Humans Living with Wildlife: Rehabilitation or interference?

Mike Lillyman has been involved in the rehabilitation and release of animals and birds for many years. Here he looks at the impact we have on the wildlife around us, and at just how fragile our relationship with animals can be. We can all play a positive role in improving the relationship between ourselves and the wildlife around us. From planting indigenous plants attractive to birds and insects to helping to rid areas of invasive weeds, there are opportunities to provide the much-needed assistance to the wildlife we are fortunate to still have around us.

the friendly spotted eagle owl

Some fourteen years ago, I replaced the world of traffic and schedules with one of trees and bush and solitude. Here on my small enclave of coastal forest on the Natal south coast I entered a world filled with intense feelings of wanting to befriend the animals of the forest and bush only to find that they were not so keen on making me their companion of choice. Looking back, the years have been filled with experiences deep and moving, sometimes warm and rewarding and at other times so desperately sad. Perhaps the most telling of all is the honesty that one finds in animals and the bush. It is an honesty that has no boundaries and no conditions.There is a divide between spending time in the bush and living in it. One moves from being the interested visitor to becoming a host of sorts. The forest invites you in and welcomes you and, to be sure, must smile a little at times when we, the uninitiated, do silly things. There is however, a patience and gentleness that allows a measure of error, and rewards so generously those things we do that create harmony.One of the hardest things to accept and understand is the order of the forest; the seemingly arbitrary arrangement of stem, branch and trunk; the tangle of creepers and the harshness of thorns. And with that goes the order of the living things and how ignorant we are of those unbending rules and laws that dictate the very lives of the forest inhabitants. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn: to understand how everything is determined by everything else and however well-meaning we may be, we need to take some time to learn the effects of our actions.This is the debate concerning the intervention that we as humans are guilty of when we step into the realm of rehabilitation. The bird feeder creates an imbalance by favouring the seedeaters. Just how removed do we have to be? We can argue that the birds have lost their habitat and consequently the feeder restores the balance but we know that it is only part of the story. Should we not in the same vein have monkey feeding stations? And what about the raptors? Should we not be feeding them as well? Perhaps the bird feeder does all three, from time to time.

rehab pic pigmy kingfisher

There is no correct answer to these and almost all questions of our interaction with our fellow beings. It really is a question of what our hearts tell us. Are we pedantic enough to allow a young fledgling to die because it has fallen out of the nest on a particularly windy day? Very few of us would be comfortable with that, but what about the fledgling that is the weakest in the nest and would normally die naturally. Now, our interfering upsets a disposition to ensure the strongest survive and we find ourselves wondering just where the guidelines are.The area where we find ourselves on more solid ground is where animals or birds have suffered at the hand of humans: from the indiscretion of driving too fast and hitting an animal crossing a road to rescuing animals trapped in snares or, perhaps the most common of all, birds flying into the windows of our houses. These are times when our intervention falls comfortably in ‘restoring the balance’ and there are no difficult questions to ponder.Our lives have been so enriched by our interaction with animals and birds that have been brought to us suffering from some injury. The initial heady enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that the success rate is going to be less than 100%, and some will die regardless of what one does, while others will die because mistakes are made. But by far the most difficult part of the interaction is the formation of a bond of trust between the species. The one thing that we are inherently good at as humans is creating stress in other animals. Some animals never lose the fear of humans but they are in the minority and all it takes is effort and time to entice even a small measure of trust or tolerance.Sometimes one is surprised at the human intervention. Workmen, digging a new water pipeline in the area, disturbed a nest of malachite kingfishers. The back actor stopped and the four chicks were brought to us in a box. They were wonderful little birds, hugely independent and remarkably comfortable with each other. Once they were ready to fly, I released them into a large aviary. One morning I took a shallow drip tray and filled it with about ten centimetres of water. I caught a number of small tilapia in our little dam and placed them in the container. For the four chicks it appeared as if someone had switched on the lights and as one they focused on the fish. It wasn’t long, perhaps two or three dives, and they were able to capture their own food. For birds to be able to source their own food is always a giant step to re-integrate them into the wild. Some birds have a disposition to imprint on humans and become tame and dependent and consequently so very vulnerable as they lose their fear of predators. Mousebirds and Turacos are especially prone to this and it is unfair to encourage birds to become dependent, just as it’s unfair to hand feed monkeys.

the kingfishers at home in their box

Owls have such a special place in our lives and almost every culture is rich in stories and myths about these beautiful birds. Sadly, so many young owls are ‘rescued’ by well-meaning people when they are in no need of being rescued but have merely left the nest and are still being cared for by the parents. Spotted Eagle Owls are especially prone to this. Their other trait of sitting in rain puddles along the roads makes them fairly common casualties to motor cars. Most of the young owls brought to us remained aloof and left as soon as they could fend for themselves, and we only heard them for a few nights before they moved off to find a territory of their own. One, however, stayed for longer and came down each evening for a snack and it was such a privilege to watch my young son call the owl and see it fly onto his arm to be fed. I hope that both of them will cherish the memory.I walk sometimes in the bush together with a small blue duiker. Once injured with a broken leg she recovered completely and chose to stay with me over the years. She has taught me to walk softly, slowly and carefully. To be aware and listen, to look for signs and acknowledge scents. To be guided by sounds and most important of all: to hold in awe the beauty of simply being part of it.

daisy on her first day in the enclosure

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