Whose (Wild) Life Is It, Anyway?
STORY BY JOHN ALLEN
"Hell is paved with good intentions, not with bad ones."
— George Bernard Shaw
Well-intentioned though you may be, you're probably not helping that squirrel that's been eating peanuts from your hand on your backyard deck for the past few years.
While it's legal to feed them, "if you do, you need to be willing to do it for the life of the animal, especially if you start when they're real young because they don't learn how to survive on their own," said Sgt. Ken Swiderski of the Illinois Conservation Police.
Seeing an animal starve because you're no longer feeding it, and it can't feed on its own, might tempt you to take another step on the road to perdition: bringing it inside as a house pet.
"If you try to cage wild animals or bring them inside, that's taking them into your possession and that's illegal," Swiderski said. "They're not meant to be pets. They're not domesticated animals."
In his 24 years as a conservation police officer, Swiderski has seen plenty of people attempt to domesticate wild animals. "We had Moses the squirrel a few years ago that ended up in court with the lady bringing in pictures of the squirrel wearing a Santa Claus hat," Swiderski said. "Some years before that, a lady had a pet skunk. It was a media circus. Another case had a supposed animal rehabilitator keeping wildlife as pets. That made the National Enquirer. These cases are difficult to deal with because the people are violating laws, so we have to take some kind of action, and the media has a field day. We usually end up looking like bad guys because they don't understand the biological reasons for what we're doing."
Animals seized from the public are sent to state-licensed animal rehabilitators who make every attempt to recondition them for release back into the wild. If the animal can't be rehabilitated, a zoo or licensed nature center will be asked to take it.
"Unfortunately, that's sometimes difficult because we're usually dealing with common species that most nature centers already possess," Swiderski said.
Most of us will come into contact with wildlife at some point—squirrels underfoot, birds overhead, rabbits in the garden, raccoons in the attic—all of which are protected. In fact, almost all wild animals have some degree of protection.
"The law is very short and clear and says you can't take anything out of the wild and retain it alive," Swiderski said. "The key word is 'take.' It means hunt, shoot, pursue, lure, kill, destroy, capture, gig or spear, trap or ensnare, harass or attempt to do so. It means darn near anything."
It also applies to wildlife babies, a problem that manifests itself every spring. "People find what they think is an abandoned animal, but it's not. The mother is usually out foraging," Swiderski said. "Leave the babies where they are, and if the mother doesn't return in a day or so, call a local nature center or DNR for a list of wildlife rehabbers."
A different section of the Wildlife Code applies to animals that decide your property would make a swell place for them to live. "We get a lot of complaints in metropolitan areas about nuisance animals," Swiderski said. "A squirrel living in your tree is not a nuisance animal. To be a nuisance it has to be destroying real property or posing a public health hazard."
Nuisance animals are handled in two ways: the homeowner or landowner is issued a removal permit, or they can hire a licensed contractor.
"Some villages and suburbs have licensed animal control officers," Swiderski said. "The homeowner's first call should be to their city hall. The second step—if the city doesn't have licensed officers—is to call us. Our department maintains lists of licensed nuisance animal removal contractors."
When a complaint is received, DNR usually sends a CPO to verify that a nuisance exists. If it does, the person can be issued a permit specifying how the wildlife will be captured or destroyed and the method of disposal.
Scott Garrow, DNR district wildlife biologist in Cook County, encourages people with animal problems to have a professional deal with them. With the exception of skunks and raccoons, live-trapped animals must be returned to the wild, which requires permission from both DNR and the owner of the property where they'll be released.
"You can't take them to the nearest farm or forest preserve and let them go," Garrow said, "There's always a possibility of spreading disease from one population to another."
He added that all skunks must be euthanized, and raccoons captured by professionals must either be euthanized, released on the same property where they were captured or taken to a licensed veterinarian where they can be observed for a minimum of 45 days before being released.
Squirrels or raccoons in attics, skunks under front porches, deer eating shrubbery or rows of corn
Canada geese rapidly are becoming a nuisance species in urban areas.
and coyotes in chicken coops are common nuisances handled under the state statute. Another common pest, especially around golf courses and corporate offices, is the Canada goose. However, since it's a migratory bird, it's protected under both state and federal law.
Roy Domazlicky, DNR urban goose biologist, said landowners can discourage geese from nesting by using flags, noise makers (if not prohibited locally), chemical repellants or dogs. Once geese have nested, however, state and federal permits are required to destroy their nests and/or eggs. Permits are issued by DNR and the USFWS through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Holders of DNR Commercial Wildlife Control permits must also have an additional permit before disturbing nests or eggs of nuisance geese.
Swiderski said it's unlawful for anyone to disturb or destroy nests or dens of wild animals, including beaver dams and muskrat food piles, that haven't been determined to be a nuisance.
"If a nest or den has been abandoned it may be destroyed," Swiderski said. "Once birds are gone you can remove the nest, but they'll rebuild the nest the next year unless some physical changes are made to prevent them from doing it. The same is true with nuisance animals. If you have raccoons in the attic and have them removed, it solves nothing unless you plug the hole they came in through."
The Wildlife Code defines game birds, migratory game birds, resident and migratory non-game birds, game mammals, fur-bearing mammals and other non-game mammals.
Non-game species are off-limits to trappers, hunters and the general public. "Basically, if there's no hunting or trapping season for a species it can't legally be possessed," Swiderski said. "Along those lines would be all raptors (hawks, owls, falcons, eagles), songbirds and endangered and threatened species."
However, there is an exception to the rule. Animals that may be protected in Illinois might not be in other states. In those instances, the possessor would need permits or tags showing it was legally taken in another state.
"The bobcat's a good example," he said. "There's no season for bobcat in Illinois, so you can't take one out of the wild here. But you could legally hunt it in another state where there is a hunting season. You'd have to have the permits from that state, whether it's a hunting license or a metal tag, to prove it was taken legally.
"In numerous places, the Wildlife Code puts the burden of proof on the person," Swiderski continued. "If they can't prove it was legally taken in another state, it is assumed it was taken out of the wild in Illinois."
The prohibition on taking non-game species applies whether it's alive or dead. "You cannot pick up
Bobcats recently were removed from the threatened and
a dead owl or other endangered or threatened species," Swiderski said. "The only facilities that can possess protected species are zoos or scientific or educational institutions with valid scientific or collector's permits. If you see a dead one, note where it is and call your local nature center to see if they need that species."
If no institution wants the animal, it must be left there. "It won't go to waste," Swiderski said. "Other animals will eat it."
Taking road-kill animals is generally prohibited, Swiderski said, except that game species may be taken in season by those with valid hunting or trapping licenses. Road-kill deer may be taken by anyone, anytime, with the driver of the vehicle involved in the collision having first choice. Persons taking road-kill deer are required to report it to DNR by calling 1-800-406-3477 Monday through Friday. If you take a road kill on a weekend, it must be reported the following Monday.
Laws protecting animals also apply to parts of animals. Just as it's illegal to possess owls, it's illegal to possess owl feathers or talons.
Paradoxically, parts of animals taken legally may be possessed and even sold. "Legally taken fur-bearing mammals like raccoons can be sold," Swiderski said. "But the person buying it needs a fur buyers license."
Fur buyers are required to issue receipts to sellers, keep records of purchases for two years and report purchases to DNR once a year. Licensed taxidermists also are required to keep detailed records.
"Two of the problems we run into are flea markets and secondhand shops," Swiderski said. "Oftentimes they have no knowledge of the laws, and we often find things such as stuffed birds of prey they bought at an estate sale being sold in violation of state or federal laws. Most of the time it's done through ignorance. All those things are subject to confiscation because they are illegal to possess."