Every year, PETA receives numerous requests from all over the country from caring people who have found injured or orphaned wildlife and are looking for a place to take them for care. We are glad to know that there are people willing to help these animals, because there is certainly a need for it!
Unfortunately, well-meaning people with the best of intentions often “rescue” young animals when, in fact, these baby birds and mammals are perfectly fine and their parents are probably foraging for food nearby. In most cases, young wild animals should be left alone. However, when in doubt, please use the following guidelines as to how you can best determine whether a young animal needs help and, if so, what to do.
Keep the following items in your vehicle at all times so that you’ll be ready to respond should you encounter an animal in distress:
- Carrier (medium-sized), cardboard or plastic
- Towel or blanket (with no strings or loops)
- Thick gloves
- Broom (you can use it to gently coax a wild animal into a carrier or away from a dangerous area)
- Snow shovel or similar tool (to gently lift an immobile mammal into a carrier or out of harm’s way)
- Directions to and phone numbers of local animal control bureaus and animal shelters, 24-hour emergency veterinary hospitals, and wildlife rehabilitators
If you see a wild animal in distress, it is important to resist the temptation to interfere unless the animal is clearly sick, hurt, orphaned, or in immediate danger. In particular, people often mistakenly “rescue” baby animals when their best chance of survival is staying in the care of their parents. Wild animals need help if one or more of the following are true:
- They are clearly injured (e.g, they have a broken wing or leg, they are bleeding, they are unconscious).
- They are caught by a cat, dog, or other predator.
- They are weak and shivering or emaciated.
- They are clearly babies (see descriptions below), an animal suspected of being their parent was killed nearby, and you have confirmed that no other animal of the same species is caring for them.
- They are in immediate danger.
If you are unsure of whether an animal needs to be rescued, please contact your local wildlife rehabilitator.
If immediate action is deemed necessary, the following are some steps that you can take to help.
- It is not true that parent birds will reject or kill their babies because a human has touched them. Birds have a poor sense of smell and are more bothered by human noises and presence. If fallen nestlings—babies with no feathers, a little fuzz, or pinfeathers—aren’t injured, shaking, or weak, cover their heads with a small towel and use clean or gloved hands to quickly place them back into their nest.
- If you either can’t see or can’t reach the original nest, you can make a surrogate home for nestlings out of a small basket, kitchen strainer, or small plastic container with holes punched in the bottom. Line it with shredded tissue paper; don’t use cotton, grass, hay, straw (they can cause respiratory problems), or old birds’ nests (which can contain parasites). Hang it in a sheltered place that is not accessible to cats or dogs and is close to the original location.
- Parents of nestlings will continue to feed their young if the nest has been disturbed or if the babies have been moved, as long as the babies are close (100 yards or so) to where their parents left them, are in a safe location, and no humans or companion animals are nearby. Mother songbirds feed their babies frequently. Watch quietly from a distance for several hours to make sure a parent returns.
- If a nestling is injured, weak, and shaking or if his or her parents do not return, place the baby inside a paper towel–lined margarine tub and place the tub inside a well-ventilated cardboard box. Warm the animal by placing one side of the box on a heating pad (low setting) or by placing a hot water bottle inside the box. Place the box in a closet or other warm, dark, quiet, safe place away from people and companion animals. Do not offer the animal food or water and please do not attempt to care for the animal yourself. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator and arrange transport to a licensed facility immediately—every second counts!
- Fledglings—young birds who are mostly feathered and learning to fly—can be moved a short distance to a tree or dense shrub to keep them safe from traffic and cats. Fledglings’ parents are usually close by, so never attempt to rescue fledglings unless they are in immediate danger; their parents are the best ones to teach them to survive in the wild.
- If a fledgling is clearly injured or ill, gently cover the animal’s head with a dishtowel and use clean or gloved hands to place him or her inside a newspaper- or paper towel–lined cardboard box. If the animal can stand, make her or him a low perch by poking a stick through both sides of the box. If the animal cannot stand, roll a towel into a horseshoe shape and place it inside the box. Prop the animal onto the towel to prevent her or him from rolling over during transport. Cover the box with a fitted screen and a towel. Do not offer the animal food or water and please do not attempt to care for the animal yourself. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator and arrange transport to a licensed facility immediately.
- Baby deer, also known as “fawns,” are spotted and spend most of their time alone—quiet and almost motionless—in open fields waiting for their mothers to return. Fawns are often mistakenly thought of as orphans because mother deer only nurse and attend to their young a few times per day. However, if you find a fawn who is wandering alone, calling, or lying on one side in a field, the animal may be orphaned.
- Deer have a highly developed sense of smell, so never handle fawns unless absolutely necessary. If you do handle one and then find that he or she needs to be returned to mom, wipe the animal clean with a towel before returning him or her. Watch from a safe distance to be sure that the baby is not abandoned.
- Deer who do not have spots are not babies and, unless injured, do not need assistance.
- If you think that you have found an orphaned fawn, contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately for further assistance.
- Cottontail rabbits make their nests in small depressions in the grass. The nests are lined with fur from the mother and loosely covered with grass. They are frequently disturbed by people when they mow their grass or rake leaves. In addition, dogs and cats find these nests and often kill or injure the babies.
- If a nest is discovered or disturbed, place the baby rabbits back in the nest and leave them there unless they are injured or you are certain that the mother has been killed. Many people assume a mother is dead simply because they have not seen her return to the nest in quite some time, but this is completely normal. Female cottontails usually only come to feed their young twice a day, at dawn and dusk, because this decreases the chance of alerting predators to the nest’s location. If you are not sure if the mother is coming back to feed them, try placing a string over the nest. If the string has been moved by the following morning, the mother has returned.
- Young cottontail rabbits should only be rescued as a last resort. Baby rabbits have a high death rate when hand-raised, due in great part to the stress of handling by humans. People are NOT doing the babies any favors by attempting to raise them themselves. It usually only ends in sadness and frustration. When baby rabbits are about 5 inches long, they are completely on their own and away from their mothers. These rabbits do not need to be taken in unless they are injured. A good rule of thumb is, if you can’t catch a rabbit without a chase, then he or she does not need to be rescued!
- If baby rabbits are less than 5 inches long and are cool to the touch and their mother has not returned to their nest within one day, cover their heads with a dishtowel and quickly place them inside a warm, dark, newspaper-lined box. Place the box in a quiet place. Do not offer them food or water and please do not attempt to care for them yourself. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator and arrange transport to a licensed facility immediately.
- Young squirrels are often found after a nest has been blown down from a tree following a storm. The best thing that you can do to reunite the young with their mother is to place the baby squirrels in a box and set the box at the base of the tree. The mother will usually retrieve the young and transport them to a safer location but only if she feels safe. Please resist the temptation to check on the baby squirrels frequently, and be sure to keep dogs, cats, and children away. It may be necessary to keep the young squirrels indoors overnight and then try reuniting them with their mother again the next day. Either way, it is always best to call your local wildlife rehabilitator for instructions and advice.
- If a baby squirrel is injured, weak, or shaking, cover his or her head with a dishtowel and use gloved hands to place the animal inside a warm, safe, newspaper-lined box. Do not offer the animal food or water and please do not attempt to care for the animal yourself. Contact a veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator and arrange transport to a licensed facility immediately.
Adult wild animals can be dangerous to humans, so please contact a humane society and/or wildlife rehabilitator to obtain specific instructions before attempting to rescue them. If the animal can fly or run away, chances are that he or she is fine for the time being and might just need to be watched from a safe distance for a few hours or days to ensure that his or her condition isn’t worsening.
If rescue is absolutely necessary and the animal is completely immobile and unconscious, drape a blanket or sheet over the animal’s head and body and, using gloved hands, lift the animal into a newspaper-lined box or crate. Cover the box or crate with a towel or blanket and place it in a dark, quiet place. Do not offer the animal food or water and please do not attempt to care for the animal yourself. Contact a humane society, veterinarian, or wildlife rehabilitator and arrange transport to a licensed facility immediately.
All birds and their nests, with the exception of pigeons, starlings, grackles, and English house sparrows, are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). If you or anyone else is caught attempting to care for a federally protected bird without a rehabilitation permit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could charge you with MBTA violations. Fines for violating the MBTA are substantial, so please contact a wildlife rehabilitation center and transport the animals for care immediately.
For more detailed instructions on what to do if you find a baby mammal or baby bird, please visit the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association’s Web site.