Proper rescue, care for injured or orphaned backyard wildlife

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Jump down to: Songbird rescue   Bird of prey rescue   Large bird rescue   Rabbit rescue   Squirrel rescue   Opossum rescue   Raccoon rescue   Fox rescue   Fawn rescue   Skunk rescue

Most animals who appear to need our help really don’t. Difficult as it can be to resist, don’t rescue a wild animal unless you’re certain he needs it: He appears sick, emaciated, weak, cold, injured, or in imminent danger. Or, if he’s young and you’re certain he’s been abandoned (the parents are usually nearby, hidden, waiting anxiously for humans to leave the area).

When you must rescue, it’s important to get the animal into the care of a wildlife rehabilitator. That individual is the animal’s best hope for survival and release. Wildlife, particularly babies, require very specialized care and feeding. Opossum babies, for instance, require a feeding tube, and baby rabbits require special food and special bacteria. If you don’t know who to contact, your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, local nature center, Audubon Society, Humane Society, or even a seed store can probably steer you to one. Also, check the Yellow Pages under “wildlife.” The internet also has numerous sites on wildlife rescue and care, offering phone numbers to call in the event of an emergency.

Below are some guidelines to help you determine when to intercede in an animal’s life and how to go about doing it. Following that are sections devoted to specific animals. First and foremost, remember that wild animals are…wild. They don’t go with humans willingly, even when it’s for their own good. Imagine what it must be like from the animal’s perspective: He’s ill or injured and helpless, and one of the “predators” his parents warned him about approaches. He can’t get away and he’s being stared at, which from a wild animal’s perspective is a threat in itself. The “predator” wrestles him into submission and then plops him into a container from which he can’t escape. No wonder he tries to fight and bite.

General guidelines

Wear gloves: They’ll help protect you from scratches and bites. Also, from ticks, fleas, mites, parasites or diseases. And, they’ll keep your scent off the animal, in the happy event you’re able to release him.

How to approach: Approach slowly and quietly. Try to stay out of the animal’s line of sight. Cover him completely with a blanket or towel, which will calm him and make him easier to handle. You can remove the cloth once he is secured in a box or crate, but leave it loosely draping the container if you’re visible to him.

Containment: Be sure to punch air holes in any container you use. (Even insects need air.) Place the animal’s container in a quiet, warm room. Darkness is comforting. Make sure the container doesn’t crowd the animal, but is small enough to keep him from flailing about too much, causing further injury.

Keep it warm: An animal can be kept warm with a heating pad, set on low, placed under half of the box (so the animal can move away from the heat if he’s too warm). Also, a heat lamp, wet cloth warmed in a microwave and sealed in a plastic bag, or a heating bottle will work. In all instances, make sure the animal is only warmed, not cooked! This may mean controlling the heat by wrapping a heating pad with a towel in order to reduce the heat transmitted or moving the heat lamp farther away. Use a room thermometer to stay aware (out of the reach of the animal, of course.) The internet has many sources that will tell you the optimum body temperature for the animal.

Don’t feed: Most wild animals require special diets and sometimes very specialized methods of administering food. A mistake can kill them, sometimes painfully. This is especially true for young ones. Mammal babies, for instance, must have their genitals stimulated in order to urinate and defecate. Cow’s milk can kill a wild animal. Giving food or water to a chilled animal can kill him, too — his body will divert energy to digesting food, instead of warming him. Consult with a rehabber before giving any food.

First aid: In all but the most basic situations, such as applying pressure to a badly bleeding wound, contact a rehabber before administering first aid. Don’t apply any human medications to an animal without first consulting with a rehabber. This includes topical antibiotics.

Aggressive animal: Don’t approach. Call a rehabber for advice. In some cases, rescuing an animal is simply too complicated for an inexperienced person to safely do. Some rescues require the help of a professional wildlife trapper.

Wash up: Wash your hands thoroughly, as well as all materials that come into contact with a wild animal.

Not a pet: Experts warn against keeping a wild animal for a pet. There are many good reasons why. Read more about that here.

Get expert advice: If there are no expert sources you can turn to in your area for care and rehabilitation of a rescued animal, turn to the internet. Numerous easy-to-find sites offer very specific details about first aid and care for wildlife. In many cases, contact information is provided, so you can email or call them.

About rabies: Should you worry about rabies? Not really. Animals are rarely rabid and it’s a fallacy that nocturnal species out in daytime are invariably rabid. Skunks, foxes, raccoons, opossums and others sometimes venture out in daytime. Particularly in spring and early summer, when mothers and their young go out to search for food. Signs of rabies are lethargy, stupor, walking in circles, paralysis of one or both back legs, falling over, eye or nose discharge, or unexplained aggressiveness toward humans (even healthy animals will turn on us if they feel threatened, and especially if they’re cornered.) If the animal exhibits any of these symptoms, with no other discernible cause for it, call animal control.

Songbird rescue

How to hold a songbird: Approach a bird from the back and grasp him gently at his shoulders. The goal is to hold his wings folded close to his body so he can’t wildly flap and injure himself. Cup him in your hands.

Bird care: To keep him calm, place the bird in a small box with a weighted lid, or a paper bag clipped closed at the top with a clothespin. Don’t use a wire cage or aquarium. Place paper towels on the bottom to give him some footing and, of course, punch air holes in the bag. Place him in a quiet room. Keep him warm, but not too warm, as birds can quickly overheat and die. If he’s a nestling, cup him in your hands until you feel his body warm up. A hot water bottle filled with warm water, or even two bottles, one placed on each side of the bird, will help. The water should be the warmth of baby’s milk.

Dazed bird: If a bird hits your window and survives, he flutters to the ground, temporarily stunned. Unable to fly for a time, he just sits there (often with eyes closed) while he recovers. If he’s safe from predators, just leave him be. If he’s unsafe or it’s cold out, rescue him and keep him warm until he’s recovered. You’ll know he’s ready to go because he’ll be full of fighting spirit. He’ll flutter around in his container, struggle in your hands and, probably, peck you. Set him on the ground rather than launching him into the air. Or, just turn his container onto its side, open it and wait for him to fly out. If he doesn’t soon fly away, gather him up and try again later.

Featherless or downy bird: “Altricial” species of birds, born featherless and with eyes closed, are dependent on their parents for a few weeks after birth. If you find such a one, he seems alert and is opening his mouth (indicating hunger), put him back in his nest. If you can’t reach it, build him a new one in a Cool-Whip container: Punch several holes in the bottom for drainage and line the bowl with paper towels (don’t use grass clippings). Nail the bowl as close as possible to the original nest and place the nestling in it. The parents will probably feed nestlings in both the nests. Watch from a distance for an hour or two to ascertain whether the nestling is being fed regularly. If you see the parents repeatedly going to the original nest and ignoring the new one, then rescue the little guy and keep him warm. Featherless nestlings need to be fed every half hour through the daytime, so contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator right away.

Feathered bird: If the bird on the ground has some of his feathers and his eyes are open, he’s a fledgling. He’s still growing his feathers and will spend a week or more learning to fly as his parents keep watch and feed him. If he’s exposed, like in the center of a turf area, gently pick him up and place him under the protective covering of a nearby shrub. (He’ll call out and you may quickly discover who his parents are!)

Some species nest on the ground. They’re feathered and able to see when they hatch, a state called “precocial.” They’re able to follow their mother and feed right away. If you see one, his Mom is probably nearby and he doesn’t need your help (look around, you may be able to spot her.) Killdeer, sandpipers, Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, quail and pheasant are some of the species who do this. Unless such a bird is visibly ill — can’t stand or peeps weakly — it’s best to leave him be.

Injured bird: Place a cloth over the bird and pick him up. Place him in a paper bag or box (not a cage), with paper toweling on the bottom to keep him from sliding around. Punch air holes. Contact a rehabber. Don’t attempt to give him food or water unless the rehabilitator tells you to.

Feeding: Here’s an exception to the rule against feeding wild animals: You can help a rescued nestling survive while getting him to a rehabilitator by giving him three or four pea-sized bites of canned dog food on the tip of a toothpick and one drop of water every hour. You don’t need to hold him. If he’s healthy, he’ll hold his mouth wide open. Place the food on the back of his tongue. If you do hold him, don’t lay him on his back, which could cause him to inhale the food or water.

Pets and children: Don’t leave your pet (especially a cat) outdoors while a fledgling is on the ground. It’s best, too, to keep children away. Even the most loving, gentle child can’t resist trying to catch and hold a baby bird, but this prevents the bird’s parents from taking care of him. And, of course, there is the real risk of accidental injury to the bird. Children never lose their infectious excitement over the discovery of a baby bird. If your child brings home a young bird you feel should be left alone, ask where he was found and just return him to that spot (bird parents don’t reject offspring touched by humans.) Hopefully the parents are still around looking for their baby and haven’t yet abandoned him. If the baby’s cries don’t elicit a response from parents within 30 minutes or so, the baby will need to be rescued.

Bird of prey rescue

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This Barred Owl recovering from a broken wing, is in the care of a trained expert. Note the heavy gloves. (© Denise Kappa)

Songbirds are easy to handle. Birds of prey are a whole different story. Also called raptors, these birds kill and eat other animals. They have sharp talons for catching prey and their beaks are used for tearing flesh. They include owls, hawks, falcons and kestrels.

These birds are unpredictable and dangerous. Eagle Valley Raptor Center, which specializes in the care and rehabilitation of birds of prey, recommends wearing thick gloves and, if possible, safety glasses. Unless he was hit by a car and knocked unconscious, the best way to pick up an adult is to approach from behind and completely cover him with a rug or blanket. Move quickly to restrain his legs and scoop him up, also taking care to keep the bird’s face away from you. Place him in a box with a towel or carpet on the bottom for footing. Don’t give him food. Don’t attempt a rescue you’re unsure about, call a rehabilitator for advice.

Featherless or downy: If you find a raptor on the ground who’s featherless or downy, try to return him to his nest. Beware of his parents — some large raptors can attack with such force they’ll knock you right off your ladder. Not to mention they may have their talons out for you.

Some birds of prey nest in other places besides trees. For example, the Screech Owl often nests in owl houses and the Short-eared Owl nests on the ground. It may help you locate the nest if you can identify the species of bird. You’ll need to rescue him if his nest can’t be found.

Feathered: If the bird has some feathers, he has fledged and should be left alone. His parents are probably nearby (and possibly prepared to attack you, if you bother their little one.) Watch from a distance for an hour or so before declaring him a orphan. Place a towel over him and pick him up, keeping his beak and feet away from your face. He will need the expertise of a rehabilitator to be fed and raised properly, so that he can one day be released.

Large bird rescue

Herons, egrets, geese, others: These birds are strong and quick. Their wings, legs and piercing beaks can all be dangerous. The bigger the bird, the harder he is to control. If you have a long-handled fishing net, use it to subdue him. Or, you can use a blanket, coat or towel to cover him completely and then pick him up. Hold his head and neck firmly to keep his beak away from your face. Place him in a suitable-sized box, with paper towels on the bottom and air holes, in a warm, dark, quiet room to reduce his stress. Contact a rehabilitator.

Even a small duck is surprisingly strong and his beak can deliver a painful pinch. Cover him completely before picking him up, to reduce his stress. Place him in a box with air holes, in a warm, dark room. Put paper towels on the bottom of the box to give him footing. Contact a rehabilitator for advice.

Rabbit rescue

Rabbit baby

So cute. So difficult to save. (Jeff Clow / StkXchng. PD)

Never lift a rabbit by its ears, it can be very harmful. Wild rabbits are cute, but they don’t like being handled — even newborns may struggle against it. Hold them firmly to prevent thrashing about; they have a very fragile spine, easily broken.

Don’t rescue a bunny unless you absolutely must. If you come across bunnies whose nest has been destroyed, perhaps by a lawnmower, simply rebuild the nest with grasses and whatever you can find of the mother’s fur, and cover it up with a light layer of grasses or leaf litter. If, for some reason, it can’t be rebuilt in that same hole, build a new nest as close to it as possible. Place the babies close together to keep them warm. The mother will hopefully find them. (Read more about rabbit nesting and offspring.)

You can monitor whether baby rabbits are being attended by laying a string or a couple of small sticks in an X pattern on top of the nest cover. If it’s disturbed the next morning you’ll know the mother has been there. Don’t hang around to watch. The mother won’t feed her babies if she knows you’re there. Even if you don’t see her, she sees you.

If you try to raise baby rabbits yourself you may be dooming them to a painful death. Even experienced wildlife rehabilitators have trouble keeping them alive. They’re fragile, don’t very well tolerate handling by humans, require a specialized diet that includes immune system-building bacteria they get from their mother, and are prone to quickly dying from irreversible shock or stomach problems.

If you find babies that are cold, covered with parasites, weak, or you know to be abandoned, keep them warm and contact a rehabilitator. (Be sure to get an agreement from the rehabilitator that the bunnies won’t be used as live food for other critters, which sometimes happens.) Don’t attempt to feed babies yourself until you’ve learned exactly what to do.

Squirrel rescue

If you come across a baby squirrel in the yard and he has hair, stay away from him for an hour, while keeping watch. If the mother is going to retrieve him, she will do so as soon as she’s aware he’s missing from her nest. If he’s hairless, the situation is more critical, but still keep watch for several minutes. Look to see if you can return him to his nest, however, most are too high for us to safely reach. Keep the infant warm and contact a rehabilitator right away.

Warm a chilled baby by snuggling him in your hands. Soon as his body temperature is the same as yours, place him in a container with paper towels or a soft cloth as his “nest” materials (don’t use a material that unravels, such as a bath towel). Place a heating pad, set on low, under one-half the box. This leaves the other half of the box unheated, so the squirrel can move away if he gets too warm. Carefully monitor the heat.

Don’t try to raise the squirrel yourself. He requires a specialized diet and round-the-clock feeding. Also, he won’t make a good pet. He’s a wild animal and belongs in the wild. In your home, he will require a very large cage, need opportunities to be active to allay boredom, will chew your furniture and electrical wires, climb your drapes, knock over all your object d’art, and pine for others of his kind.

Wrap an injured adult squirrel in a towel and place him in a secure box. Keep his sharp teeth away from you. Healthy squirrels gnaw on things, so a wire cage is best if he’s feeling that energetic. Contact a rehabilitator for advice.

Opossum rescue

The wildlife rehabilitator who treated this injured baby says 'possum babies are her favorites because "they're so sweet."(WW)

The wildlife rehabilitator who treated this injured baby says ‘possum babies are her favorites because “they’re so sweet.”(WW)

Although opossums do sometimes come out in daytime, it isn’t common. If you see one, he’s probably a young one who has fallen off his mother, or she’s dead.

Baby opossums cling to their mother’s body for about six weeks after they leave her pouch. They won’t voluntarily leave her. If he’s smaller than 8 inches long (not counting his tail) or appears to be injured, he needs your help, even if he tries to get away. Look around to see if there are other babies nearby.

Baby opossums are sweet and adorable. Handle them gently and wrap in a soft towel. Don’t feed them — opossum babies need a specialized diet, and very young ones require a feeding tube, as they lack a “suckle” instinct. They can easily die from stress, so keep them warm and take to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Opossums are docile, but one that needs rescuing is frightened and possibly in pain. He’ll hiss and snarl, and bite if he must, but they usually don’t. Opossums sometimes play dead, but don’t count on it. Place a box over the animal and weight it down (punch air holes). Or, gently sweep it into a box laid on its side with a broom, then turn it upright and weigh down the lid. Call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Raccoon rescue

Be careful when handling a raccoon. Even a very young one will bite. Injured or ill, he’ll be highly stressed, frightened and possibly in pain. He may snarl and growl, and he’ll try to bite you. Stay out of his reach, place a box over him and weight it down. Or turn a box on its side and sweep the raccoon gently into it with a broom, then set it upright and weight the top. Punch air holes. Call a rehabilitator for instructions. Don’t rush to judgment if you believe a raccoon is orphaned. Observe him for three or four hours to make sure the parent is not coming back.

It’s rare, but adult raccoons can carry rabies. (Baby raccoons reportedly never have rabies.) If you encounter one who’s aggressive, shows no fear of you, is listless, drooling, paralyzed or exhibiting any other symptoms of neurological deterioration, call animal control.

Keep your pets away from raccoons. Raccoons are susceptible to distemper and they also carry a parasite, baylisascaris procyonis, that’s harmless to them but dangerous to humans and pets. This parasite (a roundworm) is spread through contact with the raccoon’s fecal matter. You aren’t likely to be touching feces, but your pets just might want a taste. Thoroughly wash or dispose of any materials that touch the raccoon and carefully disinfect any carrier or cage you put him in.

Fox rescue

Foxes are non-confrontational animals, they aren’t aggressive, and they won’t want to fight you. But, they’re curious, and may simply want to watch you. If you come face to face with a healthy adult, and feel uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to yell, stamp your feet, wave your arms or spray him with water — he’ll leave the scene.

If the fox appears ill, stay far away from him. It’s rare, but foxes can contract rabies. If he’s listless, aggressive, or behaving in other abnormal ways, call Animal Control. Don’t try to touch an injured adult fox. They have needle-sharp teeth and will bite you, badly. Contact a rehabilitator for instructions.

As for young ones (kits), it’s normal for fox kits to start exploring the area around their den, beginning when they’re about a month old. If you spot one, it’s probably doing just that. If it’s in danger or isn’t well hidden, then move it to a sheltered spot nearby. Wear gloves and handle it as little as possible. Its parents are busy trying to find food for themselves and their family. Observe from a distance, 30 feet or more, so the parents will approach their baby. Kits make barking sounds when they get hungry, trying to command their parents to feed them. If they’re crying and a parent doesn’t show up within three or four hours to feed them, then a tragedy has occurred – not only for the parents, but also for the kits who now face growing up without their guidance. Continue to observe from a distance while contacting a rehabilitator for instructions.

If you come upon kits who look cold, place them on a warm blanket or towel or on a hot water bottle (about the temperature of a baby bottle) within a box that has low sides. Leave them where you found them, or in a safer place nearby. Stay well away. If the kits haven’t been rescued soon after dark, then you’ll need to take them under your wing. Keep kits warm, in an enclosed box (with air holes!) Place them in a quiet, darkened room, safe from pets, until you can get them to a rehabilitator. If you must keep them overnight, feed them only Pedialite, for rehydration, with an eyedropper or pet-nursing bottle. Do this every 3-4 hours, followed by a gentle rubbing of their genitals and anus until they urinate, defecate or both (this has to be done.)

Fawn rescue

You probably will never see a fawn lying among tree debris on a forest floor or tucked in a stand of tall grasses. His tawny coat camouflages him perfectly as he lies totally motionless, waiting for his mother to return. If you should come upon one, help him stay safe by leaving him alone. Mother deer stay away from their fawns most of the day so as not to attract predators to them. Don’t approach a fawn unless you’re certain he’s orphaned. He will perish if you frighten him away and he can’t be reunited with his mother. The only way you’ll know for sure is by observing him through the day and night from a well-hidden place. Or if see the mother’s dead body.

If the fawn’s only a few days old, he’ll freeze when he first sees you, which will give you a chance to catch him. Move quickly. Beyond that, unless he’s ill, injured or weak, he’ll flee, thrusting him right into the arms of danger. (Fawns, by the way, have no body odor for the first few days of their lives, which helps protect them.) Contact a rehabilitator before taking any action. An injured fawn can be suspended in a blanket and carried that way.

Skunk rescue

If you must rescue a skunk, approach him very slowly, making all your movements deliberate, with no sudden, jerky motions. Skunks have poor eyesight, so continuously speak to him in a soft voice, to let him know your position. A startled skunk will spray. If he stamps his feet, hisses or growls, he’s warning you to stay away. If he turns his back to you, he’s going to spray. Better run fast, because he can shoot the oily, smelly stuff out about 10 feet. Don’t risk getting sprayed. It stings the skin, burns the eyes, requires throwing away your clothes, numerous showers and people will avoid you for days and days! Assuming you successfully approach the skunk, face him as you completely cover him with a cloth or (old) towel. Keep his face away, as he can bite. Put him inside a secure box with air holes. Line the bottom with paper towels or a soft cloth to snuggle in. Contact a rehabilitator for instructions.

If you encounter a baby, watch him for awhile to make sure he’s truly an orphan. His mother and siblings may be out of sight nearby, foraging for worms and grubs. Baby skunks can spray, so approach him as described above. Keep him warm with a heating pad placed under half of the box, in a dark, quiet place until you can get him to a rehabilitator. A baby doesn’t need to be rescued if it would take two hands to pick him up.

Skunks have a reputation for being rabid. This is rare, but if you see a skunk in mid-day and he’s behaving bizarrely – circling, mutilating himself, screeching, paralyzed or acting tame – call Animal Control. Skunks normally come out first thing in the morning and at twilight. When tending to her young, a hungry mother may come out at any time of the day or night to scrounge for food. So don’t assume a skunk is rabid unless he displays symptoms. Any skunk captured by Animal Control will be euthanized.

*Top photo: A baby squirrel orphaned by Hurricane Katrina. (Amanda Melones / Dreamstime)

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