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What to Do When You Find a Wild Animal in Distress

It doesn't take much to help injured, sick, or out-of-place urban wildlife.

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WildCare photo by Janet Kessler

THUNK!

We’ve all heard the sound: A bird, soaring through the skies one minute, makes a wrong turn and careens into your apartment window the next. You run outside. You find the little guy disoriented, lying on its side, breathing heavily. What do you do? Can you help?

Yes. But the key is don’t panic.

“Sometimes when people see wildlife in trouble, they get so freaked out that they forget they’re actually pretty capable of figuring out if an animal’s really injured or not,” says Victoria Campbell, a New York state wildlife rehabilitator and founder and president of Wild Things Sanctuary in Ithaca, New York.

I spoke to Campbell and Alison Hermance, communications manager at WildCare, an urban wildlife rehabilitation center in San Rafael, California, about some of the more common “urban wildlife in distress” scenarios to find out exactly what we humans can, and should, do to help.

Their tips are below. You’ll find that it doesn’t take much to solve a problem like a disoriented window bird, and that a few extra moments of foresight can do wonders for both you and the animal. But before we jump into specific scenarios, here's a few general do's and don't's you should keep in mind:

Do have your local wildlife rescue group in your list of important phone numbers. In the United States, there is unfortunately no national database for wildlife rehabilitators, but a quick Google search will give you the information you need. Also, there are these helpful links from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. Your vet may even do double-duty on wildlife, so check there as well.  

Don’t think you’re going to make a pet out of a wild animal. It’s just not going to happen.

Don’t assume an animal needs help, unless it is clearly in distress. “It could just be finding its way in the world,” says Campbell. “Try to do a little research before you just grab it.”

Don’t assume it’s not going to bite you! Even a disoriented, sick, or injured animal might return your good intentions with a chomp. So if you’re going to handle wildlife of any kind, it’s always a good idea to wear gloves.

UH-OH, A BIRD JUST HIT MY WINDOW.

Around 500 million to 1 billion birds are killed each year smacking into windows and other man-made objects. Though skyscrapers take much of the blame, private homes and apartments are also culpable.

A print left on a kitchen window from when a bird crashed into it. (Ben Salter on Flickr/CC License)

So what do you do when a bird mistakes your door for air? First, breathe. Assess the situation. What condition is the bird in? Are there any obvious injuries? A good tip: According to New Jersey’s Raptor Trust, any healthy wild bird will fly away when approached by a human.

Many times, the bird just needs some time to collect itself. The best course of action in this case is to find a box. Poke a few holes in the lid and line the bottom with something soft, like a towel or a t-shirt. Put on some gloves or grab a towel, and then gently take the little guy and place him in the box. Close the box. Keep it quiet. After about thirty minutes to an hour, crack open the lid and check on your patient. By then, he should’ve regained his senses, in which case you can release the bird back into the wild.

However, if the bird still hasn’t recovered or if you notice a severe injury like a broken wing from the get-go, it’s time to call your local wildlife rehabilitator.

OH GOD, THERE’S A BAT IN THE LIVING ROOM.

A few Big Brown Bats sheltering in a house. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing freaks people out quite like a bat in the house. This is because we’ve been conditioned to think that bats and rabies are a packaged deal. That's not really the case, though: Less than one percent of all bats killed and tested for rabies actually have the disease. Nevertheless, it’s always wise to exercise caution.

Because of our fear of rabies, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how to deal with an unwanted bat guest. Some people will tell you to kill it, with a baseball bat, a rake, or a tennis racket. But brutality is unnecessary.

Getting a bat out of the house is actually pretty simple. If the animal is flying around in your living space, open a door or a window. Take yourself and any pets out of the room to allow the animal space to relax. The bat will show itself out.

If, for whatever reason, the bat doesn’t appear to be taking the hint, you can also try this CDC-approved follow-up. Put on a pair of heavy gloves. Find a container—an empty coffee tin would do—and a piece of cardboard. Place the container over the bat and slip the cardboard underneath its feet, much like you would if you were catching an insect. If the weather is decent, carry the makeshift bat trap outside, open it up, and the bat should fly away. However, if it’s winter, releasing the bat would mean certain death. Instead, contain the animal and call the nearest wildlife rescue crew.

So in short: Don’t do what John Candy and Dan Aykroyd do in The Great Outdoors. Try opening a door and have a coffee tin at the ready. And in the case that neither of these approaches work, you should (yep, you guessed it) call an expert.

A BABY ANIMAL NEEDS MY HELP!

No, it doesn’t. At least, it probably doesn’t.

It’s tempting to assume that a lone fawn or a baby jackrabbit is in need of your help. After all, they do look terribly cute and pathetic all by themselves. But wildlife mothers are very doting. Even if a mother parks her young for several hours while she goes out foraging or hunting, she will make every effort to return. If you decide to intervene in that time, you might accidentally kidnap the baby.

A Gray Fox kit who, along with its sibling, was trapped by a homeowner and separated from its mother. More on their rescue and family reunion can be found here. (WildCare photo by Alison Hermance)

Let’s say you find yourself in the presence of an adorable, potentially abandoned baby animal. Your first step is mental: Don’t assume it’s an orphan. Campbell recommends you take a step back. Watch from a distance and give the mother a chance to return. Usually, the situation will turn out just fine.

Hermance agrees. At WildCare, the standard procedure is to ask people to consider what they call “the 5 C’s” before taking action:

  1. Is the baby Crying?
  2. Is he Coming toward you (or, approaching people)?
  3. Is he Covered with blood or insects?
  4. Has he been Caught by a cat or a dog?
  5. Is he Cold?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” the animal needs immediate help and it’s time to call for help. But in many cases, the best course of action is inaction.

The mother of this bunny was killed by a dog. This was one of those times the baby animal was actually orphaned and taking action was considered appropriate. (Lex Berko)

I FOUND AN INJURED RACCOON.

Together with bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and woodchucks are often categorized as rabies vector species (RVS). What that means is they are the most common animals associated with carrying and transmitting rabies. But that doesn’t mean they have rabies.

“What I say with rabies vector species is don’t always jump to the conclusion that it has rabies if you see it,” says Campbell. “Don’t think, oh my god, it has rabies, I’m going to go put it down, or shoot it, or hit it with a rock. Just be aware it’s a possibility, but don’t write the animal off because of it.”

Again, it’s wise to take a moment to assess the situation. Is something obviously wrong? Can you quickly look up information on the species in question? A lot of behaviors that you may associate with rabies aren’t necessarily symptoms. For example, during the summer months, many of these species will venture out during the day, looking for food or playing. They don’t adhere as strictly to the day/night lifestyle as we’ve been led to believe.

A rescued raccoon in an enclosure at Wild Things Sanctuary in Ithaca, New York. (Lex Berko)

If you do some quick research and still believe something is wrong—whether the animal is sick, injured, or potentially orphaned—call a specialist. Don’t put yourself or the animal at risk by trying to deal with it alone.

UM… THERE’S A COYOTE/BOBCAT NEAR ME. WHAT DOES IT WANT FROM ME?

These animals are definitely a bit more startling to come face-to-face with than, say, a skunk. And yet, as with all these scenarios, the key is to keep calm.

In the event that a coyote or bobcat is injured, call an expert immediately. Again, much like with rabies vector species, don’t put yourself at risk by intervening. 

However, if the animal you come across is healthy, then you may be the animal in distress. Not to worry, says Hermance. “Coyotes are rarely a threat to humans or pets,” she tells me, though she does admit that, from time to time, they might take a small dog or cat. Similarly, a bobcat wants nothing to do with you. “Bobcats will want to get away from you faster than you will want to get away from them,” she says.

If you do find yourself face to face with a coyote, bobcat, or mountain lion, make sure you aren’t blocking the animal’s escape route because it probably wants to get out of there as much as you do. Hermance also recommends radiating some toughness. “Short and sweet, if you see a coyote or bobcat or mountain lion, pick up small dogs and children, if the animal seems interested and attentive, and make yourself look big, confident, and threatening.”

A bobcat crossing a trail. (WildCare photo by John Wall)

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