Are misinformed, well-meaning humans the biggest danger to animals?
How can people trying to do right do so much wrong?
While the humans of the world vocalize their opinions on the decision to shoot 17-year-old endangered silverback gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo last week, another controversial wildlife story seemingly vanished out of the news…and people’s minds: The decision to kill a newborn bison at Yellowstone National Park after a father and son Shamasha and Shekeel Kassam loaded the baby animal into the trunk of their truck because they thought its mother had abandoned it.
"We didn't have the heart to just leave it there and let it suffer as the darkness descended," Shakeel explained during an interview Friday on ABC’s Good Morning America. "I wasn't 100-percent sure but when I saw the calf outside shaking, I felt this was the right thing to do."
After father and son brought the baby to a park office, rangers reportedly tried to reintroduce it to its mother and herd. According to a press statement issued by the National Park Service, “These efforts failed. The bison calf was later euthanized.”
Killing wild animals isn’t something zookeepers or park rangers take lightly. It’s the inappropriate intervention of human beings in human-engineered environments into the lives of wild animals that resulted in two sad endings to two animals’ lives. Should we keep wild animals in zoos? Should we keep wild animals in parks? These are important questions we should be asking ourselves in light of these two completely human-created catastrophes.
While a national park is wilder than the enclosure in a zoo, it’s not exactly pristine wilderness. Anywhere there are, humans—whether it’s at a zoo or in a suburban backyard—humans and animals will inevitably interact with one another in some way.
Some interactions can help animals’ survival, like leaving bird food out for wild migrants in the wintertime. Or, they can harm animals’ survival, like separating a newborn bison from its mother or yelling and screaming when a young boy climbs into a gorilla’s exhibit at a zoo. The last two scenarios, as we’ve all learned in the past few weeks, can prove deadly for the animals humans chose to interact with.
As a science writer and licensed wildlife rehabber, I see or hear about human-animal interactions on a near-daily basis. Before I took to writing full-time, I worked in a wildlife hospital in New York as a clinic assistant—cleaning, feeding and administering medical treatments to orphaned, sick and injured wild creatures. It was there, in the hospital, that I encountered my very own Yellowstone baby-bison situation. Due to my geographic location, instead of a bison calf, the situation involved a newborn deer.
It was late afternoon on a humid August day. The volunteers had left about an hour ago, this being the summer where injured animals seem to fall out of the sky, the staff still had a lot to do after our 8am-4pm “work day” ended: there were baby animal feedings, cage cleanings and medications to administer. Finally, at about 5pm, all animals were cared and accounted for, so we readied to leave for the day.
I was washing syringes in the aluminum exam room sink when my director charged through the door, her face red and streaked with sweat, lips tight and brows curled in frustration. There was a large cardboard box in her arms, from which emanated a loud, desperate cry not unlike that of a baby human.
Behind the door I could see a park ranger, clad in a New York State Park-green polo shirt and mud-streaked khaki pants. He stood next to a sobbing woman in a sundress, who was clutching a hand of a wide-eyed teenager, who appeared to be her son.
“We just saw him alone and crying,” said the woman between heavy gasps of air.
“Just fill out the form, please,” my director coolly called to the woman. Then she turned to me and thrust into my arms the mysterious crying box. “Take him outside while I figure this out,” she whispered through gritted teeth.
I used my hip to push open the decrepit old door that led to the yard. Once outside, I placed the box down gingerly in the shade, sat down next to it and then peeled open its flaps. Inside was a crying, wobbly fawn, introduced to the world not more than an hour or two earlier, his umbilical cord still hanging from his belly.
I met his enormous, dark brown eyes with my own and saw both confusion and fear. Thinking he’d like to stretch his legs, I plucked him from the box and placed him on the grass. He wobbled a lot, unable to find his footing. This only made him cry louder, more desperately.
This was the first time I had ever been close to a baby anything so young. Human moms, I knew, picked up their babies—providing warmth and touch—to comfort them, to let them know everything is okay. I looked down at the wobbling, crying fawn for a moment, and then scooped him up in my arms. Immediately, he stopped crying.
It felt like I stood there an hour with the now-quiet fawn in my arms, waiting for someone to tell me what to do with him. I knew my director was looking for a place that would take him so he wouldn’t have to be euthanized. Under New York State law, wildlife hospitals aren’t allowed to do anything beyond providing basic first aid to deer, which are believed to be a nuisance species in the state. This means no long-term care, and certainly no rearing orphaned fawns. Despite this, some rehabbers and clinics skirt the law.
Finally, my director did come outside. She told me she found someone to take him in, then explained what had happened: The woman and her son were hiking in the park where our hospital was based. They saw the baby and its mother off a trail in a clearing. When they approached, the mother bolted. They called the park staff to come and help. The park ranger, unsure of what to do, boxed the baby and brought him to our hospital.
Exactly what—as in the case of the baby bison, but also any other uninjured baby animal—you are not supposed to do. While mothers may temporarily leave their babies if humans approach, they almost always come back. In some cases, such as with rabbits, mothers routinely leave their young unsupervised when looking for food or defending their territory.
The best thing you can do for animals is to know what to do: If you find a baby that seems healthy (i.e. not bleeding or lifeless), let it be. Come back several hours later if you are concerned. See if mom has swooped, hopped or trotted back to baby. And do realize that on occasion mother animals do abandon their babies. It’s a fact of nature.
Whether or not the baby bison was truly abandoned, we will likely never know. It’s possible, as park rangers posited, that his mother might have purposely left him. More likely, however, it appears human intervention is to blame for scaring off mama bison. Rangers opted against placing the baby with a rehabber because it would be costly—requiring a quarantine facility to house the baby bison for a lengthy period before it could be cleared to leave the park. (For this, rangers say, you can blame Yellowstone bison’s history of brucellosis, a disease that can cause mother bison, elk and cattle to miscarry.) Supposedly without an alternative, Yellowstone park rangers killed him.
I never found out what happened to the newborn fawn. My director, visibly infuriated by the situation, never again brought it up. And, not wanting to rehash her anger, I never asked. I can only hope his progeny are never disturbed or displaced by misinformed, yet well-meaning, humans.