Editorial: Let nature take its course

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Like a lot of things that get attention these days, it started with a video. Two Mankato brothers recorded a deformed bunny in their backyard, imitating the narration of late Australian animal explorer Steve Irwin. And we now have the makings of a legend. For several weeks anyway.

This “Frankenstein” rabbit, as the college-age narrator dubbed it, not only got lots of attention because of the video posting on Reddit, but animal lovers everywhere said instead of making fun of the animal with the growths, they kids should have gotten the bunny some help.

Whether or not you think it’s funny to make a video of strange phenomena found in nature, it’s clear that wildlife experts don’t think rabbits with this condition should be helped. In fact, most wild animals that are sick or injured should be left alone.

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Rabbits that have sprouted growths have the Shope papilloma virus. It’s the same virus thought to be behind the jackolope legend. (Someone way back when decided to capitalize on the deformity. Taxidermists fashion antelope horns on rabbit heads that can frequently be found on display out West, including at South Dakota’s Wall Drug.)

Department of Natural Resources regional wildlife manager Ken Varland told NBC News he gets calls about horned rabbits once or twice a summer. DNR officials don’t respond by catching the rabbits. The virus can’t be treated. The condition could turn cancerous in an estimated 20 percent of cases, he said.

Varland believes the growths wouldn’t interfere with the rabbits’ social interactions with other rabbits. He said the biggest threat to rabbits, deformed or not, are predators.

And that’s how nature works and always has.

Although it’s the work of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville to treat injured and sick animals, experts there urge people to call first to check and see if intervention makes sense. Sometimes what we interpret as cruel, such as a young, struggling bird being left behind, is nature’s design to concentrate on raising the strongest and healthiest.

The DNR says the best choice is to limit human intervention during natural causes of animal injury or death. Interrupting food-web dynamics may result in cascading impacts on wildlife communities and ecosystem health.

And an important consideration to potential rescuers is that being bitten or clawed during the rescue attempt is a real risk. (Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling quoted a bar patron who watched the frantic “rescue” of a beaver by other bar patrons and then said: “How long do you think it’s going to take a beaver to get out of a cardboard box?”)

The DNR offers this straightforward, sound advice when it comes to wildlife: “If you care, leave it there.”

— Mankato Free Press, Aug. 5