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The Basics: How to Help a Wild Animal in Need
You never know when you might have the opportunity to help a wild animal in distress. You may find a bird that has flown into a window, been caught by a cat, or tangled in fishing line, fencing, or kite string; a nest of babies fallen from a tree or disturbed by a pet or yard work; or come across a bird, mammal or reptile that has been hit by a car.
The best thing you can do to help an animal in need is to remain calm and follow the steps below.
Confirm the Situation
Before picking up any wild animal, make sure to take a step back and determine whether it’s actually in need of help. If you need help with this step, call us! We are happy to listen to your observations and can even receive photos of the animal. In many cases, no human intervention is needed.
Avoid Causing Additional Stress
The most important thing to remember when trying to help a wild animal is that close contact with humans is a major source of stress for wild animals – even when we are helping them recover from illness or injury. Additionally, a wild animal that has been injured may be in shock, which can kill. Eliminating extra stressors and alleviating shock are our first priorities.
Contact a Rehabber
Finally, you’ll want to find the nearest licensed wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife care center. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Oregon. Get in touch with the nearest organization or individual on this list and follow their advice. In some cases, you will wait for a time until assistance is available.
While you wait, prioritize the following:
– alleviate stress and shock (leave it alone – no speaking or peeking!)
– keep the animal in a warm, dark, and quiet secure box or another container
What do these steps look like, in detail?
Step One: Confirm Whether the Animal is Truly In Need of Human Assistance
Before picking up any wild animal, make sure to take a step back and determine whether it’s actually in need of help.
Healthy young animals are often picked up by people who mistakenly think they are orphaned, injured, or abandoned. Though to an untrained observer they may look too young to be on their own, they are often just exploring, having left their nest on schedule, and are still being cared for by their parents. In this case, usually, the best thing you can do is to leave them alone! (Exceptions: if the baby is injured, very cold to the touch, in an area of danger, or a parent is found dead.)
- Birds: You may have heard a myth that parents will abandon young birds touched by humans – luckily, this is not true! Young birds may be placed back in the nest or in a tree if found on the ground.
- Mammals: If you see a young mammal which seems orphaned or abandoned, stand back and watch from a considerable distance, or leave and come back later to see if the parent or parents return. Often a wild mammal mother will be off feeding for 4 or more hours. This is especially true with fawns, whose primary defense in their first couple of weeks is camouflage and lack of scent.
Just remember, even the most experienced rehabilitators are still poor surrogate parents! We do everything in our power to ensure that young wild animals are reunited with and raised by their own parents.
Step Two: Avoid Causing Additional Stress for the Animal
The most important thing to remember when trying to help a wild animal is this:
Close contact with humans is a major source of stress for wild animals, even when we are helping them recover from illness or injury.
The second thing to assume is that the animal will be in shock, both from the original cause of its injury or trauma and from being handled by a human. And, like with any human accident victim, shock can kill. Eliminating extra stressors and alleviating shock, therefore, are the first priorities.
A wild bird that appears content to sit on your finger is likely in shock. As nice as it is to assume it knows you are trying to help, it is far more likely to be simply hiding the fact that it is paralyzed with fear. Very simplistically, on a physiological level, shock involves loss of body heat and fluids. Shock and stress are related and can compound each other, so we do everything in our power to mitigate them.
Simple steps to eliminate stress & reduce shock in a wild animal:
- Any animal (which can be safely handled by you) should be placed in a covered box, with a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel, or with the box itself placed half on a heating pad set on low, unless it is a very warm day.
- Place something absorbent in the bottom of the box – newspapers, paper towels, or clean cloths with no holes or raveled edges. This helps keep the animal clean and dry, and gives it more secure footing.
- Keep the animal in a quiet place, away from family or pet traffic, and at a temperature between 80 and 90 degrees* – these small actions are the biggest contribution you can make towards stabilizing its condition until you can get it to a licensed rehabilitator or wildlife care center. *Be aware of the danger of overheating an animal, particularly a bird, during warm weather.
- Resist the temptation to check on it. You are adding stress each time you open the box or subject it to unfamiliar noises (e.g., human voices, radio, pets) or smells, in the case of mammals.
- Do not attempt to immobilize fractures except by wrapping the whole animal securely in a towel. In general, do not attempt to provide emergency care to an animal unless specifically instructed to do so by a wildlife rehabilitator.
- Do not offer food or water unless instructed to do so by a licensed rehabilitator. This is very dangerous to attempt on your own, since it is all too easy to get fluids “down the wrong pipe.” Aspirating fluids, especially on top of other injuries or stress, or with a debilitated animal, can kill.
- Now, call a wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife care center.
Handling an Injured Wild Animal
Always remember the number one rule of handling wildlife: keep your safety at the forefront of your mind. Even though a small bird or young mammal may not be able to hurt you, gently wrapping it in a cloth as you pick it up gives you a better grip, helps keep the wings or legs from being further damaged as it struggles, and covers its eyes: if it can’t see you, it has one less reason to be afraid.
Do not attempt to handle an adult raccoon, opossum, or deer, nor a heron or large bird of prey of any age. Call a wildlife rehabilitation center first and they will do their best to send a trained volunteer or staff member with appropriate equipment.
If you must handle such an animal for its safety before you contact a rehabilitator (e.g., it’s in the middle of the road), do so with great caution. Even an injured or orphaned heron will instinctually attack the eyes and can blind or kill you with its sharp, powerful beak; the talons of a large bird of prey can pierce a hand and you might not be able to get it to let go; a raccoon, even one which looks very weak, can break a finger; a kick from a deer can break one or more bones. (Please know that these warnings are not meant to imply that these animals are mean or vicious; In reality, when an animal is scared, in pain, and unable to run away, they will try to defend themselves in any way they can!) The best suggestion in these circumstances is to get a box or blanket over the animal and leave someone with it while you call for experienced help.
Step Three: Contact a Wildlife Rehabber
First, you’ll want to find the nearest licensed wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife care center. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Oregon. Get in touch with the nearest organization or individual on this list and follow their advice.
They may ask for additional background information, request you continue to monitor the animal from a distance, or help you determine that the animal does not require human intervention after all (phew!). If the animal is in need of medical care, they may work with you to capture and transport the animal to a nearby facility. Do your best to follow their instructions and use the resources on our website to help guide you.
Transporting an Injured or Orphaned Wild Animal
After a wildlife rehabilitator has determined that an animal needs to come in for care, the quickest means of transport is usually the best option. In almost all cases, we ask the person who found the animal to capture, contain, and transport it to the nearest center. If that is not possible, the wildlife center may be able to locate a nearby volunteer who can provide transport.
When transporting a wild animal, remember three important things:
Heat, Dark, and Quiet
Have the car warm and have a hot water bottle in the box (unless the weather is already 80F or higher). A hot water bottle can be made from any container (even a zip-lock bag) which can be tightly closed. Fill it with hot tap water, wrap it in a light towel to protect the animal from direct contact with the hot glass or plastic, and carefully wedge it in the box so it will not roll. Keep the box closed and place it directly on the seat.
It may be tempting to let your child have the ‘experience’ of holding or carrying a wild animal, but please emphasize the importance of keeping the animal safe and free from stress (including stress caused by human contact). Remember you are dealing with a wild animal, not a pet that may be used to the presence of humans. Wild animals, especially those that are injured, do not find comfort in human voices or touch (so resist the urge to sing to, cuddle, or otherwise “comfort” the animal!). While the animal is in your possession, including during transport, be careful to avoid exposing them to unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells including radio/television, children, pets, cigarette smoke, and other similar stressors. Always keep voices low and to a minimum, and avoid “checking” on the animal except when specifically instructed by a rehabber.
Though the animal may be sent to a veterinarian later, many vet clinics prefer that the wildlife center admit and examine them first. Trained wildlife rehabilitation staff can stabilize the animal, mitigate shock, blood loss, and dehydration, can immobilize fractures, and/or start a treatment of antibiotics, as appropriate. Additionally, many wildlife rehabilitation centers, including Chintimini Wildlife Center, have a veterinarian on staff who will provide that onsite without the need for transport between facilities.