I love urban wildlife. One of my favorite things to do is to sit in my backyard and listen to the birds singing and watch squirrels chasing each other through the trees. So as a former squirrel care volunteer for the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, I always appreciated the hundreds of kind people who would go out of their way to bring us sick, injured and orphaned animals to care for until they were ready to be released back into their wild homes. Every year, more than 5,000 birds, squirrels, opossums, rabbits, coyotes and even the occasional bobcat arrived at the center.
Unfortunately, many of these animals should not have been brought to us at all—a problem referred to as “over-rescue.” The people who brought them in were doing so with the best of intentions, so one of our most important jobs was educating people about when wildlife needs our help—and when it doesn’t.
Most of these cases involve a baby or juvenile animal that is found alone, with no parent in sight. But this is normal behavior for many animals. For example, deer often leave their fawns alone for hours at a time while they go off to look for food. Fledgling birds that have just acquired their flight feathers will stumble around the ground as part of their normal development. And just because you can’t see Mom, doesn’t mean she’s not around. In fact, your presence may be what’s keeping her from coming to help her young.
Did You Know? Baby deer are born without a scent, making them less likely to be found by predators!
In cases like these, the best possible situation is to leave the animal where it is for a few hours and then check back. Odds are, it won’t be there anymore as it has returned home where it belongs.
Of course, there are times when animals do need our help, especially if they show signs of being sick or injured. In those cases, your best bet is to contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator to get advice on how to deal with your specific situation. The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association provides a list of resources where you can locate a rehabber in your area. The site also provides more detailed information on what you should do for different types of animals.
Most wildlife rehabilitation centers are small organizations, working with limited budgets and staff and almost entirely dependent on individual donations and local volunteers to be able to help the huge numbers of animals that come through their doors. By making sure that the animals that do come in actually need help, it will not only take a lot of pressure off these organizations, it will ensure each animal has the best possible chance of survival.