Oh no, you’ve found an orphaned baby animal!
Or did you? Interfering with wildlife at the wrong moment can have catastrophic results. But that baby bird — or squirrel, or rabbit — really looks like it needs help, you think to yourself. What do you do?
“Many of the babies ‘rescued’ every year did not need rescuing to begin with,” Heather Tuttle, manager at Castalia, Ohio, wildlife rehabilitation center Back to the Wild told The Huffington Post in an email.
The nonprofit wrote on Facebook Tuesday that concerned members of the public have already brought the group “tons” of baby rabbits and birds that were in fact not orphaned, and did not need help. That’s why the group posted this handy flowchart, explaining the steps people should take if they encounter a young bird, rabbit, skunk or squirrel.
Deer aren't on the chart, but Tuttle noted they're another animal people often mistake for orphans. Mother deer leave their fawns for hours at a time to forage for food, and a fawn’s instinct is simply to freeze in place — so people often think there’s something wrong when the deer doesn’t run away. However, a mother deer sometimes leaves her offspring in a dangerous place like underneath a truck, and in those cases the best course of action is to try and keep the area clear until the doe returns to her offspring.
When people erroneously bring in baby animals, the group tries its best to reunite them with their mothers, Tuttle said, but that’s not always possible. And even the best wildlife rehabber can never be as good as the animal’s real mother.
“In the wild they learn to avoid predators, they are able to hone their instincts, and have real life experience foraging, hunting, and surviving,” Tuttle said. “In captivity, we can simulate these things but it just isn't the same.”
And what’s up with the no-food-or-water mandate on that chart? Feeding baby animals is just another way people often wind up causing damage when they think they’re helping.
“As tempting as it is to feed baby animals, doing so can lead to their demise,” Tuttle said. “There is so much bad information on the internet for how to care for squirrels, bunnies, birds, and more. We get many babies in that are sickly and malformed because they've spent the last several weeks being fed the wrong diet.”
And even just water can be fatal. Birds are especially susceptible to aspirating — meaning taking water into their lungs — though this can also happen to mammals if they’re given water too quickly. And if an animal has a head injury or internal damage, giving it food or water can make things worse.
The bottom line is that unless an animal is in immediate danger, you should always call an expert for advice before taking any action. And if you have no idea who the local wildlife rehabilitator might be, Tuttle suggested checking your state's Department of Natural Resources (or a similar agency) website, which will usually include a list or database. And the Humane Society of the United States notes that if you can't get in touch with a wildlife rehabber directly, you should try contacting a veterinarian, animal control agency, nature center or state wildlife agency for help.