Wildlife Rescue: How to Help Orphaned or Injured Animals

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Baby cottontail rabbit at wildlife rehabilitation center

Wildlife rescue requires a person to be able to assess the situation to determine whether they need to intervene to help a wild animal. In some cases, intervening might do more harm than good — for example, removing healthy baby animals from their mother just because they seem to be abandoned (but aren't). 

On the other hand, not helping a young orphaned animal might mean certain death for that animal. A wild animal who does need to be rescued must be taken immediately to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and the rehabilitator can help you determine whether and how you should intervene.

Here are some basics to know about wildlife rescue for various types of wild animals.

How to help baby squirrels and chipmunks

Before picking up a young squirrel or chipmunk who appears to be orphaned, stand at a distance (so you don’t deter the mother from returning) for at least a half hour and look for the baby’s mother. She might reappear momentarily. Even if the mother does not reappear, you should leave the baby alone if they appear lively, active, and not in any distress.

However, if the mother does not reappear after an hour and the baby runs toward you, appearing oddly friendly as if they're insistently asking for something, the baby might have been separated from the mother and is potentially starving. In this case, the animal will need to be rescued. Likewise, if the baby is clearly injured or very cold and still, then the animal definitely needs help right away. Call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately for guidance.

What to do if you find a fawn

Fawns generally do not need rescuing unless you have actually seen a dead doe nearby. A doe will leave her fawn alone for many hours every day. Fawns' instincts lead them to lie absolutely still, and if a person tries to pick them up they will appear to be paralyzed. This often leads the person to assume that a fawn is injured and needs help. However, this is a mistake: The fawn does not need help. Leave the fawn alone, and leave the area immediately.

How to help wild baby bunnies

Young cottontails who appear to have all their fur, are at least 8 inches long, have their eyes open, and are able to hop don't need to be rescued. They've already left the nest and are able to survive on their own. If you find such a bunny sitting in the road, you can coax them well off to one side of the road for their safety.

However, if the young cottontail is clearly injured — look for bleeding; whether the bunny's eyes are closed; and whether the bunny seems cold, listless, or unable to move — the animal should be taken to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. You should also take a wild bunny to a rehabilitator if they've had any encounter with a cat (even if the injury seems minor) or any other accident, such as getting oil on their fur.

If the young cottontail seems very small, their eyes are not yet open, they seem to be too young to hop, or they might have been removed from the nest by a cat, then the bunny will need to be rescued and taken to a rehabilitator. Often, a small baby cottontail who needs to be rescued will be lying down, not sitting as if ready to hop, and they will often feel cold or appear to be in shock.

What to do with orphaned bear cubs

Do not "rescue" the cubs of large carnivores, such as bears, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, and cougars. Intervening with them is likely to be very dangerous for you as well as for the cubs. If you see a dead mother and you see a cub nearby, carefully note the location of the animals and call your state wildlife department. If you know of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator near you who cares for large carnivores, you may call the rehabilitator instead. 

Bear cubs frequently wander alone at some distance from their mother. A person removing them from the area is essentially kidnapping them. If the mother bear reappears suddenly, she will be very angry, very dangerous, and very likely to attack. This is also true of other large carnivores. If you see a young cub who seems to be alone, leave the area immediately and contact a state wildlife officer or a wildlife rehabilitator.

The wildlife officers will determine how to relate to the cub according to their own policies. In most cases, the cub is not really orphaned at all and the cub’s mother will reappear. If the cub is genuinely orphaned, wildlife officers will be able to take the cub to a wildlife rehabilitator in some cases. In other cases, this will not be possible and the cub might have to be euthanized. A genuinely orphaned young cub cannot survive alone in the wild.

How to help orphaned baby opossums

Many opossums are injured or killed on the roads, and if the opossum is a mother she can have small baby opossums still alive in her pouch. Opossums are marsupials, and they have pouches like kangaroos. If you come across a dead or injured opossum, contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately for assistance. Time is of the essence to rescue any baby opossums who are still alive.

What to do if you find baby raccoons or skunks

Some states have laws against rehabilitating skunks and raccoons. So call a wildlife rehabilitator before rescuing these young mammals, and ask for advice about what to do.

In many cases, when young skunks and raccoons are found their mother has been trapped and relocated. Relocating these animals is usually illegal, and it is always unkind because the adult animal might not survive relocation. If you feel that a particular skunk or raccoon living in your area is a problem, ask a wildlife rehabilitator how to relate to the animal.

What to do if you see a young beaver

If you come across a small young beaver who’s in water and seems too young to be on their own, contact a wildlife rehabilitator to ask for advice before rescuing the animal.

What to do with an injured bat

If you come across an injured bat, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for guidance. There are even wildlife rehabilitators who specialize in bats. An injured bat can sometimes be moved by placing a piece of cardboard under them and then using that to lift the animal into a cardboard box. In rare cases, bats carry rabies, so do not touch the bat with your hands. If someone has touched the bat, keep a record of that person’s name and contact information to give to the wildlife rehabilitator.

How to help an injured bird

If you've found an injured bird who seems to be having trouble flying, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for instructions on how to proceed. The bird might in fact be a young fledging who's just learning how to fly and doesn't require any intervention. However, if the bird truly is injured and requires assistance, the rehabilitator can offer advice on how to move the bird into a cardboard box for transport. 

General wildlife rescue tips

  • As a general rule, a wild adult animal who is not moving away from you is either ill or injured.
  • Do not attempt to rescue large animals by yourself, even if you come across an animal caught in a trap. Contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and keep an eye on the animal from a safe distance.
  • Don't ever approach injured coyotes, bobcats, wolves, cougars, bears, or any other large carnivores. They will become frightened and will likely attack. Stay at a safe distance watching the animal, and call a rehabilitator or state wildlife officer.
  • In the case of large injured wild animals, the options for helping them effectively are often very limited. It’s good to be aware of this when contacting a wildlife rehabilitator or officer. Don’t insist that the animal be kept alive if the animal will not be releasable back into the wild; it might not be the kindest outcome for the animal.
  • If you find a small animal who's injured, contact a wildlife rehabilitator before moving the animal. The rehabilitator often can guide you through moving and transporting the animal to a facility that can help. Be aware, though, that even very small animals might bite, and some might carry diseases.

A final word of advice: While helping wildlife is an act of kindness, it’s important to know that deciding to rescue and transport any wild animal is entirely your own choice. There are certain risks of disease or injury, and no one other than yourself is liable for any harm or injury that may be incurred — neither Best Friends Animal Society nor any licensed wildlife rehabilitator.