Look – but don’t touch
By Liz Stelow D.V.M.
Every month, when I was a teenager in Carmel, California, my family would grab a big bag of peanuts and make our way to the rocky beaches of nearby Pacific Grove. There we’d sit, tapping peanuts on the rocks, until the ground squirrels came to feed. There would be a dozen or more squirrels taking nuts from us, with some so bold that they’d climb onto our knees to feast. They were so cute and charming that we didn’t think twice about how far afield of common sense we had run. Until, one day, our friend Sara accompanied us – and a squirrel bit her finger. We were stunned.
We had been feeding these squirrels for years and had never imagined this could happen. And the cost to Sara was higher than just a bite wound: Although squirrels are not your typical rabies vectors, Sara opted for a series of post-exposure rabies injections, just to be safe.
We live in a wonderful and diverse world, with an amazing array of wild animals just outside our doors. It’s sometimes tempting to take our interest in them to a more personal level, like we did with the squirrels. There are many reasons, though, that human-wildlife interactions should remain more distant:
Although you have to get pretty close to wild animals to be injured by them, my squirrel story shows how easy it is to get close – and get bit. Even seemingly docile or harmless animals (songbirds, opossums, etc.) can misread our intentions and cause harm.
Injury may be unavoidable if you happen to startle an animal on a hiking trail or uncover one in your yard. But when it’s our choice whether or not to approach a wild animal, it’s always safest not to approach. If an animal needs help, call animal control. If you just want a closer picture, buy a better camera.
Many wild animals harbor diseases that can be transmitted to humans. These are called zoonoses, and they account for as many as 70 percent of all infectious diseases among humans.
The best-known and most serious zoonotic disease is rabies. In the U.S., rabies is most commonly transmitted by the saliva of bats, foxes and raccoons; but nearly all infected mammals can transmit it. If a bite is noticed and reported, post-exposure injections are started immediately. But some bites, like those from bats, occasionally go unnoticed, and once the symptoms start, rabies is always fatal.
Other important zoonoses include:
- Intestinal parasites of the raccoon (Baylissascaris procyonis) and fox (Echinococcus multilocularis), which are passed in the feces and can cause serious complications if transmitted to humans.
- Bacterial infections like brucellosis (deer, fox, raccoon), leptospirosis (raccoon, skunk, opossum), and tularemia (rabbit). These can be serious or life-threatening and are mostly transmitted in the urine or feces of the wildlife host.
Although transmission of these diseases is not direct, as it is in rabies, close contact with host species greatly increases the chance of infection.
Close contact hurts animals, too.
Many wildlife species have been quick to learn that humans are the source of good things (usually food and shelter). Bears worldwide have learned to forage through camp sites. Raccoons that have been fed once or twice at a home will scratch the door – or walk right in – to be fed again. Ground squirrels will quickly overcome their fear of humans to eat peanuts. Before zoos learned to teach captive-born California condors to be wary of humans and their surroundings (power lines, antifreeze, etc.), there were reports of released birds chasing people down hiking trails and coming into their homes and yards, presumably hoping to be fed.
Unfortunately, the cost of this habituation is high. In California, a bear caught in a populated area more than a few times will be killed. Emboldened raccoons and ground squirrels may be tolerable to the people who befriended them; but they may become nuisances to others, and be dealt with harshly. What’s more, animals that have become dependent on human food or shelter may find their survival compromised when that support goes away. It turns out the old “Don’t Feed the Bears” sign in the Yogi Bear cartoons was right.
Wildlife is marvelous. These creatures have inspired and awed humans since the beginning of time. Our relationship with them is deep and primal, and it should be nurtured. But it should not be too intimate. Looking back on my family’s folly with the squirrels, I find that my greatest surprise is that we were so shocked that someone was bit. When people get too close to wild animals, a bite is virtually inevitable.
Liz Stelow is a veterinarian living in Davis, California. She is also a busy mom and the author of a pet health blog at PetDoctorMom.com.