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Wildlife rescues: What to do if you find an orphaned or injured baby animal in the wild

Spring is the season of new life. Flowers bloom, plants begin to grow and many wild animals start having their young. Come late March, you may start seeing young animals popping up in your backyard, from baby birds to young fawns to energetic fox pups. The animal lovers among us may even be compelled to “rescue” these young creatures to keep as pets. As a rule, the best course of action for dealing with a wild animal is simply to leave it be. Unless the animal is orphaned or injured, there typically isn’t any need for human intervention. That said, it can be difficult to determine whether or not an animal truly needs assistance. This guide will help you determine the wisest course of action when confronted with a baby animal in the wild.

Determining if the animal needs help:

While it is in human nature to want to help a vulnerable animal, usually the kindest thing to do is to leave the baby right where it is. Animals fare much better when raised by their own kind rather than humans. In some instances, though, it may be necessary to intervene to preserve the young animal’s life. According to the Humane Society, signs that an animal needs your help include:
  • The animal is bleeding.
  • A cat or dog brings you the animal in its mouth.
  • The animal has a broken bone.
  • For young birds found out of the nest, check if it is featherless or nearly featherless.
  • You found the animal near its dead parent.
  • The animal is crying and wandering around alone for an extended period. Give the animal’s mother ample time to return before you intervene.
Understand that after being taken from the wild, many human-reared animals cannot ever be released as they lack crucial survival skills needed to thrive in the wild. While an animal may appear to be lost or abandoned, the mother is usually close by finding food or distracting predators. For instance, young rabbits spend most of their time alone in their nests. A female rabbit with kittens returns to the nest site only at dusk and dawn to feed her young, so you will likely never see her. To identify whether the mother rabbit is still in the area and providing care, place two pieces of yarn or string across the nest in a loose X pattern. If the string has not been disturbed within 24 hours, immediately contact a wildlife rehabber. Refer to the Humane Society’s website for more species-specific advice on identifying abandoned animals.

Finding help for a distressed or abandoned animal:

Remember that caring for a baby animal is extremely difficult regardless of species. Even if you have experience raising domesticated pets such as cats or dogs, wild animals have a completely different set of needs and requirements that you cannot prepare for. Never consider keeping a wild animal as a pet. According to Born Free USA, since 1990 there have been over 75 deaths caused by wild-born exotic pets such as bears, wolves, various reptiles and even deer. If you aren’t sure where to find the nearest wildlife rehabilitator, contact your local conservation office to be directed to the appropriate professionals. Alternatively, go to the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association’s (NWRA) website. Their “Finding a Rehabilitator” page will connect you with a vetted wildlife rehabber. Then, if the animal is safe where it is, simply wait nearby for the professional to arrive. Do not attempt to move the animal yourself unless absolutely necessary. If you do have to touch the animal, wear thick, durable gloves to prevent bites or scratches. Remember that even though it’s just a baby, you are still dealing with a wild animal and must treat it as such. Keep the baby warm but resist the urge to cuddle or pet it. Place the animal in a safe container such as a cardboard box with air holes. If a bite or scratch does occur, seek medical help immediately. The animal could still be diseased even if it isn’t showing any obvious signs of sickness