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For Their Own Sake, Let Wild Animals Be Wild

Misplaced compassion and attempts to tame wild animals have disastrous consequences for the creatures involved.

By Peter Wohlleben 1 Nov 2017 |

Peter Wohlleben is the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees. He is a natural storyteller who writes on ecological themes. He manages a municipally owned, environmentally friendly woodland in Germany. When he is not writing books or caring for his trees, he looks after the family dog and his small collection of farm animals.

[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt reproduced and condensed with permission from the publisher.]

A few years ago, I got a telephone call from the next village. A worried woman told me she had a fawn in her house and didn’t know what she should do. When I asked her questions, I discovered that her children had brought the animal back to the house after they had been playing with it in the woods. Damn! However well-meaning that playful gesture might have been, it was a catastrophe for the young animal. In their first few weeks of life, fawns are left lying alone in the undergrowth or tall grass, because this is safest for both mother and fawn. A doe with a fawn moves slowly because she has to keep waiting for the youngster. Often the fawn has not yet experienced how serious life can be, and it dawdles behind mom — an ideal target for wolves or lynx. These predators can spot the pair from a long way off and easily grab a meal. That’s why mother deer prefer to separate themselves from their little darlings for the first three to four weeks and leave them in a safe place. It is almost impossible to sniff out a fawn. Because they smell of hardly anything at all, their scent doesn’t alert predators to their presence. The doe comes by for a quick visit every once in a while to nurse her fawn, and then she takes off again right away. That gives her more time to feed on nutritious buds and new shoots instead of having to worry about and watch out for the little one all the time.

When someone who has no idea what’s going on finds a fawn lying there all alone and very still, their almost instinctive reaction is to take care of it. After all, it’s hard to imagine what an abandoned human baby would go through if someone just put it down somewhere and then disappeared. And so, time and again, “helpers” spontaneously step in and take the supposedly orphaned fawn back home with them. However, they have no idea what to do next, and they call an expert. It’s usually about this time that they realize bringing the fawn home was a huge mistake, but by then it’s too late to fix the damage. The fawn now smells of people, and it can’t be returned to the wood and its mother, because she will no longer recognize her child. Bottle feeding a fawn is hard work and, at least in the case of male fawns, it is also risky, as we shall see in due course. I find deer a perfect example of how mother love can be expressed in very different ways. Most mammals are like us and seek constant close contact with their offspring; those that behave differently are not heartless but simply adapted to different life situations. Fawns feel perfectly safe in the first few weeks of life even without constant contact with their mother. Their behaviour changes only when they are capable of bounding along behind her. Then they stay close to the doe, rarely straying more than 20 yards away from her.

Unfortunately, in these modern times, typical fawn behaviour in the first few weeks of life has other, far more tragic consequences. When danger threatens, a fawn hunkers down, because it knows instinctively that it is extremely difficult to pick up its scent. But often what is threatening it is not a wolf or a hungry wild boar looking for a succulent morsel of meat. What is bearing down on it is a tractor fitted with an enormous mower that is swiftly cutting down grass on acres of land. And so the crouching fawn ends up under the blades, and in the best-case scenario it is killed immediately. Often, however, it stands up just before the blades reach it so that its legs are cut off along with the grass. One way to avoid this would be to have someone walk through the area the evening before with a dog along as an extra signal that this is a dangerous place to be. Then the doe will encourage her fawn to accompany her to a safer place outside the meadow. However, there is often neither the time nor the staff for such rescue operations.

Another example showing that wild animals are not suited to domestic life or cuddling is the European wildcat. By 1990, it was almost wiped out. Only about four hundred animals survived in the central uplands in western Germany, and there was a small remnant population of about two hundred individuals in the Scottish highlands. The forest I manage in the Eifel was one of the last remaining refuges for the wildcats, and so I was frequently able to observe one of these diminutive feline carnivores. Since then, their situation has improved considerably. Thanks to conservation and reintroduction efforts, thousands of wildcats now roam once again through the wooded landscapes of Central Europe.

The identifying features of a European wildcat are clear. It’s about the size of a powerful-looking housecat. Its dense coat is tiger striped with a touch of ochre. Its bushy tail is ringed and has a black tip. The problem is that this is what domestic tabby cats look like as well, even though they are not related to the wild species. Positive identification is possible only by measuring brain size or gut length, or sending a hair sample off for genetic testing. And, of course, forest visitors don’t usually have any of these testing methods at their disposal. Despite that, there are a few clues. Domestic cats have — how shall I say it? — grown a bit soft, and they stalk through the landscape only at warmer times of the year and no farther than a mile or so from their home. As soon as it gets cold and wet in winter, their desire for adventure and the radius of their activity diminish, and they usually don’t stray more than 500 yards in any one direction, because chilly housecats want to be able to return quickly to the warmth of their home. Of necessity, wildcats are tougher. They don’t hibernate or dial down their metabolism, and they have to hunt mice even when there’s snow on the ground. Tabby cats out in the snow, miles from the nearest village, are therefore certainly wild and free.

Since Roman times, housecats introduced from southern Europe have vastly outnumbered wildcats. Why, then, have the latter not been extirpated through cross-breeding? The existence of hybrids proves that the two species do interbreed. However, that is the exception. When the two species meet, the tame version always comes off worse, because wildcats are quick to live up to their names. And this brings us to the question whether wildcats make good pets. In rural areas, there must have been many times when individual animals attached themselves to people, and no doubt this is still the case. After all, there are enough animal lovers today who put out food, and the birds that flock to winter feeders show that wild animals become less shy around people over time.

851px version of PeterWohlleben.jpg
Writer Peter Wohlleben hangs out with domestic animals who by their very nature like hanging out with him.

Recently in my own village, I found out what happens when a baby wildcat grows up cared for by humans. A jogger had spied a youngster next to an isolated path in the woodland I manage. He resisted the urge to scoop up the clearly helpless animal and take it back home with him, and so at first he just watched it. A few days later, he came back to the same spot, and found the mewing little fur ball still sitting beside the trail. Clearly, for whatever reason, its mother had gone missing, and left to its own devices, the baby cat would have died. This time, the jogger picked it up carefully and brought it back home with him. He checked with a wildcat recovery center to see how best to care for the animal, and the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt confirmed, by testing a hair, that this kitten was 100 per cent pure wildcat.

Because of their shorter intestines, wildcats cannot tolerate cat food, and so the little wild child was fed meat. It wasn’t long before the family could no longer get close to it at feeding time, because the kitten went on the attack right away. Apart from that, it stayed by the family’s side when they went for walks through the meadows and it seemed it might be getting tame after all. But the cat became even more aggressive and began scaring the older housecat until it was impossible to keep it any longer. The family eventually dropped it off at a wildlife rehabilitation center in the Westerwald.

The story shows that many species do not lose their wildness and therefore are not suited for life in the care of humans. There is good reason why every domestic animal today is the result of a long breeding process. And anyone who is just itching to adopt a wild animal despite the fact that they are ill-suited for domestication will run afoul of the law, as well. Depending on the country, the laws governing conservation and hunting are very strict and state that wild animals can only be kept in exceptional cases with official approval.

And yet some people try to make the impossible possible, especially in the case of the wolf, which is unfortunate because it was difficult enough to gain sufficient support for its return to Central Europe without any further complications. The wolf poses no danger to humans, because it takes absolutely no interest in us. However, when we imprison it against its will, the situation is very different. So here’s the thing. Not only is keeping a wolf against the law, but just like the wildcat, it remains a wild animal at heart. The next thing people think of is to just cross the wolf with a large dog, such as a husky, to get an animal that has the appearance of a wolf but the tractable nature of a domestic dog. But that is illegal, as well, which has led to a black market for these animals, which are imported from the U.S. or Eastern Europe. The high proportion of wolf blood in these wolf-dog hybrids ensures that they are never really tame, and they are stressed when they have to endure living with people. Such forced proximity is inevitably dangerous because stress leads to aggression.

Dr. Kathryn Lord at the University of Massachusetts researched why wolves, which are, after all, highly social animals, are so much more difficult to keep than dogs. Her results show that the answer lies in the way the pups are socialized. Baby wolves are up and about at the age of two weeks, before they’ve even opened their eyes. They can’t even hear at this stage. Their hearing develops and becomes functional only after four weeks. So for the next couple of weeks, they feel their way around their mother, constantly learning about their world while they are still deaf and blind. They finally gain control of their eyes at the age of six weeks, but by then the little rascals are already familiar with the smells and sounds of their family and their surroundings, and they are firmly integrated into the social life of the pack.

In contrast, dogs are late bloomers, and that’s just what they need to be. They mustn’t bond too soon with other pack members, because when it comes down to it, their relationship with a person will be the most important relationship of their life. Thousands of years of breeding have delayed the socialization phase in dogs, and today it starts when they are four weeks old. With both wolves and dogs, the formative period lasts only four weeks. While not all the wolf pups’ senses are fully developed at this important time, puppies explore their environment equipped with their full sensory repertoire — and in the final days of this phase of their life, people are part of their environment. This means that whereas dogs basically feel most at home in our company, wolves retain a certain distrust of us all their life. Wolf-dog hybrids clearly retain this fundamental feeling.

In comparison with a fawn, however, a wolf-dog hybrid is harmless. A fawn? Not all fawns, but males are indeed potentially lethal for their owners. For in less than a year, the adorable dappled baby grows into a mature buck. Deer are loners and do not tolerate any competition in their territory. The affectionate connection established between owner and deer during the rearing process fades away, and because its caregiver is clearly another deer (at least in the eyes of the buck), it must be a rival. And so it must be forcibly driven off. Any owners who cannot sidestep gracefully like the buck’s natural competitors will find themselves blindsided by a sharp-horned battering ram. Such behavior is not the exception but the norm. Even when the animals are released back into the wild, the danger remains. After all, deer have memories, too, and they don’t always avoid people later in life. There was a report in a 2013 issue of the Schwarzwälder Bote of a buck that attacked and wounded two women in the evening hours on a playing field in the village of Waldmössingen. It turned out that it had been hand reared the previous year.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Environment

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