A minivan pulled up to the edge of a forest preserve at dusk. A woman hurried out of the car and furtively headed into the tall grass, carrying a box in her arms. In a matter of minutes, she returned to her car -- with an empty box.
Meanwhile, at the edge of a marsh, a man lifted a small cage from his pick up truck and opened the latch. A chipmunk bolted out of the trap and fled into the wetland.
Not far away, a group of kids riding bikes spotted a tiny bird on the ground. The baby bird was all alone. One girl picked it up and cradled it in her hands. She surmised that it was an orphan and would die if not rescued. The others agreed, and they took the nestling home to save it from certain death.
These scenarios are played out every year in forest preserves, particularly at the beginning of summer when young animals are entering the world. Most of the people in these situations believe they are solving a problem humanely and doing a good deed for nature. Some people are just trying to get rid of problem animals that have shown up at their home. Releasing an animal in a preserve seems to be the "nice" way to deal with the creature.
What they don't realize is that these are solutions gone awry. In fact, these attempts to solve an animal problem create a bigger problem for the animal itself and for the wildlife community as a whole.
And, more often than not, the releasers and rescuers don't realize that it is illegal both to introduce an animal into a forest preserve or any other property without the owner's permission. It is also illegal to remove an animal from a preserve.
What's the big deal? How can it hurt to let an animal go back to nature or to rescue an animal from death?
The big picture
The big deal is ecology. Ecology is the total of all the interactions between plants and animals and their environment. In other words, it's the big picture. When holding a duckling in your hands, it's hard to see the big picture. Instead, we see a cuddly little ball of down feathers -- not a population of mallards in a complex wetland community.
Our natural areas are dynamic, complex communities of plants and animals. Each species in a community occupies a niche. The term niche is commonly confused with "location" or "hiding place." In ecology, however, an animal's niche is its occupation. When an individual animal is introduced to a natural area, chances are that all available niches are occupied. In other words, all the jobs are filled. There are no job openings for newcomers.
What happens when animals are put into communities with no vacancies? The new kid on the block may well have a fight on his hands -- or paws -- and end up wandering, homeless, only to meet his maker in the path of a car on the road. Raccoons and opossums often find asphalt to be their final resting place.
Similarly, the "bunny" set free in a field will have a tough time of it. The resident rabbits in the field don't put out the welcome mat for newcomers. The new rabbit may search frantically for shelter. As it roams unfamiliar territory, the rabbit is easy pickings for a great horned owl or a coyote.
Ecological mismatches are common in the attempts to save individual animals -- and in getting rid of unwanted animals. Take, for example, the case of the chipmunk let go in a marsh (a situation I have seen more than once). The chipmunk is a woodland mammal. Releasing it in a wetland, where it has no adaptations for survival, does it no favors. When working as a naturalist in the San Francisco area, I saw a woman release a freshwater pond turtle -- a pet no longer wanted -- into a salt marsh. I wasn't quite quick enough to abort the misguided mission. By the time I got to the scene of the crime, the turtle was immersed in the salt water, and the woman and her son had sped away. The turtle surely did not last long in the saline environment. Did Johnny and his mom really intend for their pet to meet this cruel fate?
As these cases illustrate, people may think that releasing animals into wild places is in the best interests of the animal, but in fact, it is not an easy or pleasant end for the misplaced creature.
"Letting animals loose in preserves seems like the most humane approach, but in reality, that isn't often the case," explained Bill Graser, wildlife biologist for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.
The flip side of releasing animals in preserves is removing them from preserves. Many people assume that any young animal on its own is orphaned or abandoned. The common reaction is to "rescue" the animal. Removing young animals, however, is paramount to kidnapping. In most cases the parent is feeding or waiting nearby, ever watchful of the youngsters. A classic example is that of the bird called a killdeer. You may see a killdeer acting strangely -- dragging a wing and walking in circles. The adult is feigning injury to distract what it perceives as a threat to its young. The young are nearby, and they are neither abandoned nor orphaned. They are fine, and Mom is making sure of that.
Despite good intentions of rescuing young animals by taking them home, most people who attempt this soon find that they have taken on a formidable responsibility of caring for a wild animal. Case in point, the kids who take a baby bird home haven't the slightest idea how to take care of it. Nor do they have the resources.
Even if kidnapped young animals do survive in captivity, then what? The predictable answer is to release it. Where? The predictable place is a forest preserve.
Releasing animals in preserves not only results in the immigrant animal's injury and/or death, there are other unintended consequences as well. Graser cites disease as one such consequence.
"Moving animals increases the potential to move diseases," Graser said. And this wreaks havoc on entire populations. And removing animals, he remarked, "robs populations of reproductive and genetic contributions."
What you should do
All too often wildlife shows up uninvited at people's homes. Skunks under the deck, raccoons in the attic, opossums in the garage, you name it. Graser said that many people take a "do-it-yourself" approach to the problem. They buy a trap at the store and try to catch the animal. Often, they merely educate the animal about traps and how to avoid them. If they do catch the animal, then what?
Again, the local forest preserve seems to be a good repository. And again, this brings on a host of problems.
People are often incredulous when told that there is an ordinance prohibiting the release of animals in preserves. Invariably they ask, "But what am I supposed to do with this raccoon/bunny/chipmunk/squirrel/robin/mallard?" The person with the animal is agitated, the animal is trapped, and at this point, we all have a dilemma.
Graser recommends visiting the Illinois Extension website Living with Wildlife in Illinois, web.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/.
"This is an excellent source of information about the wildlife people often come in contact with," he said. He encourages people to call professionals rather than taking on the role of wildlife manager pro tem.
Preserving native wildlife is an important part of the Forest Preserve District's mission. The most effective way of achieving this is to restore health to ecological communities -- as opposed to putting scarce resources into saving individual animals. A comprehensive natural areas management program emphasizes habitat improvement at the community level. Thus, rather than saving lots of individual robins and raccoons, populations of a diverse array of animals are improved.
The success stories for native wildlife in Kane County forest preserves are notable. The restoration of more than 1,000 acres of land at the Dick Young Forest Preserve in Batavia is one of the biggest success stories. Dozens of native prairie species have been reintroduced on former cropland in the past decade. Myriad native insects have appeared in conjunction with the wildflowers. As if on cue, a remarkable number of species of grassland birds have come to the site. Numerous bird species have set up residence and now nest in the restored prairie, producing new generations of grassland birds.
The district's management of high quality wetlands at Big Rock Forest Preserve is another highlight in restoration ecology. Plants such as Turtleheads have thrived, allowing the population of rare Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies to prosper. Small mammals, reptiles and amphibians also flourish at Big Rock, and hence the coyotes and hawks that depend on them prosper as well. A complex community of flora and fauna now thrives.
The ecosystem approach to management is more cost-effective in the long run than managing for individual animals. The cost of caring for individuals takes time, money and effort that could otherwise be directed toward the larger goal of ecological restoration on a community scale. The broader ecosystem approach leads toward overall biodiversity, and thus has far reaching benefits for many different species.
Wildlife is near and dear to our hearts, and interactions with animals increase at this time of year. Knowledge of ecological dynamics puts perspective on the role of wildlife in natural communities. Enjoy wildlife from a distance, whether walking a forest preserve trail or working in your garden this summer.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org