Karen Knez got a call from an acquaintance asking for advice about an antelope fawn that was adopted after it had been found "abandoned" by its mother.
Her reply was simple: "You shouldn't have taken it."
Knez volunteers for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, caring for injured or orphaned wild animals. She has nursed and rehabilitated elk calves, deer fawns, owls, eagles and raccoons. The animals often are found by law officers or DOW personnel.
But like the caller who inquired about the antelope fawn, many people are too quick to conclude that a wild animal is motherless, Knez said.
Hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts create orphans by removing baby animals from the wild.
It's a perennial springtime problem for the DOW.
"It happens every spring," said Brad Petch, a habitat biologist with the DOW. "It's probably one of the most tragic things we have to deal with."
Well-meaning people might think they are rescuing an animal that has been left by its mother. But female deer and other wildlife purposefully leave their babies in safe hiding places as a measure of protection, Petch said. It draws attention away from the newborns. Predators are attracted to females in hopes that a vulnerable youngster might be in the vicinity, Petch said.
It's easy for people to misinterpret the scene.
"The assumption is that the mom ought to be right there close," Petch said. "But if the mother stays too close, that's a quick way to get a fawn eaten."
It's not uncommon for mother animals to leave their offspring alone for hours at a time, Petch said.
Petch was aware of one fawn that sat motionless near the fairway at the Yampa Valley Golf Course for an entire day until its mother thought it was safe to move the animal to the river bottom.
A baby deer or an elk calf curled up in the grass all by itself is a cute and amazing discovery, Petch. But touching or removing the animal sentences it to a tough life with little or no chance for survival, Petch said.
Even capable caretakers such as Knez aren't always successful, Petch said. Animals tend to get used to being touched by people and lose some of the natural fear that keeps them alive.
Knez said she takes precautions to try to keep the animals as "wild" as possible. But when the animals are released, "they stand there and wonder what you're doing and sometimes try to follow you away," Knez said.
It might be obvious that an animal is orphaned if the mother is found dead on a nearby roadside or tangled in a fence, for instance.
Only in such obvious cases would she remove an animal from the wild, Knez said.
Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org