April 25, 2011

Wild "Pets"

By Animal Caretaker Lauren Moulis

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to have a wild animal, like the ones in your backyard or that you have seen at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center? After all, those otters play all the time and squirrels seem like perfect pets with those fluffy tails. However, these wild animals do not make good pets. First of all, it is illegal to own most wild animals in New Hampshire. They do not need human contact the way your domestic dogs or cats do and may even be aggressive; wild animals raised in captivity still retain their natural instincts. Here are other reasons why wild animals do not make good pets:

Disease and Injury

Truth is, those cute faces can make you very sick. Wild animals harbor diseases, including distemper, hanta virus, herpes virus, salmonella, and rabies, to name just a few. You can take your family’s dog or cat to the vet to be vaccinated against certain diseases, but most vets cannot or will not vaccinate wild animals. The behavior of a wild animal is unpredictable, no matter how long you have owned it, and the risk of a bite, scratch, or worse, never disappears. Think of dogs, which have been domesticated for hundreds of years; your dog occasionally scratches or bites. Remember that gray squirrel in your backyard with the cute fluffy tail? You may not think it is so cute when it bites you with teeth meant for shelling nuts. On the flip side the stress to wild animals living in captivity may sometimes cause sickness and ultimately death.

Diet and Space

Let’s take a look again at your dog or cat; they require food and shelter, right? Those same basic needs are also essential for wild animals, only they are often are more expensive to supply than your basic cat or dog food and the spatial footprint of your house or apartment may be too small. It is very difficult to mimic the food and space requirements of a wild animal. Feeding an incorrect diet can lead to a host of maladies. If you have taken in a baby animal, an improper diet is even more devastating. Metabolic bone disease caused by poor diet is crippling for both baby and adult animals, often resulting in premature death. If you take in a baby mammal or bird, the timing of feedings ranges from every 20 minutes for a baby bird and every half hour to hour for a baby mammal. We won’t even get into the math that goes into making sure your new pet gets the right percentage of vitamins, calories, fat, and other nutritional requirements.

Spatial requirements vary too according to the size and activity level of the bird or mammal as well as age and species. A young squirrel requires different housing as it grows. Squirrels can be very energetic and need a lot of space to burn that energy off. Remember, these wild animals are not housetrained, so giving them the run of the house may not be in your best interest. Are you prepared to give it all the space it needs, not just floor space, but the vertical space to climb or fly? If not, wild animals may become sick, aggressive, or destructive.

Jeopardizing Species Survival

By taking in an animal from the wild, you never know what kind of harm you are placing on the rest of the species. Maybe you have found a turtle and decided to keep it, but what if that turtle is a protected species, found very rarely in the wild? You may have, although well-intentioned, just decreased the wild population even more, especially if you have removed a female. On the opposite spectrum, what if you decide after 15 or 20 years that you do not want to care for this turtle any more? While the first thought may be to just return it to the wild, that is not in the best interest of the turtle. Turtles, like humans have a certain home area, they are used to the threats and diseases found there and not those of other areas. Releasing a turtle to a foreign site can also cause the turtle to get sick from the diseases that wild turtles carry or wild turtles may get sick and die from the diseases that the introduced turtle carries. Some turtles when released will just wander trying to find their way home until they get hit by a car or fall to predation.

Taking it in Perspective

Animals in the care of zoos are there for several reasons, two of which are conservation of the species and education of the public. The animals here at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center are injured or orphaned animals here as ambassadors of their species to educate and promote awareness to you, the public. These animals are still very much wild animals and as such are not played with or cuddled as pets. In most cases, we animal caretakers always have a barrier between the animals and ourselves for our protection and the animal’s safety. We take on the expense and time to care for them for the entire length of their lives, devote countless hours to enriching their lives to utilize their natural instincts, and implement training programs to keep close track on their health.

Whatever your reason for wanting a wild animal as a “pet,” whether to “rescue” an injured bird or mammal, give a home to an orphan, or just plain curiosity, please consider these issues and either leave it alone or call a licensed rehabilitator to help. Wildlife rehabilitators are there to educate and assist you in the event you have a true wildlife emergency.

Remember, most wild animals, be they bird, mammal, or reptile, are illegal to own as pets in New Hampshire. However, there are many wonderful domesticated pets for you to call your own; they will still have special needs and require responsible ownership and compassion but in the end you will both live happier and healthier lives.

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