The spring's wildlife baby boom is making summer a bit trickier for animal lovers.
Who hasn't seen a stray animal, particularly a youngster, and felt the urge to take the little critter home? That's typically the wrong approach, and it ultimately could hurt or kill the creature.
Laura Simon, field director for the Gaithersburg-based Humane Society's Urban Wildlife Program, says her office typically starts getting calls about baby animals starting in the spring, and the questions last right through the summer. The recent mild winter meant the phones started ringing in March, Ms. Simon says, adding that the society receives 6,000 such calls annually.
"Mother animals move in and around houses to raise their young," Ms. Simon says. "Raccoons in the chimneys, skunks under the deck. They're looking for a quiet, dark cavity to rear their young.
"We afford them a lot of spaces unintentionally, then we get mad at them for being there," she says.
Some people see tiny creatures and do nothing. Others try to help but end up hurting the creatures' chances for survival, Ms. Simon says. Too often people see a baby bird on the ground and think if they touch it the parents will abandon it.
"It's the number one myth," she says. "They don't realize birds don't care. If someone touches their chick, they still want to rear it."
Other animals are purposely left alone for a spell.
Baby bunnies and fawns are left by their mother for the first three weeks of their lives, she says, but the mothers return three times daily to feed them.
Young raccoons may be adorable, but if they're fed the wrong diet, the results could be deadly.
"We've had some disastrous outcomes from people feeding them the wrong things, like cow's milk," Ms. Simon says.
That type of diet can cause diarrhea, which can be fatal for some raccoons if not treated.
Some homeowners humanely trap animals to prevent them from entering their homes or spilling their garbage cans. Ms. Simon says all that does is ensnare or relocate the mother animals, which means abandoned young animals are sure to follow.
"We get hundreds of these tragic calls each season," she says.
The dangers involved in botched animal rescues don't apply just to woodland creatures. Touching the wrong animal at the wrong time can hurt the human, says Mary Warren, director of the Colorado Humane Society in Englewood.
The biggest carriers of rabies are skunks, bats and foxes. "If a human touches bodily fluids from the those animals you can contract the disease," says Mrs. Warren, who has worked in the industry for 30 years. "There's an extreme need to educate the public."
Too many pet owners don't vaccinate their beloved dogs and cats, let alone tread carefully themselves when dealing with an animal that could be rabid.
Mike Hoffer, owner of Hoffer's Tropic Life Pets in Milwaukee, recalls a Wisconsin girl who was fortunate to survive an encounter with a rabid bat. Jeanna Giese, then 15, suffered a bat bite after picking up the creature by its wings on Sept. 12, 2004. She nearly died after symptoms of rabies developed a month later, but doctors aggressively treated her with a cocktail of drugs, making her the first person to survive rabies without a prior vaccination.
Even if a stray animal is rabies-free, people should think twice about relocating a small creature.
"People often think an animal's mother has deserted them when there's no truth to it," Mr. Hoffer says. "They want to foster care them, but 99 times out of 100, the mother is gone out foraging for food and is quite satisfied with the babies being hidden."
If someone sees a nest, for example, the best thing to do is to keep an eye on it and make sure the mother returns occasionally. That information can help a wildlife specialist. The problem is, it isn't always easy to figure out just whom to call if the animal is on one's property.
Mrs. Warren says a homeowner should call pest control. Various wildlife agencies have the know-how to help, but legally, it's tricky for them to do so, she says, because different parts of the country have different boundaries for what groups can patrol what areas.
It's just as hard figuring out if a stray baby bird is truly in trouble, says Chris Motoyoshi, executive director of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Delaware.
"A lot of times people mistake fledgling baby birds for injured birds," Ms. Motoyoshi says, adding that the most common young birds people find are songbirds such as robins and blue jays.
Like toddlers, young birds may not be able to move like their parents, but they learn quickly. They evolve from hopping on the ground to flying five to seven days after they have left the nest.
"If you see an obvious injury, or if a bird is lethargic and not responsive or if it's sitting in the same spot for an hour, then that's a sign something's wrong," Ms. Motoyoshi says.
Make sure to watch the bird in question from a distance to see if it has been abandoned. The bird's parents won't approach their offspring if they think a predator is watching.
Karl Kranz, vice president for animal programs with the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says kindhearted people who handle or get too close to, say, a baby raccoon may do the creature less obvious harm.
Making animals lose their fear of people puts them in situations they normally wouldn't be in, Mr. Kranz says.
Though some people who find the creatures may mean them no harm, others might not be so charitable. Plus, if the animals believe they can get food by hanging around people, they may not develop the skills needed to forage on their own.
Should a person encounter a very young animal, he or she could leave an imprint. Baby animals attach, or imprint, on the first creatures they encounter after being born. However, Mr. Kranz says it's more likely the animals crossing humanity's path are far enough along on their development to avoid such confusion.
Still, it's hard to resist reaching out to help a tiny creature.
"The easiest and hardest thing is to leave them alone," he says.
Ms. Simon recommends visiting www.wildneighbors.org, a Web site of the Humane Society of the United States, for more information about young wildlife.