Handling calls about orphaned baby wildlife

by Sharon Kutsop


If you work or volunteer in the animal welfare field there is a good chance you receive many calls about animals not related to your work with the organization you are associated with. In the spring, summer and fall, this means many wildlife calls may come your way. While there are some general guidelines below, you should always be aware of where your local wildlife rehabilitation facility is and keep their number on hand. They will be able to provide the best advice in any questionable situation.

I recently had the opportunity to take a class with Dr. Karen Dashfield as the instructor, and then to also spend a day with her at the Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary where she works. During both times I was able take some of her vast knowledge of wildlife so I could share it with others. While many animals brought to a wildlife rehabilitation center were actually ok and did not actually need humans to interfere, many are facing starvation due to the death of their mother if people don’t step in. If these animals are actually safe, the best place for them is with their mother. Mothers hide their young and leave them for long periods of time. This is normal and in no way indicates that the mother will not return or that the babies are in danger. Here are some guidelines to follow if you receive calls about “abandoned” baby wildlife.

This opossum is one of the lucky ones to end up at Antler Ridge!

This young opossum is one of many wild animals that wildlife rehabbers will help this spring.

Baby bunnies are a popular call to wildlife rehabilitation centers. The rule of thumb is if a baby bunny is the size of an adult man’s fist and has open eyes, it is of age to survive on its own. If you find a disturbed or possibly abandoned nest you can place strings or sticks in a pattern on top of the nest. If they are disturbed and the babies are still inside, it is safe to assume the mother has returned and all is well. Mom will come at dusk and dawn – only two times a day usually. The babies are only in the nest for 3 weeks, so if you have calls of people complaining about a nest you can tell them that it is a very short term inconvenience.

Some of the fawns at the Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary

There are dozens of fawns at Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary, and these are just a few of them.

Fawns are also a very common reason for people to contact a rehabilitation center. Fawns are often seen alone in yards, gardens, and even driveways. This does not mean they are abandoned. If a baby wild animal is vocalizing there may be reason for concern. It is not normal for young animals of any species to vocalize loudly when their mother is away, as it risks drawing attention to themselves by predators. They may be vocalizing because they are calling for their mother due to hunger or discomfort. From a distance, you can approach the fawn to visually inspect it for ticks, fleas or maggots. If it appears dehydrated (sunken eyes, slow return of skin, pale gums) there is need for concern. Unless the animal is clearly in immediate danger, do not handle it. Contact the wildlife rehabilitation center in your area first for their advice.

Young skunks have a tendency to fall in window wells. If this happens, simply place a rough board in for them to climb up to get out. Approach them slowly and talk gently as you place the board in for them. Skunks don’t see well and you don’t want to startle them. Let them know you are there, but be very slow and soft with your approach.

Birds are found on the ground quite often and sometimes there is need for concern, while other times there is not. If the bird is a nestling (is not feathered and ready to start flying) and it appears to be uninjured, you can place it back in the nest if you are able to reach it. You can also watch for mom to make sure she returns, in case she was injured while away from the nest and is unable to return. Fledglings are a bit older, have feathers and are learning how to fly. It is normal to see them on the ground. If the bird is not injured, you can leave it be. If it is in danger where it is you can move it to a higher location where it will be safe.

Raccoons being cared for by Antler Ridge Wlidlife Rehabilitation Center

Many raccoons like these are found and brought to rehabilitation centers every spring and fall.

Squirrels and raccoons are often displaced when people cut trees down. If you find squirrel or raccoon babies always call a professional. They may choose to handle them minimally, using heavy gloves to place them in a box near the location they were found. Mothers will not take cold infants, so a safe heat source may need to be included in the box. Keep an eye out for the mother from a distance, as mothers will not return with humans or pets nearby. If there is no sign of the mother after 2 hours, the professional may choose to recheck the condition of the babies to re-asses the situation.

If you find yourself with animals interfering with your home, such as raccoons or squirrels living in the attic, please call your local wildlife rehabilitation center to get a list of local humane pest control companies. And again, if there are any questionable conditions in the situation contact the rehab center in your area right away. They would rather help you keep the wildlife safe and in nature than have them come to the center and be removed from the wild unnecessarily.