Let's say you're out on a hike, and you come across an adorable little baby owl on the ground looking helpless and vulnerable.
What should you do?
Washington State University veterinarians say you should do nothing. Mother Nature will take care of it, and Mother Nature is no place for sympathy.
"Birds getting displaced from nests happens commonly due to the wind and rain," says Nickol Finch, head of the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital's Exotics and WIldlife section, in a statement. "In all cases nature copes with this but maybe not in a way humans like."
Yes, that can mean you may be leaving the little owl to die. But it may not — the mother owl will still try to feed its baby until it can fledge.
This is a reminder that WSU veterinarians have to send out just about every other year, says Charlie Powell, public information officer for the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine. When people keep taking baby animals to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, it becomes a burden that in some cases won't lead to the outcome they intended when they saved the creature.
"When well-meaning people show up at our door and hand off an animal, we have to foot the bills until those animals can be placed elsewhere, or as is the case many times, they're humanely euthanized," Powell tells the Inlander.
The hospital is currently taking care of 15 young animals, including two barn owlets, four screech owlets, two coyote pups, one mink kit, three raccoon kids, two pigeon squab and one great-horned owlet. Of those, the owlets, mink and pigeons should be able to be returned to the wild after being hand-fed by humans. The coyote pups might not be returned.
Still, it occupies too much time of the exotic animal service at WSU, Powell says. And unless they are obviously injured, they don't need human help.
"Leave all young wildlife alone regardless of whether or not you think they are orphaned or abandoned," Finch says. "Do not touch them and do not pick them up. Take a photo if you must but do not disrupt the natural process already underway."
An obviously injured animal is a bit of a different story. Powell says WSU will "do what we can" for those animals. And WSU has a raptor rehabilitation project that nurses injured birds back to health if they came in ill or injured. Some of those birds will still have a disability and are then part of the raptor club at WSU, where they are cared for and publicly exhibited.
But beyond the burden it places on WSU, picking up a baby animal likely isn't as helpful as you might think. A fawn alone on the forest floor, for example, may be totally fine. The doe may know exactly where it's baby is, and it may be otherwise safe but for the sympathetic human.
"It's hard for people, emotionally, to walk by a baby animal and not let their mind wander as to what the circumstances are," Powell says. "But it's actually the way nature works."