- wild. We let our guard down, we talk to them like they are our dog, we forget to treat them with respect. When we do that, mistakes happen --  the animal can get hurt and we put ourselves at risk. During my externship at WCV, I encountered so many amazing animals. I saw behaviors that were good at inducing the “awwww” factor. However, those squirrels have teeth, the opossums have claws, and the raccoons have diseases.

On any given day, I go in and out of raptor enclosures several times. It’s easy to become comfortable around the birds once you spend enough time around them. You get used to the patterns and behaviors of each species, but there are always exceptions. Each time entering an enclosure, we grab our gloves and safety glasses in case a bird flies. In the wild, they are used to miles upon miles of free space, and here they are injured, scared, and confined to small spaces during recovery.

On one particular occasion, when entering a bird’s enclosure to pick up leftover food, I got too comfortable. The bird was new to me, and in my experience, this species just sat and watched, so I entered with that mindset. This bird, however, was defensive, to the point where when it felt cornered it would fly directly at us to get us to leave. I looked down to look for leftover food, didn’t pay complete and full attention to the bird, and missed it flying to the perch above me. When I stood up, the bird got spooked and dropped down from the perch and on to me. No serious injuries, only a few scratches, but it reminded me that when being around wildlife, we cannot allow our preconceived notions of how a species will act affect how we behave around them. Our behavior cannot change when we see cute faces, or become awestruck at the beautiful animal. It’s something we know as lovers of nature and wildlife, but it’s important to remind ourselves every time we go outdoors.

We may not always go into our backyards expecting to run into an animal, but wildlife is around us every day in many different forms and it’s inevitable that we will run into an animal. These animals are not our dogs or cats that we sit next to watching TV on a Friday night. This externship reminded me in a very up-close way that they are wild animals fighting for their lives – fighting disease, parasites, predators, and competition. They are on their guard and scared. Through this externship, I learned that I must give the cute birds in our backyards as much respect and space as the bear I encounter on a hiking trail and I’ll  do my best to teach the people around me.

WCV Class of 2017