Springtime is when South Florida’s wildlife is hard at work, caring for the next generation of wild critters. It’s also when veterinary clinics are flooded with calls concerning young wild animals who appear orphaned or abandoned.
While these callers are always willing to help and eager to know what to do, they are often surprised to learn even good intentions can result in more harm than good. Here are some general rules for deciding how - and more importantly, if - you should help a baby wild animal.
Observe from a distance.
Perhaps the most important aspect of wild animal rescue is deciding whether the animal needs to be rescued at all. In 2016, two well-meaning tourists “rescued” a bison calf in Yellowstone National Park. The story did not end well. Often our attempts to intervene with the natural order of the wild world lead to tragedy. It is normal for baby animals to be left alone while their mothers search for food.
A young bird flailing on the ground may simply be learning to fly. These youngsters have not been abandoned, and the parents are probably closer than you think. Attempts to be a Good Samaritan may even result in attacks by angry mothers who see human involvement as a threat. Find a quiet, hidden spot, and step in only if the the baby is in imminent danger of being hit by a car or snatched by a predator.
Determine whether or not the baby needs your help.
If the youngster is shivering, he has probably been on his own for a while. In this case, intervention is necessary. Ditto for babies who are wandering and crying for more than about twenty minutes. If mom is around, she will rush back to quiet him, as such sounds draw the attention of predators. If a parent does not appear in response to such distress calls, the baby is likely on his own.
A youngster who is bleeding, or displaying a limb which is dragging or visibly broken needs your help. Search the area for a dead parent. If you find one, the baby needs you. The same holds true for a baby animal who is presented as a “gift” by a cat or dog. If the youngster has survived this misadventure, he needs help, and he needs it now.
With regards to birds, one should only intervene if the baby is pink, or has minimal, fuzzy feathers. If you can find the nest, carefully place the baby back inside. Contrary to popular belief, birds do not recognize their offspring based on scent. The parents will not abandon him if he has been touched by humans.
A baby bird who is fully feathered is probably on the ground because he is learning to fly. Leaving him alone is counterintuitive, but essential. Flying is difficult, and fledglings get frustrated when they fail. They may squawk loudly and flail around in a most dramatic fashion. But they are doing this for mom’s attention, not yours.
And your attempts to help are likely to be rewarded with a dive-bomb attack from an angry avian parent. If the fledgling is in imminent danger from a cat or dog, chase the miscreants away, and leave the bird alone. This will also alert the mother bird, who will happily take it from there. More extensive information on baby bird rescue can be found on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.
If you’ve determined a baby needs your help, you need to get him to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as quickly as possible. This is not - repeat NOT - a DIY project you can do at home! Wildlife rehab is extraordinarily difficult. Every species has a specific diet, and babies must be fed often. Great care must be taken to ensure food is not aspirated into the lungs, where it can lead to life-threatening pneumonia.
Orphans must be taught how to hunt on their own, with minimal exposure to humans. Since the goal is to return the animals to the wild, the youngsters cannot be put in a situation where they may imprint upon their human caretakers. Some species are more susceptible to imprinting than others. Only a licensed wildlife rehabilitator can do this work successfully, and in a species-specific manner.
Because of the complications involved with this process, it is illegal for non-licensed civilians to attempt to rehabilitate wildlife. Since it is also illegal to keep wild animals as pets, it is not an option to rescue a wild baby in the hopes the imprinting process will turn it into a novel pet.
Many rescuers are surprised to learn that veterinarians are not automatically licensed to treat and rehabilitate wildlife. While some of us may have this additional layer of training, most of us (myself included), do not. While your veterinarian can probably provide you with a list of licensed wildlife rehabbers, please be understanding if the vet you’ve always counted on cannot take your wild foundling off your hands. The same laws that apply to the general public also apply to us. Without the proper licensure, it is illegal for veterinarians to treat or rehab wild animals.
Transport the baby safely.
When dealing with an orphaned baby, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama, and neglect our own safety. Your foundling is probably terrified, and terrified animals - even adorable, helpless baby ones - often bite. If your orphan has teeth, use a blanket or towel to swaddle him. This should also protect your hands. Place him in a box or pet carrier, and do so as quickly as possible.
Remember these animals must be returned to the wild, so keep handling to an absolute bare minimum. It’s also important for them not to lose their natural aversion to the sounds of human activity. Once you have your charge secured in your car, make the interior as quiet as possible. Turn off the radio, silence your cell phone. Do everything in your power not to talk. If you are bitten or scratched, seek medical attention immediately.
The difference between life and death in many of these situations is warmth. In addition to the towels inside the carrier, cover the outside as well. Point A/C vents away from the carrier. Never put animals on a heating pad, but if you happen to have an old school hot water bottle, fill it up, wrap it in a towel, and place in the carrier. Do not give the animal any food or water unless specifically instructed to do so by a wildlife rehabilitator.
So who are these wildlife rehabilitators?
Here is a list of some of South Florida’s licensed wildlife rehabilitators. If you live in an area where wildlife is abundant, you may want to plan where you will go in advance. Call ahead to let them know you are coming, as many are not equipped with a reception area.
Most of these facilities are either non-profit organizations, or individuals donating their time and expertise. They may be bashful about asking, so I’ll say it on their behalf - financial donations are always needed, and greatly appreciated. If you use their services, please be as generous as possible.
Click here for a list of wildlife rehabbers throughout the state of Florida
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic
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