Wildlife Rescue: Safety Precautions

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rescued wild grasshopper mouse on a blanket

In wildlife rescue, often time is of the essence to have a successful outcome. But practicing good wildlife rescue safety is just as important. If you have determined that a wild animal needs your help, here are some wild animal safe handling tips and precautions to know.

Safely handling wild animals

When rescuing small wild animals, it’s a good idea to wear gloves for a level of protection against bites, scratches, and diseases. Be aware, however, that some animals can easily bite through gloves.

Raccoons, skunks, bats, and some foxes are more likely than other mammals to carry rabies, but any wild mammal can carry the disease. There are also several other serious or fatal diseases that can be transmitted to humans from wild animals, so you must take care that the animal doesn’t bite you.

If, in spite of your precautions, you are bitten by the animal — or if you come into contact with the animal’s bodily fluids (blood, saliva, etc.) — report the incident to a medical professional. Reporting the incident will most likely require euthanasia of the animal so that the animal can be tested for rabies. This is another reason to exercise caution in the first place while handling the animal. The medical professional also will need to know the name and contact information of any other person who has been in contact with the animal.

How to pick up and move an injured wild animal

If you come across an injured small animal (e.g., a squirrel or a cottontail), you may pick up the injured animal either while wearing gloves or by sliding a cloth, piece of cardboard, or towel under the animal.

Some people keep a small pet carrier and a couple of towels or small blankets in their car in case they encounter injured wildlife. If you keep a pet carrier on hand for this purpose, put the animal inside the carrier on a towel or blanket and transport them to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Covering the pet carrier with a sheet or towel to make the inside dark will help the animal to be quieter and less stressed.

Note that very small animals, such as baby squirrels, are usually much thinner than they appear because of the thickness of their fur. So they might be able to slip through the openings in the door of a carrier. To prevent this, you can adapt the pet carrier ahead of time by attaching pegboard, shade cloth, or another material that allows ventilation to the door.

Plastic pet carriers made for rodents can also be used for any appropriately sized small animals. But be careful not to cover the top of a plastic carrier in such a way that all the air holes are covered.

A cardboard box or another container will also work. Before placing the animal in the container, poke air holes (about the width of a pencil) in the container to provide an air supply and ventilation. Wild animals who are conscious and active can chew or claw their way through cardboard, so use common sense related to the distance you need to travel and the level of activity of the animal. If you’re using a cardboard box, you should tape it closed after the animal is put in the box.

If the animal is very small and young (e.g., a baby chipmunk whose eyes are not open yet), a bucket or pail can be used with a cloth or towel in the bottom. A cloth over the top will keep the inside dark, which will keep the animal calm. Do not use a bucket or pail if there is any possibility that the animal could jump out. Every situation is different, so you might need to be inventive.

Wildlife rescue precautions

Here are some things you should not do when rescuing a wild animal:

  • Do not give the animal any food or water, either in their mouth or in the container with them. It is very easy to drown a wild animal. Water placed in the container will simply spill, causing the animal to be cold and wet. Instead, focus on getting the animal to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator quickly.
  • Do not attempt to treat the animal for an injury in any way. Don’t ever try to rehabilitate a wild animal yourself. Leave all decisions about the animal’s treatment entirely to the wildlife rehabilitator, who has the required knowledge and training.
  • Do not allow children or pets near the animal — both for their protection and for the wild animal’s protection. Another reason to keep children and pets away is that the animal will need quiet.
  • Do not put the animal in direct sunlight or in direct air conditioning. An injured mammal will generally do best in a temperature that a human finds comfortable. Baby mammals and animals who are going into shock need more warmth, but there is also a danger of overheating. A moderate temperature is usually best.

Contacting a wildlife rehabilitator

Contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately upon encountering a wild animal in distress, and transport the animal as quickly as possible — within an hour is best. You should tell the rehabilitator the exact location where the animal was found so that, if it is appropriate, the animal can be released at that site.

Keeping the rescued animal in your possession for longer than an hour or two should be done only in emergencies, such as severe weather in which it would be dangerous to drive. Taking the animal to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator quickly will give the animal the best chance of recovery and release.

If, for any reason, it is impossible for you to transport the animal to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator within a short time, then call a rehabilitator for advice on temporary emergency care. A rehabilitator you contact by phone does not necessarily need to be in your area to give you advice.

Preparing for a wildlife emergency

Here are some things you can do to be prepared for a wildlife emergency:

  • Have the name and number of a local wildlife rehabilitator entered in your cellphone contact list.
  • Find a suitable container for transporting animals and have it ready. Consider keeping supplies in your home, as well as in your car.
  • Be familiar with your state wildlife laws. In some states, it is illegal to rescue (and also illegal to possess or to release) some species.

Remember, while it is important to move quickly in a wildlife emergency, you must prioritize safety for both yourself and the animal.