Put the baby bunny back! Part 2-the imprinting issue

Digital Originals

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Raven Ridge Wildlife Center is taking care of a lot of orphaned fox kits right now– nine as of this writing, subject to change without notice. They’re all kinds of adorable, and you might think they need to be held, and cuddled, and petted, and hand-fed, and all the things you’d do with a puppy or kitten. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“With the baby foxes, they can imprint, which we don’t want, which means that they think they’re human,” explains Tracie Young, Raven Ridge’s rehabber. “It’s very important that these foxes stay wild and that they fear the public.”

Imprinting was first studied scientifically in the 1930s by Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz. In experiments with baby geese, he separated a clutch of eggs into groups. One hatched in the presence of the mother, and the other group hatched in front of Lorenz. The goslings each followed their respective “mothers”; if he put all the goslings together, they would return to their “parents.” For his pioneering work in ethology, the study of animal behavior, Lorenz would later win the Nobel Prize. For rehabbers like Tracie, imprinting is something to avoid.

“We don’t want to have imprinted foxes,” Tracie said. “Because then they’re going to start showing up on your porch, they’ll want to come into the house, and it’s never a good ending when that happens.”

It’s impossible to avoid all contact with the fox kits. Many arrive with some kind of injury and have to be handled while being treated. Tracie also has to open their cages to check on their progress once in a while. Other than that, human contact is kept to a minimum.

“We don’t talk around the foxes,” she said. “They only see us for feedings and cleaning.” They also hang shower curtains with nature scenes in front of the cages, so they’ll see something they might be familiar with, instead of a room full of other animals in other cages. Natural background sounds are piped into the room so the animals won’t hear the humans next room over.

If a fox kit is small, young, or injured, they might start their stay at Raven Ridge in an incubator. They then get put in a larger cage, with other baby foxes nearby. From there, they will eventually get moved to a more open outdoor cage. The outside cage is full of toys to play with, and places to climb and explore. More importantly, it’s full of other fox kits. With their play and socializing, they teach each other how to be foxes.

Imprinted foxes can be a nuisance; imprinted owls can be dangerous–especially great horned owls. “They’ve lost their fear of humans,” explains Tracie, “But they think they are humans because they were raised by humans.”

This becomes a big problem when mating season rolls around. “They’re going to look at a human as competition. So that’s when they will attack because they’re territorial. But now you’re in their territory, even though you live there, so yes, they will attack when you’re going into your home.”

Owls can fly silently because serrations on their feathers break up the turbulence that causes the “whoosh” sound of wings flapping. “You won’t even hear it coming,” Tracie said.

With talons that can measure four to eight inches long, and exert a pressure of up to five hundred pounds per square inch, an attack by a great horned owl is definitely going to leave a mark.

Right now, Tracie is dealing with thirteen baby great-horned owls. How can you take care of that many babies, and manage to avoid imprintings? Fortunately, she can call on some expert help-Pharaoh, the resident great-horned owl. Unable to fly because of a wing injury, he appears as an animal ambassador at Raven Ridge’s educational programs. This time of the year, he’s also serving as a foster parent. While Pharaoh can’t teach his fosters how to hunt, he can teach them everything else they need to know–including that they are owls.

“We put the babies all with him,” explains Tracie, “and he’s teaching them how to groom themselves, how to eat, the noises to make. They only see us for feedings and cleanings, that’s it.”

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