Updated April 13, 2023 – With spring bursting around us, animals of all shapes and sizes are preparing for the arrival of little ones. Nests are built, dens dug and burrows lined with soft material in preparation. However, parenting is a bit different in the wild, and you’ll want to know what that means when you come upon a seemingly lost or abandoned baby animal.
It’s not unusual for a raccoon mom to leave her babies sleeping up in a tree for the day or a doe to leave her young alone and hidden for long stretches of time. These babies are not abandoned. It’s just the parenting style adapted by these species to keep their young safe.
Intervening when help is not needed is harmful to wildlife, especially young ones. There’s a saying in the wildlife rehabilitation world – if you care, leave it there. One way to help recognize a true wild animal emergency is to learn about the species that live in your backyard and in the wilderness spaces near you. Also, know who to contact in those rare instances that human intervention is necessary. A little knowledge goes a long way in helping you decide what to do - and what not to do - when you come across a baby animal in the wild.
Tips to Help Keep Wild Babies Safe
- Know Wildlife Parenting Styles
Mother rabbits only feed their kits once or twice per day, usually around dawn and dusk. A doe only visits and nurses their fawn a few times each day to avoid attracting predators. It’s normal to find fully feathered songbird babies on the ground and parents caring for them for several days until these young birds master flying.
- Assess the Situation
If wildlife babies have good body condition, seem well fed and growing, leave them alone. These animals likely are not abandoned. In contrast, if you see an animal with poor body condition, visible wounds, bleeding, vomiting or shaking, these animals need help. Consult your veterinarian or contact a wildlife rehabilitation facility near you if you think an animal is in crisis.
- Rescue or Call in the Professionals?
Rehabilitators can provide you with instructions on how to rescue and transport different species of baby animals. Always wear gloves or other protective clothing when handling any wild animal to minimize your risk of being bitten or scratched.
What about animals higher up in the food chain, like eagles or even young mountain lions? Leave them alone and call in the professionals. Many rehabilitators have a network of volunteers specially trained to rescue and transport these animals.
Never try to rescue an animal that is disoriented, having trouble breathing, acting aggressively or covered with visible parasites, and make sure your children and pets stay away, too. Call your local animal control agency, whose professionals can safely capture, test, and sound the alert if an animal is infected with a transmissible disease such as rabies, distemper, mange or even plague.
- Re-nesting is OK
If you find an uninjured bird that is a hatchling (featherless, eyes closed) or nestling (starting to develop feathers, eyes open), they often can be re-nested. You can either replace the original nest if it’s been blown down or make an artificial nest and secure it to a tree near where you found the baby bird. Then watch and see if the parents return to care for their young.
If you find an uninjured baby squirrel with its eyes still closed, place the animal in a container near the base of the tree where you found it. Once the baby calls out, the parent will locate it and re-nest the baby for you. In either case, if no bird or squirrel parent returns within several hours of your re-nesting attempt, these animals may need professional help and care to survive.
- Know Who to Call
See if your veterinarian is part of a rehabilitation network that can treat wildlife or exotics. If not, many clinics, especially emergency clinics, have lists of local rehabilitation facilities and the types of animals they assist. You also can contact your local humane society, the Audubon Society, wild bird stores, your local animal control officer, or an aquarium or marine patrol (for marine reptiles and mammals).
- If You are Unable to Reach a Professional Immediately
If you can easily handle the wild animal, place the baby in a box with airholes, lined with something soft, like a T-shirt or towel. Keep the animal in a warm, dark, quiet place. Darkness makes the animal feel more secure. To minimize stress, leave the animal alone.
Although this sounds counterintuitive, do not provide food or water, unless instructed by a professional to do so. Different animals have species-specific nutritional needs. Also, providing even a small amount of water runs the risk of the animal getting wet, chilled or even drowning if the animal is small and vulnerable. What seems like an act of kindness may actually do more harm than good.
- It's Illegal to Care for Injured Wildlife
In many areas, it is illegal to keep and care for wildlife without a proper license and training. You risk the possibility of being fined, so know the laws in your state or region. They are there to protect both you and the animal.
A wildlife baby’s natural parents always are the best option to raise that animal and give it the best chance of survival. Knowing when not to intervene is equally as important as knowing when to rush in and help. Veterinary or rehabilitation professionals are your best resource for saving a life, sometimes by just letting you know when to leave the animal alone.
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