PROVIDENCE — It’s already happened this year in Rhode Island. Someone came upon wild animals they thought needed help, and decided to intervene. But because mammals like foxes and raccoons are potential vectors for rabies, and because the person handled them improperly, the animals had to be euthanized to test them.
This effort to help, in other words, became a death sentence.
It’s a perennial springtime problem in Rhode Island with fawns dropping in the woods, chicks blowing out of nests in meadows, raccoons scurrying out in the suburbs, and people getting back outside after a long winter — human intervention that does more harm than good. It’s a perennial springtime plea, too: The Department of Environmental Management is yet again warning people not to handle animals improperly and not to unnecessarily intervene if an animal isn’t actually in distress.
“A lot of people in Rhode Island, as we move away from living in rural areas where people kind of understand a little bit better how wildlife integrates into the environment, they’re naturally attracted to these animals and they don’t consider the consequences of interacting with them,” said Dr. Scott Marshall, the state veterinarian. “Enjoy wildlife, but enjoy them from a safe distance.”
The consequences of doing otherwise can range from making people look silly to putting them, and the animals they supposedly want to help, in harm’s way.
On one side of this spectrum, there was the turkey escapade that captivated Johnston in 2018. Three wild turkeys were, in the then-mayor’s telling, causing a public safety hazard by darting into traffic near Town Hall. The town hatched a plan to capture them. Two were corralled, but the third survived to become something of a local folk hero, defiantly strutting through the mayor’s parking spot and cadging french fries from motorists. The last definitive sighting of him was on Thanksgiving that year, when he was chasing a Jeep around a parking lot, perhaps looking for a french fry.
More recently, two “black coyotes” captivated Warwick for days. Onlookers descended on Oakland Beach to catch a glimpse of the rare and majestic beasts. But this cautionary tale about not interacting with wild animals turned out to be the exception that proves the rule: They were actually someone’s pets, potentially some sort of dog-wolf hybrids named Bella and Libby. Wolf-dog hybrids are illegal to keep in Rhode Island for reasons that are related to the guidance against handling certain animals: rabies. There’s no approved rabies vaccine for these sorts of hybrids. Bella and Libby were tranquilized (by the professionals) and taken to the Warwick animal shelter, where they’re being kept before they’re sent to a new home out of state.
But there are plenty of lower-profile moments of problematic human-animal interaction, too, that never make the news. Like people who see a fawn snoozing in the woods and pull it out, both breaking the law and orphaning the fawn. Or a rabies vector species that must be killed to be tested for rabies, even if perfectly healthy. Or, in some cases, a genuinely sick animal that should definitely not be approached.
One particularly bad case, Marshall said, occurred a few years ago, when a local wildlife clinic learned that someone had a baby raccoon that seemed to be sick and had been passed around at a child’s birthday party. The wildlife clinic called the DEM’s Division of Wildlife. After some coaxing from a dispatcher, the person eventually turned the raccoon over. The raccoon was euthanized and tested for rabies.
It was positive. Dozens of people needed post-exposure treatment.
But the concerns go beyond rabies. In April, a person reported a baby seal at Fishermen’s Memorial State Park in Narragansett. When the person found DEM’s response lacking, the person started hitting them up on Instagram. A video the person took showed him within feet of the animal, waving at the seal and saying “hello.” The baby seal closes its eyes and looks away.
In instances like this, DEM spokesman Michael Healey said, it’s almost as if people have to fight their instincts that the animal is helpless.
“Leaving it alone actually is giving it the best chance to survive,” Healey said.
DEM posted a video two years ago that was even more jarring, when someone got so close to a seal that it leapt up at them. Harassing seals violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“My best guess at what drives this behavior — and here I’m talking about rescuing wildlife — is that there’s something deep inside us that when we see an animal that we think is helpless, we just have a duty to help it,” said Healey. “And if we don’t help, we worry about our sense of humanity. It’s this kind of insecurity that drives mistaken attempts at rescue.”
The consequences can be profound and range beyond just the two direct parties to a human-animal interaction.
“In Westerly a few years ago, we cited someone for feeding steak bones and scraps to coyotes on their back deck,” Healey said. “Guess what was next on the coyotes’ menu? The neighbor’s Chihuahua.”
Like a mist of pollen in the air and the grass shooting out of even the most negligently cared for lawn, the signs of spring are already here in the form of DEM’s warnings about approaching and handling wild animals in “distress.”
There’s no lack of information about what to do when encountering a wild animal, with pleas of “no touchy” and the use of the hashtag #wildlifehappens.
There are guides on what to do about marine mammals, skunks, squirrels, turkeys, deer, and bears.
And yet every spring, the messages start rolling in at DEM about animals in distress that actually are not.
“The level of public ignorance about wildlife in Rhode Island is astounding,” Healey said. “I’m not talking about wildlife conservation; I’m talking about how we interact with wildlife. The do’s and don’ts. They’re mostly don’ts. At least based on interactions that DEM has with constituents on social media, a lot of people don’t grasp this concept.”
The best thing to do, in general, is to contact the experts. The state has a network of wildlife rehabilitators, trained and licensed to intervene safely and professionally.
The key here is safely and professionally.
“There will always be folks that think, how difficult is it to raise a baby squirrel?” said Kristin Fletcher, the executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island. “By the time they get it to us, it’s dying.”
Fletcher specializes in rehabilitating bats and has been rehabbing since 1999. It takes experience, specialized knowledge, and resources. The Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island, in Saunderstown, which is part of the association,spent $20,000 last year just on bugs to feed their charges that eat them. It has to raise money for all those things.
It’s illegal, the DEM emphasizes, to relocate animals in Rhode Island, and only trained wildlife rehabilitators that are licensed through the department’s Division of Fish and Wildlife are allowed to care for wildlife here.
This doesn’t mean people have to stand by helplessly if they see a sick or injured or distressed animal. That single animal life matters to people. But it’s best to call first. The wildlife association’s hotline is (401) 294-6363, and answers are also available on the association’s website. Whoever answers can help guide callers through what to do and what not to do.
“You’re going to save yourself a lot of grief,” Fletcher said, “and you’re going to save the animal.”
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.