Orphaned Wildlife? By Dr. Jessica Gelernter
Spring is finally around the corner, and with it, the arrival of new baby native wildlife. Veterinary hospitals and wildlife rehabilitation centers often begin to receive calls from well-meaning individuals who have found baby animals. This is a good time to review how best to act when finding potentially orphaned young of the more common wildlife species in the Hudson Valley. The most important step is to determine whether or not the animal requires rescuing. The following are a few tips for assessing common wildlife encounters.
If you come across a baby bird out of its nest, the first step is to assess whether it is fully feathered. If so, it is a fledgling that is still learning how to fly (although not always gracefully) and does not require intervention. If it is not fully feathered, all attempts should be made to return it to the nest if it is within reach. If the baby is cold, it is best to warm it in your hands before replacing it to the nest. Despite the common belief, birds are more likely to abandon offspring who are too cold, rather than those who have human scent.
Eastern cottontail rabbit litters are left alone in shallow nests in the ground for much of the day: the mothers return to feed them at dawn and dusk. They are able to fend for themselves when they reach three weeks of age, at which time they are roughly the size of a softball. Cottontails are high-stress animals and are prone to a condition called “capture myopathy”, in which the stress response from being caught can result in muscle damage severe enough to cause organ failure and death. For this reason, catching a wild rabbit often does more harm than good. In my time spent at wildlife hospitals, there were many days in which someone would arrive with a box containing a cottontail who had passed away on the drive to the facility.
Like rabbits, white-tailed deer are crepuscular: they are most active at dawn and dusk, and only return to their young fawns at these times. It is understandable to assume that a fawn left alone is orphaned, but this is rarely the case. Fawns, while not as delicate as rabbits, are also prone to capture myopathy. If the fawn is next to a road, it is okay to gently move it out of harm’s way– the doe will not abandon her young due to human scent.
Additionally, here are a few general guidelines to ensure proper treatment of young wildlife:
- Whenever possible, being raised by the parents will give baby wildlife the best chance of survival.
- If the animal has any obvious injuries or signs of illness, is crying unceasingly, is emaciated, or appears weak, it is recommended to take them to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or a veterinarian.
- Please do not try to raise an orphaned wild animal on your own. This often yields a poor outcome and is illegal.
- Feeding orphaned wildlife improperly can worsen their condition and is ill-advised.
If you find a wild animal and are unsure of the best course of action, it is always best to contact a wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian for further guidance and clarification.
Thank you for choosing us to be part of your pet’s healthcare team!
With warmest regards,
Your friends at Rhinebeck Animal Hospital