Look, don't touch!
June 14, 2009


A few weeks ago I told you about my curious encounter with a large red fox. As I sat camouflaged and softly offered tree calls to some gobblers just before daylight, a red fox sneaked up on me, no doubt thinking I was his breakfast. Had not a sixth sense warned me, he would no doubt have jumped on me in the next few seconds.

I am not afraid of red foxes in general. I am quite on the alert when a wild animal gets too close to me or is acting the opposite of what is the normal for a wild creature. A wild animal that gets too "friendly" with humans is not "cute." It is potentially dangerous.

I stress this today because so many folks I talk to have no idea of the danger that lurks, often very close to home, and that is rabies. It was rabies I was afraid of in my encounter with the fox. Another few seconds and I believe that fox would have pounced on me. Very possibly I would have been bitten or at least scratched. In the fracas that would have ensued had the animal jumped on me it would have gotten away. I then would have had to undergo the series of rabies shots.

Just a week after my episode, I heard on the news that a woman and a couple children were accosted near Pittsburgh by a fox that proved to be rabid. A week ago, it again made news when a raccoon attacked a woman. A bystander killed the animal. As I write this, the results of the rabies test are not yet known.

One of the strongest misconceptions about rabid animals is that you will be able to recognize them by a frothing mouth. That's true when they are in the last stages of the disease, but there are many behavioral traits that signal that a wild animal is potentially rabid.

Most significant is that any wild creature that seems unafraid of a human is not to be trusted or played with. All wild animals have an instinctive fear of humans; if they seem not to be and even approach you, get away from that animal fast. Any behavior that seems not normal - things like moving slowly or staggering around - are not normal behavior for a wild creature. Let such an animal alone. It seems that one trait of a rabid animal may be that it is not only unafraid of a human but will actually attack for no good reason.

Raccoons, foxes, coyotes and even free-ranging dogs are some animals most apt to be rabid. Unfortunately, it is not easy to diagnose an animal as rabid without the lab tests. So when you encounter an animal in the woods or in the backyard, you have to be alert to what the danger signs are of a sick animal. And the strongest warning is that any wild animal that seems unafraid of you is probably sick. Avoid it.

Another danger in the woods - for the animals - is that folks often come upon a fawn or baby birds or any young animal and assume that it is abandoned. They try then to take it in and raise it. They are so "cute" and children especially want to latch onto any young animal they see. To take a wild animal home is against the law and for good reason.

Young wild creatures mature quickly. Then their wild instincts take over and many a well-meaning person has been injured - and some even killed - by wild animals they thought they had "tamed." If you happen upon a fawn, a bear cub, or grouse or turkey poults, the mother is probably not very far away.

Deer especially do not stay with their fawns all the time. They know their scent will lead predators right to their young so they remain away to protect them. When you have removed yourself from the scene, the doe or mother bird will return to the youngsters. If you have a valid reason to know that the mother has been killed, contact the Game Commission. Do not try to rescue and raise the wild creature yourself.

Decades ago, an uncle of mine "rescued" a young squirrel. It was so cute and so helpless, so he took it home, put it in a cage and managed to raise it. But once grown, it was a terror. My uncles used to delight in unloosing it upon relatives and friends. It would rip and tear across the room, jumping on people and scratching them, sometimes severely. It wasn't funny.

But the poor squirrel was really the victim. It couldn't find food by itself and finally had to be destroyed. The message is simple: "Let wildlife alone."


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