Proper rescue, care for injured or orphaned urban wildlife


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

That little fledgling standing on the ground, cheeping so urgently and pathetically for its parents probably doesn’t need a human’s help. As difficult as it may be, if you love wildlife, you won’t rescue that little darling unless you’re confident it needs your help. A wild animal doesn’t need help unless it appears sick, emaciated, weak, cold, injured, or is in imminent danger; or if it’s a young one and you’re certain it has been abandoned by its parents.

If you must rescue, it’s important to get the animal into the care of a certified wildlife rehabilitator — the animal’s best hope for survival and release. If you don’t know who to contact, your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, local nature center, The Audubon Society, Humane Society, or even a seed store can probably steer you to one. The internet also has numerous sites on wildlife rescue and care, offering phone numbers to call in the event of an emergency and this page lists wildlife rehabilitators in your area.

Again, it’s very important to get rescued wildlife into the care of knowledgeable people. Wild babies, in particular, need very specialized care and feeding. Opossum babies, for instance, require a feeding tube, and baby rabbits need specific bacteria for their intestinal health, or they may die. But, adults, too, need proper medical care, special foods and experienced handling directed toward their safe release back into the wild.

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, well, 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 considered a threat in itself. The predator “wrestles” him, no matter how carefully, into forced submission and then places him a container he can’t see through or escape. It’s no wonder he fights and bites!

While the animal is in your care

Wear gloves to pick it up: 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 soon release it.

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

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 it from flailing about too much, causing further injury.

Keep it warm: An animal can be kept warm with a heating pad, set on low. Place it under half of the box only, so the animal can move away from the heat if it’s too warm). Also, a heat lamp, wet cloth warmed in a microwave and sealed in a plastic bag, or a hot water 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 to reduce the heat transmitted or moving a heat lamp farther away. Use a room thermometer to stay aware (out of the reach of the animal, of course.) An internet search will tell you the optimum body temperature for the animal you’ve rescued.

Don’t feed: Wild animals require special diets and sometimes critically specialized diets and methods for 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 after eating in order to urinate and defecate. Cow’s milk can kill a wild animal. Giving food or water to a chilled animal can kill it, too — its body will divert energy to digesting food, instead of warming it. Consult with a rehabilitator before giving any food.

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

Aggressive animal: Don’t approach. Call a rehabilitator for advice. In some cases, rescuing an animal is simply too complicated for an inexperienced person. 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 the animal.

Not a pet: Don’t do this — experts warn against keeping a wild animal as a pet, even a baby one. There are many good reasons why. Learn more here about that, and here’s an entertaining and serious warning about keeping a wild pet, in this case, a ground squirrel.

Get expert advice: If there are no expert sources in your area for care of a rescued animal, then 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 available so that 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 the 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’ve been cornered.) If the animal exhibits any of these symptoms, with no other discernible cause for it, call animal control.

Wildlife and rabies, the facts
Rabies surveillance report, state by state

Songbird rescue

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

Bird care: To keep it 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 it some footing and, of course, punch air holes in the bag. Place it in a quiet room. Keep it warm, but not too warm, as birds can quickly overheat and die. If it’ s a nestling, cup it in your hands until you feel its 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, it may flutter to the ground, temporarily stunned. Unable to fly for a time, it just sits there (often with eyes closed) while it recovers. If it’s safe from predators, just leave it be. If it’s unsafe or the weather is cold, rescue and keep it warm until it has recovered. You’ll know when it’s ready to leave because it’ll be full of fighting spirit. It’ll flutter around in its container, struggle in your hands and, probably, peck you. Set it on the ground rather than launching it into the air. Or, just turn its container onto its side, open it and wait for the bird to fly out. If it doesn’t soon fly away, gather it up and try again later.

Featherless or downy bird: “Altricial” species of birds, which are born featherless and with eyes closed, are dependent on their parents for a few weeks after birth. If you find such a one, it seems alert and is opening its mouth (indicating hunger), put it back in his nest. If you can’t reach it, build it a new one in a Cool-Whip or similar 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 their nestlings in both of the nests.

Watch from a distance for an hour or two to ascertain whether the nestling is being fed regularly. If the parents are repeatedly going to the original nest and ignoring the new one, then rescue the little one and keep it warm. Featherless nestlings need to be fed every half hour through the daytime, so contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator right away.

Fledglings: A fledgling is a young bird that has left its nest voluntarily to begin its transition into adulthood. It will have some visible down (small, fluffy feathers), as well as some stiff adult feathers. Unless it appears weak or ill, it should be left alone, even if it’s calling for its parents. They’re nearby, watching over it. They’ll feed it while the rest of its adult feathers grow and it’s able to fly, usually a week or two. If it’s exposed, like in the center of a grassy area, gently pick it up and place it under the protective covering of a nearby shrub.

Blue Jay fledgling, still downy and lacking tail feathers perched on small tree limb and looking at the camera.

This little Blue Jay fledgling doesn’t need rescuing. Its parents are taking care of it. (WW)

Some species nest on the ground. From the moment they hatch, they can see and have feathers. They’re called “precocial” birds. They’re able to follow their mother and eat right away. If you see one, its Mom is probably nearby and it doesn’t need your help. Killdeer, sandpipers, Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, quail and pheasant are some of the species that are precocial. Unless such a bird is visibly ill — can’t stand or peeps weakly — leave it be.

Injured bird: Place a cloth over the bird and pick it up. Place it in a paper bag or box (not a cage), with paper toweling on the bottom to keep it from slipping. Punch air holes. Contact a rehabilitator. Don’t attempt to give it food or water before then.

When to feed: Here’s an exception to the rule about feeding birds: You can help a rescued nestling survive while getting it to a rehabilitator by giving it three or four pea-sized bites of canned dog food on the tip of a toothpick and one drop of water every hour. Take care not to puncture its mouth. You won’t need to hold it. If it’s healthy, it’ll keep its mouth wide open. Place the food on the back of its tongue. If you do hold it, don’t lay it on its back, which could cause it 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 it. 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 one you feel should be left alone, ask where it was found and just return it 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 it. 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

Little Owl, Athene noctua, standing on a hand wearing a brown, leather glove.

Always wear thick gloves when handling birds of prey. Little Owl, Athene noctua. (Peter Trimming / Geograph; cc by-sa 2.0)

Songbirds are easy to handle. Birds of prey are a whole different ballgame. Also called raptors, these birds kill and eat other animals. The bigger the raptor, the bigger the prey they’re able to catch. They have razor-sharp talons for catching prey and their beaks are used for tearing flesh. Even small raptors are powerful. They include owls, hawks, falcons and kestrels.

Raptors are unpredictable and dangerous. Eagle Valley Raptor Center,* which specializes in the care and rehabilitation of birds of prey, says this about handling them: Wear thick gloves and, if possible, safety glasses. Unless the bird was hit by a car and knocked unconscious, the best way to pick up an adult is to approach from behind and completely cover it with a rug or blanket. Move quickly to restrain its legs and scoop it up, also taking care to keep the bird’s face away from you. Place it in a box with a towel or carpet on the bottom for footing. Don’t give it 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 that’s featherless or downy, try to return it to its nest. Beware of its parents — some large raptors can attack with such force they’ll knock you right out of the tree or 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 it if its nest can’t be found.

Feathered: If the bird has some feathers, it has fledged and should be left alone. Its 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 it an orphan. Even though still smaller than adult size, place a towel over the bird before picking it up and keep the beak and feet away from your face. It will need the expertise of a rehabilitator to be fed and raised correctly so that it can be eventually 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 it is to control. If you have a long-handled fishing net, use it. Or, use a blanket, coat or towel to cover it completely before picking it up. Hold its head and neck firmly to keep its beak away from your face. Place it in a box, with paper towels on the bottom and air holes, in a warm, dark, quiet room to reduce its stress. Contact a rehabilitator.

Ducks: Even a small duck is surprisingly strong and its beak can deliver a painful pinch. Handle it accordingly.

Rabbit rescue

Never lift a rabbit by its ears, it can be very harmful, and it’s painful. 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.

Human hand, palm open, holding a tiny, nearly hairless gray bunny. It's eyes are closed and ears are laying flat.

Injured bunny rescued from the jaws of a dog. (Tony Alter / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

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.

To monitor whether baby rabbits are being cared for, lay string or a couple of sticks in a small X pattern on top of the covered nest. If it’s disturbed the next morning you’ll know the mother has been there. Don’t hang around to watch. Mothers feed their babies only twice a day, dawn and dusk. She won’t feed them if she knows you’re there.

To try to raise baby rabbits yourself may doom 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 bunnies 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 “your” bunnies won’t be used as live food for other critters, which sometimes apparently happens.) Don’t attempt to feed babies yourself unless you have no other choice and you’ve learned just what to do. 

Squirrel rescue

A baby squirrel that has hair bears watching for an hour before assuming it’s orphaned. If the mother is going to retrieve it, she’ll do so as soon as she’s aware it’s missing from her nest. If it’s hairless, the situation is more critical, but watch for several minutes. If you can see the nest and its accessible (most aren’t), then put it back there. Otherwise, keep the infant warm and contact a rehabilitator right away.

Tiny baby squirrel lying on its back on a person's hand, while being fed milk from a tiny bottle.

Rescued baby squirrel. (Tiffany Bailey / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Warm a chilled baby by snuggling it in your hands. As soon as its body temperature is the same as yours, place it in a container with paper towels or a soft cloth for 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 it gets too warm. Carefully monitor the heat.

Don’t try to raise the squirrel yourself. It requires a specialized diet and round-the-clock feeding. Also, it won’t make a good pet. It’s wild and belongs in the wild. In your home, it 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 its kind.

Wrap an injured adult squirrel in a thick towel and place it in a secure box. Watch out; its teeth are sharp and, unless it’s unable, it will deliver a bite you’ll remember. And, it’s nails are razor-sharp, too. Squirrels gnaw on things, so a wire cage is best if it has some energy. Contact a rehabilitator for advice.

Opossum rescue

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

A person's hands hold a juvenile Virginia Opossum wrapped in a white towel, with its head sticking out.

Juvenile Virginia Opossum in the care of a wildlife rehabilitaor. (WW)

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

Opossums are sweet-tempered, and the babies are adorable, despite how they’re viewed by some people. Handle the baby gently and wrap in a soft towel. Don’t feed it — it needs 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 the orphan warm and take it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Although opossums are docile, one that needs rescuing is frightened and possibly in pain. Use a thick towel or thick gloves to handle a juvenile or adult, and keep its mouth away from you. You can also use a broom to gently sweep it into a box turned on its side, then turn the box upright and weigh down the lid. Punch air holes. Opossums hiss and snarl, even the babies, and may bite, but they usually don’t. They sometimes play dead, but don’t count on it. Call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Raccoon rescue

Don’t rush to judgment if you believe a raccoon is orphaned. Observe it for three or four hours to make sure the parent is not coming back.

Be careful when handling one. Injured or ill, it’ll be highly stressed, frightened and possibly in pain. It may snarl and growl, and it’ll try to bite, even a young one. Stay out of its reach, place a box over it and weight it down. Or turn a box on its side and sweep the raccoon gently into it with a broom, then upright the box and secure the top. Punch air holes. Call a rehabilitator for instructions. 

It’s rare, but adult (although not babies) raccoons can carry rabies. If you encounter one that’s aggressive, shows little fear of you, is listless, drooling, paralyzed or exhibiting any other symptoms of neurological deterioration, call animal control. Try to contain it, but only if you can safely do so.

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 their 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 it 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 it with water — it’ll leave the scene.

If the fox appears ill, stay far away. It’s rare, but foxes can contract rabies. If it’s listless, aggressive, or behaving in other abnormal ways, call Animal Control. 

If a fox appears healthy, but injured, don’t try to touch it, even if you’re armed with thick gloves and padding. They have needle-sharp teeth and will bite, 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 not 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 find a kit that looks cold, place it on a warm blanket, towel or hot water bottle (about the temperature of a baby bottle) within a box that has low sides. Leave it where you found it, or in a safer place nearby. Stay well away. If it hasn’t been rescued soon after dark, then you’ll need to take it under your care.

Keep it warm, in an enclosed box (with air holes). Place it in a quiet, darkened room, safe from pets, until you can get it to a rehabilitator. If you must keep it overnight, feed it Pedialite only, for rehydration. Use an eyedropper or pet-nursing bottle. Do this every 3-4 hours, followed by gentle rubbing of its genitals and anus until it urinates, defecates or both — this has to be done; use a cotton ball or pad.

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. Its tawny coat camouflages it perfectly as it lies motionless, waiting for its mother to return. Still, if you should find one, help it stay safe by leaving it alone. Keep away and don’t touch! Fawns don’t have a body odor for the first few days of their life; this keeps them safe from predators — if they can’t be seen, they can’t be smelled, either. 

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 it’s orphaned. It will perish if you frighten it away and it never finds its mother. The only way you’ll know if it’s an orphan is by observation or if you find the mother’s dead body. Watch through the day and night from a well-hidden place. 

Before attempting rescue of a fawn, contact a rehabilitator or your local Parks and Wildlife officials for assistance. If the rescue is all up to you and the fawn is only a few days old, you may be able to catch it. it’ll freeze when it first sees you, which will give you a chance to catch it. When you’re ready, you must move quickly, and it’s best to have other people already on hand to help. Otherwise, unless it’s ill, injured or weak, it’ll flee into the arms of certain death. An injured fawn can be suspended in a blanket and carried that way. 

Skunk rescue

If you must rescue a skunk, approach it very slowly, making all your movements deliberate, with no sudden, jerky motions. Skunks have poor eyesight, so continuously speak to it in a soft voice, to let it know your where you are. A startled skunk will spray. If it stamps its feet, hisses or growls, it’s warning you to stay away. If it turns its back, it’s going to spray. Better run fast, because it can shoot its oily, smelly musk 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 it as you completely cover it with a cloth or (old) towel. Keep its face away, as it can bite. Put it inside a secure box, lined with paper towels or a soft cloth, and with air holes. Contact a rehabilitator for instructions.

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

Skunks have a reputation for being rabid. This is rare, but if you see a skunk in mid-day and it’s behaving bizarrely – circling, mutilating itself, screeching, paralyzed or acting suspiciously tame – call Animal Control and stay away. 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 it displays symptoms. Any skunk captured by Animal Control will be euthanized.

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

*Cheney, Kansas, raptor rehabilitation facility