Camels Kill More Tennesseans than Copperheads

We were alarmed and saddened yesterday to see the tragic news about a dromedary camel in Obion County, belonging to Shirley Petting Zoo. The animal went on a rampage and killed two men, trampling a police vehicle before finally being shot to death.

This comes just a few months after a similarly bizarre and shocking story— also here in Tennessee— about a man who killed his neighbor’s aggressive kangaroo that had escaped.

With two deaths now attributable to a camel in Tennessee, that means that camels have officially killed more Tennesseans than our much-maligned and misunderstood native snake, the Eastern copperhead.

As we mentioned in previous posts, copperhead venom is not as dangerous as many assume. Many of their bites are “dry” and even bites with venom are statistically unlikely to kill someone who promptly seeks medical attention. In the last seventy years, the only death in Tennessee caused by a copperhead involved a man in Chattanooga who was allergic to copperhead venom, was probing its butthole, and then refused medical attention for ten minutes after the bite occurred.

Not surprisingly, it turned out that the snake was part of his friend’s traveling roadside reptile show— it was, like the camel in Obion County, stressed and mishandled.

Risks from other wild animals are also overestimated: only two people have ever been killed by coyotes globally, in all of recorded history. No record exists on any fox or bobcat ever fatally attacking a human— even a newborn!— in North America. The lifetime risk of being seriously harmed by an unprovoked wild animal is next to none.

So often, we encounter people who are afraid of our local wildlife, but events over the course of the last several decades have shown that Tennesseans have a much greater reason to be afraid of the stressed, sick, and inadequately contained animals often held in our region’s roadside zoos.

Please, if you have a fear of being hurt by animals, use that fear constructively to help end the era of roadside zoos and for-profit exotic animal “collections.” You can actually help improve public safety and the welfare of animals by boycotting these establishments and pushing for stricter enforcement of existing state and federal laws.

Leave our native wildlife to live in peace.

Heard Coyotes Kill a Dog?

“I just heard a pack of coyotes kill a small dog.”

Have you seen (or made) this statement in neighborhood groups on social media? It’s one of the most common sources of panic in the suburbs. And, in almost all cases, it’s actually not true.

Coyotes live in small family groups of 2-8 individuals, usually a mated pair and their young of the year. When the whole family gets together, they tend to celebrate by howling. This helps them bond and it’s also meant to intimidate rivals (including us), and it works. When calling together, coyotes will rapidly change the pitch and direction of their calls so it sounds like a very large group.

One of the sounds that coyotes make during these social get-togethers is a high-pitched yelp that increases in pitch and frequency until the “song” ends. To untrained ears, it’s very easy to mistake this for the sound of a domestic dog in pain. Our imaginations sometimes get the best of us, and when we hear the alto of a coyote choir stop abruptly, we may think the “dog” has been killed.

Coyotes don’t howl and hip while hunting. There’s no reason for them to do so, since vocalizations scare away prey and give them time to flee. Coyotes are completely silent when stalking or cornering their meals, so we rarely (if ever) hear them hunting.

Of course, that’s not to say that coyotes never kill domestic dogs at all. If a dog is roaming freely off-leash and becomes a threat to a coyote or its pups, they will defend themselves, just like any animal. Small dogs are very easy prey and, when left unattended in coyote territory, they are at risk. Because of this, it’s very important to keep your pets properly contained at all times.

However, it’s important not to panic over the normal social songs that coyote families sing together. The sound that you hear isn’t actually a dog in pain, but a family enjoying each other’s company.

Protect Rhea County’s Bears

We were excited today when we received photos of bear poop and tracks from the Evensville area of Rhea County, about forty miles north of Chattanooga.

It’s very common for bears to be more active this time of year as they emerge from winter inactivity and try to regain the weight they lost over the lean months. Please be sure that they continue to seek their natural foods, for their safety and ours!

When bears get used to finding easy food from trash cans, bird feeders, and pet food bowls, they un-learn their instinctive tendency to avoid humans. They may get so comfortable around us that they start entering unsuitable urban areas and even approaching us to “ask” for food.

When this happens, there are no good outcomes. If a bear that’s used to hand-outs is relocated, it may starve to death or be chased away by competitors, or it may slowly migrate right back to where it finds human homes and businesses. If the bear continues seeking humans for food, it can hurt or even kill someone. And of course, no one wants to have to resort to euthanizing a healthy bear.

If you are in Rhea County, please help your bear neighbors by making sure you haven’t made any unnatural food sources accessible to bears. Please take down your bird feeders, feed your pets inside, put a latch on your trash can, and throw away those Halloween pumpkins that are still on your porch. Protect your bear neighbors so no one gets hurt. 🐻 🐾

Euthanized Pets Endanger Wildlife

If you’ve recently had to make the decision to send a beloved pet to the Rainbow Bridge, wild animals may be the last thing on your mind. But, if you’re not careful, your pet’s death could actually cause even more suffering.

Sometimes, particularly among people who live in apartments and don’t have appropriate places to bury their pets, laying them to rest can be difficult. Fees for cremation can be costly to an owner who may have already put themselves in debt to try to save their pet. And it’s not easy, especially in the city, to find a friend who will allow you to bury a pet on their property.

Even if you have space, digging a sufficiently deep grave for a ninety-pound dog can be impossible for someone trying to use a regular shovel in rocky soil. Faced with what may feel like no other option, some owners simply lay their pet in the forest, or even put the body in a dumpster to go to the landfill.

Unfortunately, euthanized pets’ bodies don’t just go “away.” Our native scavengers— vultures, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, crows, and others— are the undertakers of the wild world and go to work quickly, not knowing that they’re eating flesh poisoned with euthanasia drugs. The scavengers ultimately end up passing away after ingesting these medications (and often leaving orphans behind).

Please be kind to wildlife while facing the loss of your pet. If you can’t afford an additional cremation fee after your pet’s euthanasia, tell your vet that you have no other options. She may be able to work out lower-cost options, though your pet’s ashes would not be returned to you in those situations. Your city’s public health department or animal control may also offer services for disposing of deceased animals at no cost to you.

If none of those options are available to you, don’t be afraid to reach out for help using social media or your local Nextdoor or neighborhood group. There are many animal lovers in the world, some of whom may be strong people with shovels and land to loan, and they may help you give your pet a proper burial deep enough underground to avoid scavengers.

Please don’t allow your loss to also cause losses for wild animals and their family. Always dispose of a euthanized pet’s body responsibly.

Beware of Poaching for the Pet Trade

Spring is on its way, and that unfortunately means that we’re close to the time of year when our native wild animals are at the greatest risk for an under-recognized, under-reported, and under-enforced form of poaching: the illegal capture of wildlife for the pet trade.

People tend to think of poaching as something from the distant past, or something that occurs overseas in rural areas where wildlife-related law enforcement is scarce. But right here in the United States, thousands of animals are illegally kidnapped from the wild every year and trafficked into the pet trade. This can have disastrous consequences for the individual animals— who often die from improper care— and also for their populations as a whole. The exotic pet trade has proven to be especially detrimental for wild reptiles.

If you are interested in adopting an exotic pet, please beware of those selling native animals on social media. Rehabilitators never rehome rescued wildlife to the general public, and it is always illegal to sell native animals without a license. (This includes sales that use euphemistic terms like “rehoming fee.”)

If you are truly fully equipped to care for an unconventional pet, please consider reaching first. Your local animal shelters may have captive-bred exotic pets in need of homes, and you can also get in touch with organizations like Saveafox Corporation and Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society about rescuing a captive-bred exotic pet.

Please don’t contribute to poaching for the pet trade! Be responsible when seeking a new member for your household. And if you do see someone selling native wildlife without appropriate permits issued by both the state and the USDA, please speak up and let appropriate authorities know!

Don’t Exterminate Your Exterminators

We’re so lucky that our ecosystem is full of animals who work behind the scenes to keep our homes, lawns, and gardens free of pests! One single owl, for example, can kill twelve mice per night, while a skunk will spend weeks digging up every rat’s nest in a neighborhood. Coyotes are probably the best rodent control of all, with rats, mice, and voles comprising the majority of their diet. Everywhere you look in nature, there’s someone hard at work killing pests!

We often see a domino effect when people relocate or kill wild predators. It’s usually only a matter of time before the newly predator-free area becomes a hotbed of uncontrolled breeding for rats and mice. A single female mouse, for example, can have up to 140 pups per year, with each of her young being equally prolific. Without predators to keep their population in check… well, we promise you’d prefer to see owls instead!

It can get even worse when rodent numbers explode, because invariably, someone in your neighborhood will use rodenticides to poison them. Any remaining wild predators nearby may end up succumbing to secondary poisoning, leaving the area even more wide open and inviting for rats and mice. The reproductive rates of rodents are much faster than of any of their predators, so your neighborhood can end up on a treadmill, constantly chasing infestations with poison while wild predators die.

We need to coexist with wild animals more peacefully, and let them work for us. Please be a good neighbor to wild predators. By leaving them to raise their families in peace, you will help to protect your home from more damaging critters.

Check for Bunnies before Mowing

Check for baby bunnies before mowing your lawn.

If you’re here in the South, you’re probably getting ready to break out the lawn mower for the first time this year. Please be sure not to harm any baby bunnies when you mow!

Cottontail rabbits’ reproductive cycles are timed to match the growth of their main foods, like grasses, clover, dandelion, and other soft herbaceous plants. In our region, they are currently giving birth to their first litters of the year and will continue to breed until around August.

Cottontails don’t nest in burrows, like their European cousins, but in easy-to-miss depressions in the grass. A rabbits’ nest can easily be mistaken for a clump of debris or a spot of dead grass.

Please do a quick check for any signs of bunnies before mowing. If you find some, please leave them exactly where they are and give them a few feet of space. (Your neighbors and HOA can deal!) They’ll be weaned and on their way in just a few short weeks!

No Milk for Baby Birds

Baby birds don’t drink milk.

As we get closer to baby bird season, please help spread the word that orphan birds should never be given any kind of milk! This is extremely dangerous, because birds are not made to digest milk of any kind.

A surprising number of people find baby birds and want to help by feeding them. Most “orphan” birds are fine and can simply be renested or reunited with their parents, but, even in cases where a baby bird is clearly orphaned, the best option is always to immediately warm the baby and bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Baby birds of all species are highly sensitive to the wrong foods. Grains and fruits cause explosive diarrhea, earthworms can cause fatal parasites in many species, and milk, especially, is impossible for birds to digest and can cause life-threatening illness. Additionally, it’s very easy to accidentally put liquids into a baby bird’s windpipe, causing it to drown.

Please don’t give milk to baby birds! If nature meant for them to drink milk, their parents would have nipples!

The Opossum Rabies Bluff

Opossums look rabid as a bluff, but they almost never actually have rabies.

Opossums are great fakers. In addition to very convincingly “playing dead,” their other common defense mechanism is to stagger, sway, drool, open their jaws, and hiss when frightened. To anyone with a passing familiarity with rabies— even if only from old movies— it’s easy to mistake these behaviors for symptoms of a serious and fatal illness.

If an opossum’s defensive bluff is enough to make you give it space, that’s a good thing! But if it causes you to panic and kill the little critter out of fear, that’s not good at all.

While absolutely any mammal can get rabies— even bunnies and squirrels!— it’s very rare for it to occur in opossums. Each year, recorded cases of rabies in opossums are even lower than cases in cattle, deer, and horses. This is likely because of a combination of their robust immune systems (necessary for their scavenging lifestyle) and their low body temperature, which doesn’t incubate rabies as readily as most mammals.

With that said, it’s important to listen to an opossum’s “I’m scary and rabid!” bluff, even though it’s pretty much always a bluff. If you do get bitten by an opossum (or any other wild animal) it’s very likely that you’ll have to choose between having the critter put to sleep for testing, and undergoing a series of very expensive and painful shots. Please give wild animals space, for their safety and yours!

Confused Birds: Not Miracles or Social Media Accessories

Social media can be both a very good thing and a very bad thing for wildlife. One of the most unfortunate trends we’ve seen over the last few years involves people taking videos and photos with seriously injured birds while declaring the unfortunate animal’s behavior miraculous.

We’re not here to knock anyone’s spiritual beliefs, but the sad reality is that this trend is seriously hurting wild birds. A disoriented bird always needs a rehabilitator, but the tendency to view them as magical or miraculous means that people fail to get them the help they need. Worse, some even end up bringing these birds home— saying that it’s their “familiar” or a reincarnated loved one— where the birds invariably die due to improper care.

If you find a bird that is landing on humans or seemingly supernaturally docile, that is always a red flag of something amiss. In most cases, this behavior is a result of a serious head injury, usually from hitting a window. (It’s not a coincidence that most of these viral stories take place in front of buildings with large windows.) In a few cases, the birds are unusually friendly because they had been raised as pets or for falconry and are not adapting properly to life in the wild.

Please… If you ever encounter an unusually friendly or docile bird, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as quickly as possible. If you’d like to turn the experience into a TikTok video or tweet, please make it a story about saving a bird, rather than a story about encountering a magical omen.