Every spring and summer, people spot baby animals that look abandoned, and they wonder what to do. Here’s what you should know to help—and not hurt—a young animal’s chance at survival in the wild.
We won’t soon forget the story of the bison calf who died after being “rescued” by ill-informed tourists to Yellowstone National Park. Assuming it was lost and cold, they loaded it up in their vehicle and drove it to a ranger station.
This extreme example of good intentions gone bad when it comes to baby wildlife is not that unusual. Every spring across the country, concerned citizens find “orphaned” baby animals—from seal pups, elk calves and deer fawns to bunnies, owlets and songbirds—that they think need rescuing.
But unless the animal is injured, clearly in distress, or you know for a fact the parent is dead, don’t assume the animal is orphaned. The vast majority of time, the best solution is to just leave animals alone. Chances are mom is nearby. She is probably just off feeding—or too frightened to return because you, your pet, or your child is too close.
Most wildlife mothers hide their young and return periodically to feed and care for them. If the parent hasn’t returned in several hours—up to a day—then there is cause for alarm. But don’t assume they haven’t returned just because you haven’t seen them. Mother rabbits, for example, only visit dens sites to feed their young at dusk and dawn.
When mistakenly taken from their natural environment, young animals will miss the chance to learn crucial survival and behavioral skills from their parents, including where and what to eat, and how to escape from predators.
Here are some simple tips for helping to keep young wildlife safe.
- If you want a photo, take one from a distance! Use your zoom to get a closeup, but don’t approach a baby animal too closely just for a photo. Doing so can be extremely stressful for the animal.
- Probably the single best one is to keep your cats inside. Domestic cats are not native to North America, and many animals did not evolve the skills necessary to live among these predators. Wild native cat species are not as concentrated in one area, nor are they so well fed and healthy. Cats kill millions of birds every year in the United States alone. By all means, keep your kitty happy (try a cat patio, if that’s an option for you), but please don’t do it at the expense of birds fledging. It can take several awkward days to learn how to fly while mom brings them food.
- If a bird found on the ground is a nestling (a baby bird without feathers), and you can see the nest nearby, gently return it to the nest (contrary to popular belief, touching a baby bird will not cause the mother to abandon it). If you can’t find the nest, place the bird in a small box or basket and hang it from a branch that is out of reach of pets and children. Then leave the area so the parents will return.
- Wait until birds are out of the nest to prune or cut down a tree, and be sure to watch out for cavity nesters like barn owls and woodpeckers, which roost in the hollows of trees.
- If you see a seal pup on the beach, leave it be. A mother may leave her pup alone for up to 24 hours. But if you approach—for a selfie or any other reason, and even for “just a second”—the mother may abandon her pup if she feels threatened. For the seal pup, the consequences can be deadly. Selfies with wild animals are not a good idea, for you or for the animal.
- If you see a baby rabbit or deer fawn, keep pets and children away from the area to allow the mother to return. If a parent has not returned in several hours, it may be time to contact a local licensed rehabilitator for advice.
- In spring and summer, female turtles begin searching for suitable nesting grounds. If you see one, let it continue on its path. If it’s trying to cross a road, you can pick it up and put it on the other side but do so only in the direction it’s headed. (If it’s a snapping turtle gently push them from behind with a blunt object.) If you happen across turtle hatchlings on their own, don’t worry – baby turtles are pretty self-sufficient right out of the shell. The best thing you can do for them is to avoid touching them, which can put them under unnecessary stress. You should definitely avoid moving them (except, as noted, to help them out of the road), which could confuse them, and even put them at greater risk from predators.
- If an animal is clearly injured and needs special care, call your state or local wildlife agency, or a licensed rehabilitator. Either will likely have the expertise necessary to help the animal with as little human contact as possible, which will give it the best opportunity to recover and then return to its life in the wild.