Man Pulls Over in a California Wildfire to Rescue a Wild Rabbit
You may have already seen this video, which went viral yesterday. I've decided to post it for a couple of reasons: First, lots of you sent it in! And it is awfully heartwarming to see a fellow human go so far out of his way to rescue an animal that appears to be in danger.
But I also wanted to take the opportunity to explain that this is not actually the recommended course of action for healthy, uninjured wild animals, even in this circumstance. The reason is that wild animals, and possibly especially small mammals, are actually pretty good at surviving fires. Live Science writes:
Burrow-dwelling small mammals, like the desert cottontail rabbits common to Southern California, will sometimes ride out surface fires underground. As long as the animals' holes remain well-ventilated, most burrow-dwellers make it through the majority of fires just fine, [a U.S. Forest Service report] said... While a few individual animals might die in any given fire, populations of most species are well-equipped to make it through with only small losses, the Forest Service said. And afterward, many small-mammal populations boom in fire-stricken areas, as more food and nesting grounds become available, the Forest Service wrote.
Live Science even cited fire ecologist E.V. Komarek's paper, "Fire and Animal Behavior":
For 25 years, Komarek attended an annual rabbit hunt on the Tall Timbers Plantation in Florida, where the plantation owner would set fire to a portion of the land to flush out marsh rabbits and eastern cottontails. The latter is part of the same genus as the desert cottontail, which is abundant in Southern California.
While marsh rabbits caught in the hunt sometimes emerged singed or burned from the fire, Komarek wrote, he "never examined a cottontail that was burned, scorched or killed by fire. … Apparently, the behavior patterns of the cottontail under these conditions made it much less prone to injury from fire than the marsh rabbit."
Furthermore, during the October 2017 wine country fires, Peter Tira, spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told SFGate that "If you encounter a wild animal in your neighborhood, leave it alone. Fire or no fire, just let the animals be... Fire is something animals have to deal with constantly."
As for this particular rabbit, who knows? It could have been getting back to its warren, or not. It could have been getting back to a nest of bunnies, or not. (Desert cottontails still might have litters this time of year.) But wildlife experts seem to be unanimous in their position that, despite our good intentions, we should just let healthy, uninjured wild animals do what they need to do.
For more reading, check out Live Science's article, the U.S. Forest Service's "Effects of Fire on Fauna" paper, and E.V. Komarek's paper. Snopes even has an entry, for a quick read.