Two weeks ago, I rescued my first baby squirrel of the season. His mother had apparently built a nest in the frame of a parked car, which had driven off with the baby inside. It's entirely possible that his brothers and sisters fell out while it was in transit, but this fortunate fellow landed in a parking lot near a municipal enforcement officer, who called Hope for Wildlife, which called me.
I'll doubtless be seeing this sort of thing more often in the weeks to come, and I know that by late May, the mammal and bird nurseries at the Hope for Wildlife farm will be filled with young animals. So I thought this might be a good time to discuss the rescue of injured and orphaned wildlife babies and offer a few pointers.
Your Initial Investigation
When you encounter wildlife babies on their own, it's important to answer the following questions first before intervening on their behalf.
1. Is the animal sick or injured?
The first thing you'll want to determine is whether or not the baby animal is sick or injured. Obvious signs of sickness and injury include bleeding, vomiting and shivering. Broken limbs and wings are also easy to spot; limbs may look 'out of place', and wings may droop. Of course, if a cat or dog presents the animal to you, it clearly needs your help. In all of these cases, contact your local wildlife rehabilitator or facility. If you don't know who to contact, you can call a veterinarian, humane society or provincial/state wildlife agency for a referral.
2. Is the animal really orphaned?
Many species of animals will leave their babies alone, sometimes for hours, returning only to feed them. So it's important to remember that just because a baby animal is alone, that doesn't mean it's orphaned. There are many wonderful resources online that provide better information than I can for determining whether or not a baby animal needs your help. If you're reading this article because you need that information right now, visit the Humane Society's "Found an Injured or Orphaned Animal?" and the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association's "Help! I've Found an Animal" pages for further instructions.
Okay, the baby animal really needs my help. Now what?
So the baby animal is injured, or you've determined that it's orphaned, and you need to prepare it for transport to someone who can care for it properly. Here's how to do that.
Take care of yourself and your companion animals first.
It's best to wear gloves when handling wildlife, but at the very least you should wash your hands with hot, soapy water both before and after doing so. In addition, you should wash any containers, hot water bottles, towels and clothes after they've come into contact with wildlife and put any towels and clothes through a hot dryer. If you step in wildlife feces, thoroughly wash the soles of your shoes and spray them with a 1:10 bleach solution. For what it's worth, I spray containers and hot water bottles with 1:10 bleach solution as well, just to be safe. Do not allow companion animals to come into contact with wildlife or with soiled items, since there are some zoonotic diseases that pass from species to species.
Keep the baby warm and quiet.
Most wildlife babies can't regulate their own heat, so it's important to keep them warm. You can easily do this by filling a hot water bottle with hot tap water, wrapping it in a soft towel and placing the baby on or beside it in a box with a lid and air holes. In addition, many wildlife species are especially susceptible to stress, which can kill them all by itself. So it's important to create a quiet environment around them. I don't even listen to the radio when I'm transporting an animal, because I don't want the noise to frighten it.
Don't offer food or water.
This is crucial and equally non-intuitive. Wildlife babies have specific nutritional needs, but beyond that, it's easy to over-feed them or feed them incorrectly. So unless a wildlife rehabilitator or other wildlife professional gives you specific feeding instructions, don't offer the baby anything to eat or drink.
Transport the animal as quickly as possible.
You often won't know how long a wildlife baby has been injured or orphaned, so it's important to transport it to a wildlife rehabilitator as quickly as possible.
The Hard Call
Sometimes you'll get help for the animal, and sometimes you won't. It can be very frustrating at the end of a long string of telephone calls to realize that you still have an injured or orphaned baby animal on your hands that nobody can or will rehabilitate. So you're left with two options; do you leave it to die, or do you intervene?
You could leave the animal to die of exposure or be eaten by another animal. To my mind, those are cruel options, but they happen all the time in the wild. Such is the way of things. At the same time, you'd have difficulty raising the animal to adulthood unless you were a trained wildlife rehabilitator, and even if you were successful, you'd likely habituate it to human contact. This means that when you released it back into the wild, it might have problems fending for itself, and it might seek other humans out. It could starve, injure other people or be injured by them, accidentally or on purpose. Remember that wild animals are meant to be wild.
Another option might be to call a few veterinarians until you find one who will euthanize the baby animal humanely. Many veterinarians already offer compassionate euthanasia for stray companion animals who are sick or diseased and will gladly extend this mercy to injured and orphaned wildlife babies. It's a hard call and a sad one but kinder than any other death it might face. I've transported more than a few injured animals to veterinarians for this purpose, and it never gets easier, but it's much harder to watch them suffer.
With this edition of Activism Updates, I'm moving away from a strictly animal rights format into a wider range of topics dealing with animal welfare, environmental issues, green living and vegan ideology. I'll be trying my hand at book reviews, inviting guest bloggers to write on various topics and in general, promoting an ethic of reverence for the Earth. There are so many things we can do to treat ourselves, our fellow species and our planet with compassion that I thought it best not to limit my focus to animal suffering. As always, if this information moves you to action, I'd love to hear about it, and I'd also love to hear your suggestions for improvement. Until next time then, thank you for everything you do to make the world we share a better place.