Letting Nature Take ‘Its’ Course.

It’s a common expression: let nature takes its course – and we learn it while we ‘re young. It can be used in many ways, but in the end, what it always means is that the best outcome can be achieved by doing nothing – that left alone, the inevitable outcome is the preferred outcome.

As wildlife rehabilitators, we hear this expression every day.

Two months ago, a man called from somewhere out Highway 36 – he’d found a fawn by the side of the road with a dead doe, presumably the fawn’s mother, most likely hit by a vehicle. The caller had already talked to a local government agent to find help. “The ranger said it would be better to let nature take it’s course,” he said, “but I couldn’t just leave the little guy there. Will you take him?”

Of course we would. And we did.

The fawn is doing well, is now being weaned from a bottle to foraging for greens, in the company of other fawns, untamed. If all continues to go well, he will soon be released back into a wild herd.

Two weeks ago we released an Osprey who’d been hit by a vehicle and picked up from the shoulder of a two-lane blacktop that skirts the western edge of Lassen National Park. The woman who found the bird talked to an employee at a park information booth who told her the best thing she could do was put the grounded bird back and, yes, let nature take its course. She said she couldn’t do that, so the employee found her a box and gave her a phone number for a veterinarian in Redding. When she got to Redding, the veterinary clinic wasn’t open (nor were they permitted to treat wildlife).

So she found us on the internet. Since she was already headed to the coast she was able to bring the Osprey to our clinic. It took all day, but eventually we had the bird in care. While in relatively good shape with no external injuries, the Osprey was slow to respond, seeming dazed. Within a couple days, however, in the safety of our clinic, the plunge-diving raptor regained his wits and was flying well and in a very dissatisfied mood.

As soon as he was ready, our staff took him on the 5 hour drive back to Lassen, back to his lake next to the volcano. He needed nothing more than some time in care – a safe haven where food and safety are provided.

If you put the Osprey back on the side of the road and “let nature take its course” – disoriented and grounded by his collision with a vehicle – it’s predictable that the Osprey will die. With no treatment, who knows how long it will take for him to recover his wits, if ever – and with no food or water, his slow decline gathers momentum until he’s too weak to seek shelter, let alone regain his ability to meet his own needs.  Another car, another predator, or a slow death by dehydration is as certain as night follows day.

If you provide care – hydration, food, anti-inflammatory medicine, a safe aviary, reduced stress – and let Nature take her course – the bird stands a very good chance of healing and getting a second chance.

Do all of the animals who we treat recover? Of course not. Many animals do not respond to treatment – the antibiotics are too late to prevent the death of a Barn Swallow bitten by a house cat, the neurological trauma that leaves the Raven with paralyzed legs doesn’t resolve. More often, the patient’s injuries are simply too severe.  The only course we can take is to humanely end the suffering. Any hunter can tell you that you don’t let an animal wander off to a slow death from the wounds that you’ve caused.  You don’t gut-shoot a deer and then “let nature take its course.” Wild animals who’ve been injured by the human-built world at least have the right to a humane death.

The person in uniform, or the biologist, or the front desk clerk, who recommends letting nature take its course may not be able to diagnose the injury, may not be aware that treatment is available, may not be informed at all on this topic. Often the person functioning as the authority is merely parroting a worn phrase we all know so well.

‘Let nature take its course’ is not a fact-based recommendation, it is not science based. Now of course there are many ways to use this phrase in many situations, but to be clear, when we’re talking about injured and orphaned wild animals, letting nature take its course means not taking responsibility for the injury and suffering our society has caused. It is irresponsible even though it parades as the dispassionate, wider-scoped perspective, not the uneducated sentimental feelings of compassion. And in this way, Nature is made out to be the culprit – Nature is cruel, and the compassionate person is a fool. A logging truck full of trees hits a deer and kills her, leaving her young stranded – too small to survive. The local ranger says the fawn should be left alone, that we should let nature take its course, and it is Nature who is cruel.

Meanwhile, who destroys Nature foolishly? Is it the person who blunders in picking up a fledgling sparrow thinking that the bird was in trouble and not simply in an awkward phase of learning to fly? Or a bison calf? Or, is it the builders of pipelines, the levelers of forests, the polluters of the sea? Why is it only fitting for nature to take its course when an individual is suffering an injury caused by industrial society?

And there is this: the heavy line drawn between the human and the natural, between society and the wild is religious, not scientific. It is a belief, not a finding. Who among us has the hubris to say where that line runs, or if it exists at all.

In the end, ‘letting nature take its course’ is a fallacy, an error, a hypocrisy, a lie.

Right now, in Washington state, wolves are slated to be slaughtered for having killed cattle that were put out to graze at the wolves’ den site on public lands. No cries from the biologists, the wardens, or the clerks now to let nature take its course – no cries at all.

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