Wildlife Rescue Guide
By Melanie Piazza, WildCare Director of Animal Care
Spring, summer and even early fall are baby season for wild things. These are also the times of year when people are outdoors enjoying the lovely weather. Whether on a trail, in the garden or under your deck, it’s inevitable that people and wildlife are going to meet during the warmer months of the year.
Sometimes an animal needs help, but often you are just observing part of his natural maturation process. If you are uncertain whether an animal needs help or not, contact your local wildlife hospital (click for a list of wildlife rehabilitators by state) for advice.
Evaluating baby animals
The first things to look for if you think a wild animal needs rescue are the Five Cs. If an animal demonstrates any of these five symptoms, it is an emergency and he needs immediate help:
1. Is he Crying?
2. Is he Coming toward you (approaching people)?
3. Is he Covered with blood or insects?
4. Has he been Caught by a cat or a dog?
5. Is he Cold?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, immediately call your local wildlife rehabilitation center for assistance and advice. You may be asked to capture the animal and bring him in. Read How to Transport a Wild Animal below.
Is the baby warm and healthy? He may not be truly orphaned. Wildlife parents may leave their young for long periods of time while they forage for food, but they are probably watching you from afar.
If the baby is not exhibiting any of the Five Cs, step away and observe from a distance, or leave and return later; the parents will not come to their baby if predators (YOU!) are near. Keep all pets and humans away! It is crucial that the returning parent is not threatened by your good intentions into abandoning her young.
If you do pick up the animal and the baby is warm and healthy, you may be able to return him to his nest or leave him hidden where you found him. Remember it is a MYTH that wild animals will reject their young if humans touch them!
Deer, rabbits and hares
Deer and hares (Jackrabbits) have one or two young and hide twins in separate locations for up to twelve hours at a time, returning to nurse in the early morning and early evening.
Brush Rabbits have larger litters in a single nest, but those babies, too, will be left alone for long periods of time. If you are uncertain whether the mother Brush Rabbit is around, you can lay small twigs in a pattern across the entrance to the rabbit’s nest, and check the next day to see if they have been disturbed.
A warm quiet baby found in the grass with no obvious injuries is probably not abandoned. Fawns and young rabbits remain quiet and still so that predators will not find them. If all is well, the mother will likely move her baby after the next feeding, which may not be for several hours.
Call WildCare 415-456-7283 or your local rehabilitation hospital if the baby you saw is still there after 24 hours, if a fawn is bleating (crying) and walking around in the open, or you are certain the mother has been killed.
Neonate (newborn) opossums are sometimes found alive inside the pouch of a dead mother. If you see a dead mother opossum and it is safe to do so, always check the pouch and surrounding grass for straggling babies. If you find live babies in the pouch, you can bring the mother’s body to WildCare or your local wildlife center immediately. Don’t attempt to detach live babies from a dead mother, as the babies’ mouths are closed around the nipple and removal must be done very carefully.
Opossums cannot be reunited with their mothers, and an opossum shorter than ten inches (including tail), will need warmth and care.
Juvenile opossums are fully furred and have outgrown their mother’s pouch. By instinct, they cling to her as she forages, and eventually fall off. If unable to get back to her, a baby is then on his own, a natural dispersal strategy. If healthy and ten inches or longer he is old enough to take care of himself and doesn’t need rescue.
Neonate raccoons are helpless for about six weeks, and their mother usually keeps them well hidden. You are unlikely to encounter baby raccoons unless their nest is disturbed or their mother is interrupted while moving them. Raccoons are very attached to their young. If a mother is alive and she has been separated from all her young, she will try aggressively to retrieve them for several nights. If allowed to reach them, she will move them to an alternate nest. Call WildCare for assistance with reuniting a family or if you have found a single neonate (newborn) raccoon. Never handle a raccoon OF ANY AGE with your bare hands.
Juvenile raccoons leave the nest at about eight to ten weeks of age and begin to travel with their mother. From then on they have no permanent den site. If excluding raccoons from your walls, attics or crawlspaces is a goal, this is when it is safe to do so.
If you need help excluding wildlife from your property, call WildCare Solutions at 415-453-1000 x23! We offer effective, humane, non-lethal help to resolve wildlife conflicts.
Hawks, owls and vultures of all ages have sharp talons and beaks. Adult raptors and vultures can be very aggressive when protecting their young.
Nestlings with downy fluff on their bodies found on the ground should be brought to a wildlife hospital immediately. Babies at this age are not able to thermoregulate (control their body temperature) on their own, so they need immediate warmth.
“Branchers” are fledgling raptors. If the bird is old enough to have feathers and very little downy fluff, and he’s healthy and on the ground, chances are he is just learning to fly and should be left alone. Call WildCare if the bird appears injured, or you are uncertain. WildCare’s Hungry Owl Project has experienced tree climbers who are able to put young raptors of all ages back into their nests. Many local wildlife centers will have similar programs.
Nestlings are sometimes found on the ground below their nest. If you can access the nest and the baby bird appears healthy and warm, gently place him back into the nest, feet tucked under him. If the entire nest has fallen, you can place the babies in a small basket or container with drainage holes and hang the “nest” no more than 12 inches from the original site. Birds only tend one nest, however, so all babies need to be together. Watch carefully from a distance, and if the parents do not return in over two hours, or if the baby is pushed out repeatedly, keep the baby warm and call WildCare.
Fledglings are feathered birds with short tails that have hopped out of the nest to the ground, and are able to stand, hop and even run. They have left the nest and are learning to fly, which can take five to seven days while their parents continue to feed them.
At this stage, they are sometimes “bird-napped” by well-meaning humans. If they appear healthy and have not been caught by a cat, leave them where they are and call WildCare for observation guidelines.
Neonate (newborn) squirrels are usually found when a nest (called a “drey”) has been destroyed. Squirrels are excellent parents, but they are casual nest-builders, so they often have more than one drey. If one or more baby squirrels fall to the ground, their mother will often retrieve them.
If you find uninjured babies and think the mother is still in the vicinity, nestle them in a warm, shallow box at the base of the tree they fell from, or in a basket suspended so it rests against the trunk, and leave the area. Call WildCare 415-456-7283 if the mother has not returned within two or three hours.
Juvenile squirrels are still dependent on their mother. Call WildCare for advice if a juvenile squirrel approaches you, as it may be a sign that he needs medical care. Squirrels have very sharp teeth and strong jaws– never handle a squirrel without gloves.
Ducklings and goslings
Any fluffy duckling or gosling on his own needs to be rescued. Mallards and other duck and goose species have large broods of young, and the babies come out of the egg precocial, meaning they can walk, swim and eat adult food almost immediately.
As soon as her clutch has fully hatched, a mother duck or goose will escort her young to a water source. If the lake, pond or stream is a distance away, or especially if it is across a busy road, it is easy for mother and babies to become separated. Many of the orphaned ducklings and goslings admitted to WildCare lose their families in this manner.
Babies also get separated when they are washed away in gutters during rain storms, or when they get trapped in storm drains.
If you see a duckling alone, look for mom. She may be just around the bend, waiting for her little ones to catch up. If mom isn’t obviously nearby and you’re able to capture the duckling and transport him close to a mother with young, he’ll easily return to the bosom of the family… even if it isn’t his original family! If no mother duck is within sight, bring the baby to your closest wildlife rescue center. WildCare admits over 200 Mallard Ducklings every year to our Wildlife Hospital.
Evaluating adult animals
If an adult wild animal lets you get close to him, something is wrong. Even a seemingly calm adult animal is actually frightened and stressed and can be extremely dangerous if cornered.
If you are certain it is safe for you to do so, and you are able to capture the injured animal, you should bring him to WildCare. Be sure to always protect yourself with gloves and safety glasses when attempting a capture. Having a towel and a secure, ventilated carrying box will be useful, too. Read How to Transport a Wild Animal below for additional information.
The injured adult wildlife that may be exceptions are birds that have flown into windows and are momentarily stunned. If this happens and you see no injuries, place the bird in a ventilated cardboard box that is “just the right size” and close it. Put the box somewhere safe and quiet outside, then check on the bird in 30 to 60 minutes. If he still cannot fly away, then he needs to come to WildCare. If he takes off on his own once you open the box, congratulations on your first rescue!
If you live in Marin County, California and know an animal needs help, but you are uncomfortable handling him, call the Marin Humane Society at 415-883-4621. Their officers have special training and equipment to handle wildlife, and they will transport the animal to WildCare.
How to transport a wild animal
Always wear eye protection and protect your hands and arms (wear gloves if available) when attempting to capture a wild animal.
Carefully and thoroughly assess the situation to determine if capture is safe for you, and for the animal, before attempting a capture.
Always feel free to call WildCare’s Living with Wildlife Hotline at 415-456-SAVE (7283) if you have questions or concerns about a potential rescue.
Once you are certain an animal needs help, find a secure container with pre-punched air holes (for example, a shoebox, paper bag or pet carrier), ideally with a towel or other cloth on the bottom to prevent the animal from sliding. Make sure the container has a lid that won’t open, as you do not want the animal to escape.
Approach the animal slowly, without speaking to him or making unnecessary noise. Throwing a towel over him may be an option. If you have questions about how to capture the animal, please call WildCare 415-456-7283.
Once you have the animal contained, remember that it is easy for animals to overheat, so do NOT tightly wrap the animal or bury him in blankets or towels. Making sure a wild animal’s eyes are covered is important to reduce stress, but covering him tightly so he can’t breathe or gets too hot is very dangerous. If you’re using a heating pad, be sure to only put HALF of the container on the pad, to give the animal the option to move off the heat if he gets too hot. Too much heat can kill as easily as too much cold!
Never give an animal any food, fluids or medications, as these will usually end up on the animal’s fur or feathers during transport. Resist the urge to peer in at the animal or speak to him. Wild animals can die from stress alone, and they see humans as predators. Bring the animal to WildCare or your local wildlife hospital immediately.
Never touch a mammal with bare hands.
Whom to call for help
Safety first! Never approach or attempt to handle a wild animal unless you are certain you can do so without harm to yourself or the animal! Call for assistance! If you do handle a wild animal, always wear gloves and eye protection!
WildCare: 415-456-SAVE (7283)
Hungry Owl Project: 415-454-4587
Marin Humane Society: 415-883-4621
State-by-state listing of wildlife rescue resources