Wildlife Rescue: What Do You Do?

You’ve found an injured animal. What now? Use common sense, protect yourself, and call a professional.

If you create a wildlife-friendly garden (or even if you don’t), it’s only a matter of time before you discover an injured animal in your yard. Birds fly into windows or fall out of nests. Many kinds of wildlife are poisoned by garden chemicals, hit by cars, injured by pets, or tangled in trash. Some escape from their natural predators less than whole.

In these situations, one option is to simply let nature take its course. Most injured wild animals you’ll encounter are common species, and the loss of one individual won’t have much impact on the overall population. If you’re like most wildlife gardeners, however, you can’t bear to see an animal suffering. Here are the best ways to help:

Don’t be a hero. Your first impulse might be to care for the animal yourself, but that’s a bad idea. First, it’s usually illegal to keep native wildlife in captivity, even if you have good intentions. Second, an injured animal doesn’t know you are trying to help it and will bite and scratch to defend itself, potentially hurting you or spreading disease. Most important, it takes special training in animal handling and medicine to heal injured wildlife. If you don’t have that training, the chances of the animal surviving are slim.

Ducks (pictured here), geese, and most ground birds are able to walk, swim, and feed themselves when they are born. If you see these babies away from their nest, don't worry. They don't stay in the nest once they hatch.

Call for help. In order to give the hurt animal the best chance for survival, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Two good places to start are your local animal shelter and your local nature center. Staff at these places might be able to help you themselves; if not, they should be able to put you in touch with those who can. You can also do a Web search using your town and state and the words “wildlife rehabilitator” or use the search function at wildliferehabber.org.

Protect yourself. If you feel that an animal is in imminent danger and you must capture it, do your best to minimize your direct exposure to it. Put on heavy work gloves; you’d be surprised how painful a bite can be from even a small animal such as a songbird or squirrel. Start by gently covering the animal with a towel, which puts a barrier between it and you. It also calms the animal. Then, using a broom or shovel if necessary, carefully guide or scoop the animal into a cardboard box or plastic storage bin and keep it covered. (Remember that a plastic bin with a lid can quickly overheat in warm temperatures.)

Be extra careful with mammals, snakes, and large turtles. These animals can transmit disease, be venomous, or inflict serious injury trying to defend themselves. Avoid handling these animals.

Don’t feel bad. Once the animal is in the care of the rehabilitator, it’s out of your hands. Some animals will survive, and some won’t. But you’ll know that you did what you could, and that you are helping countless other wild animals by creating a natural garden filled with food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

Is it abandoned, or is it ok?
Before you attempt to rescue a baby animal, make sure it actually needs rescuing. Baby birds fall into two categories: nestlings and fledglings. Nestlings are naked or down-covered and cannot fly. If you find one on the ground, place it back in its nest or take it to a rehabilitator. Fledglings have flight feathers and are just learning to fly. They are often found on the ground, but their parents are nearby feeding and protecting them, so they should be left alone. Similarly, mother rabbits and deer leave their young by themselves for long periods of time and return periodically to nurse them.