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Leave nature to nature; interference produces poor results

A friend called my wife one evening a couple of weeks ago. The other woman was somewhat desperate and seeking advice on how to handle an orphaned baby American Robin. My wife turned to me on the couch and asked what advice she should relay to this would-be savior. Looking up from what I was reading, I simply told her to take the bird back to where she found it and walk away. In addition, it is illegal. The woman refused and took the bird inside to attempt a "rescue."

We've touched on nature/human interactions a number of times in this space but little pushes more emotional buttons than handling orphaned, injured or troubled critters.

North Dakota Game and Fish biologist Doug Leier fields many such inquiries particularly during this time of year when birds and animals are birthing their young. "Our standard position is to let nature take its course regardless of what kind of animal it is," said Leier. The only time the department would make an exception is when a threatened or endangered species is involved.

I think what motivates people to save animals has, at its root, something called anthropomorphism. It's a word derived from Greek roots loosely meaning "man-form." It is defined as "the assigning of human feelings, emotions and responses to non-humans, including animals, inanimate objects and spiritual forces." In Biology this means interpreting animal behaviors in terms of human motivation. Something scientists are trained not to do.

In addition, we tend to play God by sorting through the spectrum of critters and favoring those considered cute or desirable. That means mammals have a big leg up on the rest of the animal kingdom; we being mammals ourselves. Sea otters, whales, deer, cottontail rabbits, etc. garner instant emotional support from well-meaning but often misguided humans.

Take the case of Keiko, the orca made famous in Hollywood with the name Willy. Here was an animal living under squalid conditions in Mexico before being moved to a made-to-order Oregon Coast Aquarium at a cost of $7.2 million. A few years later a special pen was constructed at a fjord in Norway to house the animal with hopes of an eventual release into the wild. It took $.5 million per month to feed the orca. Ultimately Keiko died in captivity. All told, tens of millions of dollars were spent in a vain attempt to "save" a single organism. Money well spent? Personally I don't think so. Those dollars could have been put toward preserving habitat, funding research, or just about anything else. Why not make an attempt to further the survival of an entire species or ecosystem instead of a single individual?

The challenge for us as individuals then, is to keep our emotions at a distance when dealing with wild animals that, to us, appear to be in danger. Most often, the animals we find are actually fine and in no need of our assistance. In the case of orphans, a parent is most likely nearby. In fact, by removing an organism from its natural habitat, it will often go into shock and die anyway. Even if we are successful in keeping an animal alive we are then left with an animal that is likely not suited for reintroduction back into the wild and will succumb to nature's forces shortly upon release.

My wife's friend phoned a few days later to announce tearfully that the baby bird was dead. I realize this was emotionally hard for her to swallow but came as no surprise to me.

I realize this message may be difficult for some to accept but to truly love the outdoors one has to take a somewhat dispassionate view of it all and let nature do what it does best--regulate itself.

Leier summed it up by telling me, "It's not that we don't love the animals, it's just that we appreciate the circle of life. Some things are going to be injured, some things are going to die, and that's just the reality of nature."