Happy or Hissing? 5 signs that the wild animal you rescued actually hates you.

A disastrous oil spill, a feathered victim, a rescue team, and a happy ending. The story certainly has the makings of a solid Disney movie. I’ll give you that. If you were following the news coverage of the Pipeline P00547 Incident aka the Orange County Oil Spill, then chances are you have already seen this photo of the “Happy Duck”. The image was shared widely by news outlets who referred to the ruddy duck as “Happy Duck” to depict the lighter side of response efforts as people worked together to clean up the environmental disaster. Well folks, here is where I must be the bearer of bad news. This photo does NOT depict a happy duck. This, in fact, is a decidedly unhappy duck. But don’t worry, Unhappy Duck still gets a happy ending! Let me explain.

You see, I took the infamous “Happy Duck” photo and I can testify that our ruddy duck patient was actually a simmering ball of feathery rage. Why? Because he had been abducted by terrifying primate predators and was being held against his will! (I’ll refer to Ruddy as a he, but truthfully he/she was in a phase of molt when gender is indeterminable) You see, wildlife and humans tend to mix about as well as–humor me–oil and water. For a person, an encounter with a wild bird can be an awe-inspiring, lifelong memory! Something to share with friends on social media for sure! But for a wild bird, an encounter with a much larger human would be terrifying, life-threatening, and something to avoid at all costs!

The ruddy duck is pre-treated with a solvent to begin the de-oiling process.

I snapped the photo in question the day after our lively little ruddy duck went through the cleaning process. As the first patient recovered during the oil spill, it was important to document his progress. During a large spill like this, the media and the public are watching closely. They want reassurance that the wildlife is being cared for and the OWCN is glad to provide that transparency. So following the de-oiling bath (which was probably the absolute scariest experience of his life) I seized the opportunity during his regularly scheduled exam to snap a quick progress photo. Ruddy’s transformation was remarkable! Where there had previously been thick, tarry clumps of oil and sand adhered to every inch of Ruddy’s body, there was now only a coating of supple tan and brown feathers. Perhaps most shocking was Ruddy’s drop in weight. Pre-wash, Ruddy was 560 grams. Now clean, Ruddy’s weight dropped to 440 grams. Usually weight loss is a concerning sign in wildlife rehabilitation, but in this case it meant that Ruddy was probably feeling much better after shedding over 100 grams of oil and sand! Surely this means he’s happy? No. But he’s smiling?! Wrong again.

This is a good time to check in with one of the core concepts of wildlife rehabilitation. As wildlife caregivers, it is crucial that we maintain awareness of the stress level of our patient. How can we tell if an animal is stressed? There are many indications, but they largely depend on the species and its natural defenses. In this case, ducks and geese are known to hiss and posture defensively when they feel threatened. Ever been strolling through the park when you’re suddenly approached by a hissing goose? That goose wasn’t being a jerk, she was protecting her family. A lot of people hate geese, but honestly–they’re one of my favorite birds. You’ve got to respect an animal that demands respect! You wouldn’t encounter a hissing ruddy duck at your neighborhood park though. Unlike Canada geese, ruddy ducks steer clear of humans. But when cornered by a human? Ruddy is going to defend himself in the only way he knows how. Hissing, posturing, and snapping. And that, friends, is exactly what Ruddy is doing in the photo.

The ruddy duck hisses and lunges when being picked up for treatment.

Alright, alright. Jeez, Sam–way to ruin our harmless illusion of the Happy Duck. Yeah, I know–sorry. But the thing is, it’s not always harmless illusion. Wildlife can and often do suffer at the hands of people who mistake stress and fear for sweeter emotions. We humans have a proclivity for anthropomorphizing animal’s in order to relate to them.

Anthropomorphize: verb. to attribute human form or personality to things not human.

This isn’t to say that animals aren’t capable of experiencing happiness, love, gratitude, etc. But don’t fall into the trap of assuming that YOU can accurately interpret a wild animal’s emotions. Wildlife caregivers and other keen observers of the natural world may have an easier time of deciphering a wild animal’s reactions. But for the general public, decoding these signals often goes awry and leads to an animal being subjected to undue stress. People love a feel-good story of rescuing an animal in need. And I am by no means discouraging anyone from helping animals in need! Instead, I am offering a small dose of honesty for the sake of the wild animals who you might help someday. The take home message here is this: Wild animals do not know you are trying to help them. They are terrified of you. Good intentions are wonderful, but informed good intentions are even better! Act from a place of respect and do everything in your power to minimize their fear and stress. It makes a difference!

So without any further ado, here are 5 signs that the wild animal you rescued actually hates you (or at least fears you!):

  1. Hissing, chattering, chirping – pretty much any kind of vocalization directed at a human. This indicates a very fearful and defensive wild animal. Wild animals often vocalize to distract or scare-off a predator that is pursuing them.
  2. Puffing up their fur or feathers. Posturing to make yourself appear larger is a common strategy when faced with a dangerous predator. It’s even recommended that humans use this technique if they encounter a mountain lion.
  3. Flipping onto their back. Chances are, a wild animal doesn’t want to harm you. If given the choice, it would much rather flee. But if injured or trapped, it may resort to defending itself. For species like raptors, this could mean flipping onto their back to use their sharp talons on you.
  4. Freezing in place or accepting petting. The fight or flight instinct is strong! Some animals will always choose to flee and if fleeing isn’t an option, they will completely freeze in fear. This isn’t an invitation to coo softly and pet the distressed animal! This means it’s time to either give them space or place them in a safe, quiet container for transportation to a permitted rehabilitator.
  5. Staring into your eyes. This is a time when eye contact is discouraged. That injured hawk isn’t trying to form a soul connection with you. He’s trying to anticipate your next move. He’s expecting you to attack him and he wants to be ready.

Have you ever rescued a wild animal? Or have you seen one of those popular, feel-good internet videos where someone saves a wild animal from certain death? Did you observe any of these signs of fear or stress? I hope you’re not too bummed to learn that wild animals are a lot less thankful for our help than you previously thought. Having a greater awareness of an animal’s stress response is a GOOD thing! It means we can adapt our way of helping to better suit the needs of the distressed animal. This is exactly what we do as professional wildlife responders at the OWCN. We carefully consider the stress of our patients and constantly seek ways to mitigate it for the sake of their health and wellbeing. A stressed animal might reject food, injure itself with repeated escape attempts, take longer to heal, or worse.

Ruddy spent a week on the pool perfecting his waterproofing. Even from this distance, Ruddy was wary of the photographer’s presence.

For Ruddy, we implemented a variety of things to minimize stress. Our care team always spoke minimally and with hushed voices around him. We prepared all necessary supplies ahead of time so that Ruddy’s treatments were quick and efficient. We provided a species-appropriate diet and caging. Once Ruddy was de-oiled and waterproof, we moved him outside to a pool so that he was disturbed as little as possible. Finally, when Ruddy was rehabilitated and ready for return back to the wild, we transported him in a quiet car and released him back to the wild!

Releasing the ruddy duck and an eared grebe. Photo credit: LA Times

Following his release, the media asked “Do you think he is happy to be back home? Do you think he is grateful for being rescued?” Well, to the first question – I’d like to think the answer is yes. If nothing else, he was happy to be out of my hands and back on the open water! But to the second question, I’d have to say no. I don’t think he will look back on his time with us as anything other than a terrifying ordeal he barely survived. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I’ve done hundreds of releases and I’ve never had an animal turn back and give me one last, grateful look before they fly off into the sunset. Plenty of released animals have turned to face me to make sure I’m not chasing them, but alas, no “thank you’s” or “warm wishes” were had. And that is OKAY! Helping these animals recover after an oil spill is our job and we are glad to do it, thanks or no thanks.

Want to make sure you are putting your best foot forward when rescuing a wildlife? Here are 6 ways we can all be better helpers to wildlife in distress:

  1. First question – Does the animal really need my help? Handling a wild animal should always be avoided when possible. Make sure you are intervening as a last resort and that the animal really does require assistance. Is it a baby bird simply learning to fly? Is it a fawn nestled quietly beside a tree? Is it a nest of baby bunnies without a mama in sight? If so, leave them alone! Wildlife rehabilitators are flooded with healthy baby animals every spring who were kidnapped by the well-meaning public. There are many good resources online to help you determine if a wild animal needs your help. Still not sure? Contact your local wildlife rehabilitation center.
  2. Leave the rehabilitation to the experts. Unless you are a permitted wildlife rehabilitator or you are working with one, your job is to get the animal to the people who have the skills, experience, resources, and legal ability to help. Find professional help for injured/orphaned wildlife by clicking here. Do not try to feed or provide medical attention to distressed wildlife without first consulting a rehabilitator.
  3. Keep children and pets away from wildlife! This one always surprises me. What seems like common sense to many is lost on a few. Your cat or dog, no matter how sweet, is not a good companion for the wild animal you are trying to help. Cats have deadly bacteria in their saliva. A single puncture in an animal’s skin will likely bring on a fatal infection. Your dog might be very motherly and want to cuddle the baby bunny, but your neighbor’s dogs might want to eat the bunny. Don’t teach the bunny to be friendly with dogs. And kids. Please don’t encourage your kids to handle injured or orphaned wildlife. Parasites and zoonotic diseases aside, the animal is in need of care by a qualified adult. Unnecessary handling from kids is the last thing it needs.
  4. Safely contain the animal. For most species, the best way to pick them up is by draping a towel over them and gently lifting them up with the towel. Place them into a box with some air holes. You want a box big enough that the animal can easily turn around, but not so large that they have room to jump around. I’ve seen animals arrive to rehabilitation centers in all kinds of wacky containers. Sometimes you’ve got to be creative, but the important thing is using a container. Carrying the animal on your lap prolongs the scariest part of the experience for the animal–handling by humans.
  5. Minimize disturbances. Keep things quiet. Turn off your music in the car while transporting and put your barking dog away. Dim the lights if possible. If you aren’t able to transport the injured animal right away place their container in quiet spot. There’s no need to check on the animal every five minutes. Doing so is only going to stress them further.
  6. Try to prevent human-wildlife conflicts. Often times, human activity is the root cause of a wild animal’s injury. Whether they’ve been contaminated during an oil spill, attacked by a domestic cat, collided with a window, ate a poisoned rat, or were hit by a car, today’s wildlife face an unprecedented number of threats due to the actions of humans. Consider how your daily routine, home, and pets might be a positive or negative impact on wildlife. Being a helper to wildlife can come in many forms!

To all of you out there who have been helpers of wildlife–we salute you! Whether the animal thanked you with a hiss, a scratch, a well-aimed poop, or in no way at all–I’d just like to say:

Thank you.

– Sam

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