Should You ‘Rescue’ Wildlife?

Story at-a-glance -

  • In many instances, young wildlife that appears to be orphaned may in fact be just fine, but if you intervene and remove the animal from its habitat, it may never be reunited with its mother
  • It’s common for baby mammals, including bunnies, deer and fledgling birds, to be left alone for long periods, or for a mother to be nearby but out of sight; if you see these babies in the wild, it’s usually best to leave them be
  • If you see a wild animal that appears to be injured, sick or orphaned, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator who can help you determine if the animal is in need of help or not

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

If you’re an animal lover and you spot a bird that fell out of its nest or a baby bunny that appears to have lost its mother, your first instinct is going to be a desire to help. Yet by “helping” you could be inadvertently putting the animal at risk. One of the most controversial examples occurred in 2016, when a tourist at Yellowstone National Park picked up a seemingly struggling bison calf and put it in the back of his SUV.

Park rangers reportedly tried to re-introduce the calf to the herd, but when it would not be accepted back were forced to euthanize him. This is an extreme example, and not many of us are likely to encounter a bison calf looking for help, but it’s an all-too-common story that a person’s good intentions can backfire when it comes to intervening with wildlife.

Even in the case of commonly seen animals like birds, rabbits and deer, it’s important to know what to do — and what not to do — should you encounter an animal that appears to need help.

‘Rescuing’ Wildlife Can Backfire

In many instances, young and tiny wildlife that appears to be orphaned may in fact be just fine. But if you intervene and remove the animal from its habitat, it may never be reunited with its mother. This occurs often with baby bunnies. If you see small bunnies that are about 4 to 5 inches long out and about without a mother in sight, you may assume they’re orphaned — but most likely they are not. Rabbits of this size are already weaned and capable of surviving on their own.

Here’s a good way to tell the difference: if a bunny’s ears are up (not flat to his head) he’s capable of surviving on his own. If his ears are flat to his head and there are clear signs of injury, you should intervene.

Even in the case of rabbit babies in a nest, don’t panic if you can’t spot the mother nearby. Mother rabbits spend most of the day away from the nest, returning only at dusk and dawn to feed the babies for just a few minutes. You probably won’t see the mother at all, and she won’t return if you’re nearby, so just leave them be. The same holds true for fawns (baby deer).

John Bowers, chief of the game management section of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, explained to WTXL news, "In most instances, there is an adult animal a short distance away — even though you may be able to see it. Adult animals, such as deer, spend most of the day away from their young to reduce the risk of a predator finding the young animal … When you take wildlife into your home, you often take away that animal's ability to then survive in the wild, where they belong.”1

‘If You Care, Leave It There’

Many conservation officials advise well-meaning good Samaritans to NOT ‘rescue’ the wildlife. Similarly, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) uses the phrase, “If you care, leave it there.” In cases where an animal has been injured or is dying from natural causes, such as predation, disease or storms, MN DNR stresses the importance of minimizing human intervention, which may disrupt local food-web dynamics and ecosystem health.2

It may sound harsh, but it’s a theme echoed among most state and federal wildlife agencies in the U.S. The U.S. National Park Service also abides by a “natural regulation” policy, including at Yellowstone, where the policy is to not intervene unless an animal is injured or orphaned as a result of human activity.3

That being said, there are always exceptions and extenuating circumstances that may require intervention. Personally, and as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I believe all animals — wild or domestic, owned or free — deserve care when they're injured or sick.

Only licensed wildlife rehabilitators can legally care for wildlife in the U.S. Wildlife rehabilitators are not paid, but volunteers that go through training to ensure they are capable of making sure they can safely, correctly and successfully feed and care for injured, ill or truly orphaned wildlife. Contact your Department of Natural Resources if you are interested in becoming a wildlife rehabilitator.

When Should You Intervene?

If you see a wild animal that appears to be injured, sick or orphaned, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator or, if that’s not possible, a local wildlife office, veterinarian or humane society, which may have contact information for a wildlife rehabilitator who can help you. They can then help you discern if the animal is truly in trouble or whether it’s better off to leave the animal alone. In some instances, you can see an obvious injury (or blood), so it’s clear the animal needs help.

It’s important to remember wild animals can be dangerous and can carry diseases transmissible to humans so it’s a good idea to get professional advice, if possible. Generally speaking, MN DNR notes that if an animal is able to move around and flee if you approach it then it’s probably best to leave it be — “A prolonged struggle or chase will often put both animal and human rescuers at greater risk.”4 As for orphaned animals, following are examples of wildlife that are often believed to be orphaned when they are not:5

  • Baby fledgling birds, which are often found on the ground in the early spring and summer; this is normal. If the babies can hop, they have left the nest
  • Baby rabbits, which are often left unattended for hours at a time
  • Baby squirrels, which may be moved between nests, so if it appears a baby squirrel has been abandoned it could actually be in the process of being moved to a new nest
  • Baby deer (fawns), which may be left alone for 24 hours
  • Baby turtles (and other reptiles), which do not need parental care and can find their way to their preferred habitat and should be left alone

If you’re certain an animal is in need of help from visible injuries, put on gloves and then carefully place the animal in a safe container for transport, such as a cardboard box lined with a soft cloth, a pet carrier or even a paper bag with air holes added.

Make a note of exactly where you found the animal, which will be very important if the animal is able to be released. Keep the container in a dark, warm and quiet place and then find a local wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife veterinarian to care for the animal. Do not attempt to feed the animal, and do not hold or pet the animal.

If possible, call the facility first, as certain facilities may not accept every type of wild animal (only certain facilities are authorized to accept threatened and endangered species, for instance). Once you’ve found a facility that will accept the animal, get him there as soon as possible, and remember that it’s illegal to keep and care for a wild animal without a license, even if you intend to release it.

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