Orphaned or Abandoned Wildlife

Spring is one of my favorite times of year, not least because of all the baby animals journeying out into the world. It is also one of the busiest times for calls to report abandoned or injured animals. We wanted to take the opportunity as spring progresses, to educate you about the safest way to deal with situations where you fear an animal is orphaned, abandoned or injured.

Typically reuniting the mother and baby is the best solution, but if that can’t be accomplished you may need to intervene. Always make sure to wear gloves if you need to handle wildlife. This is more as a protection for you, since animals will not abandon a baby because of a human scent after being handled.

A common call we get involves baby squirrels. Squirrels are independent at around 10 to 12 weeks of age. If the squirrel has a fluffy tail and its body is about 6 inches long, you can simply leave it alone as long as it is not injured. For younger baby squirrels, the first step should be attempting to reunite the baby and mother. You can put it in a shallow open box near the tree that you found it. If the baby needs to be kept warm you can fill a sock with rice and heat it until warm to place next to the squirrel. Give the mother several hours to return for the baby. If the mother has still not returned later in the day you should call your local wildlife rehabilitator to organize transport so that the baby does not stay out overnight.

Baby raccoons are often active during the day while mama raccoon sleeps. This means that if you find a baby kit during the day, it has probably journeyed or fallen from the nest and the mother will retrieve it. To ensure that the baby does not wander further and stays warm and dry, you can place it in a box with a sock full of warmed rice (same as above) and a partial top to protect the baby from weather. Make sure to handle the baby with gloves to protect yourself from any zoonotic diseases. The mother should return sometime within 8 hours to retrieve the kit. If not, contact a wildlife rehabilitator.

Often times people will attempt to catch baby rabbits that they think are abandoned. If you have to chase a bunny than it is old enough to take care of itself. If you stumble upon a nest of babies, they’re probably fine. What people often don’t understand is that rabbits will leave their babies alone in the nest for extended periods of time and often don’t return until after dark to care for them. That’s to protect them so predators don’t locate the nest. If the babies are dry and warm, they’re best left alone. If you still want to know for certain that the mother is caring for them, lay a few strings across the nest and recheck the next day to see if the strings are disturbed; if they are disturbed you know that the mother has been back to care for them. If the mother does not return, or if the baby bunny is injured or obviously unwell, the best thing to do is call a licensed rehabilitator to get information on how to transport.

For birds that are found outside of their nest, it may be best to leave them alone. If you find a fledgling, which is a bird with feathers that can hop and flit around, they have most likely intentionally left the nest and are still being cared for their parents. Simply leave them be; if you replace them in the nest, they will just hop out again. If you have pets try to keep them away from the area. If the baby is a nestling, with sparse feathers and unable to hop or flit, start by looking for the nest it came out of. If the nest is found, place the baby back in. Touching a baby bird will not cause the mother to abandon it. Even if the nest is damaged you can repair it as much as possible and place the baby bird back. If there is no nest you can use a plastic container with holes punched in the bottom for drainage, fill it with nest material, and position or wire it to a tree as close as possible to where the original nest was. If the parents do not return in a few hours to care for the baby birds, contact a wildlife rehabilitator.

If you think you have found an abandoned deer, you most likely have not. Mother deer hide their fawns in tall grass or foliage and move away to protect them from predators. The fawns stay still and quiet until their mother returns for them. Soon the fawn will be strong enough to follow the mother deer. The only time you should intervene with a fawn is if the baby is obviously injured or sick. Wildlife rehabilitators are the only people qualified to care for fawns due to their dietary needs and the risks associated with deer being raised by humans making it more likely to be killed when released back into the wild.

For baby snakes you fear are abandoned, let me assure you they are not. Just leave them alone. They’re sometimes terrifying, and sometimes cool, but always self sufficient at caring for themselves.

If you noticed a common theme throughout this post, I would not be surprised. Most “abandoned” baby animals have not actually been abandoned and are best left alone. As long as babies are warm and safe, leave them be. Come back the next day to see if the mother has come to claim them. If you find an injured baby get them to a wildlife veterinarian or a rehabber as soon as possible. Another common theme you might have noticed is to call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator if you are certain a baby is orphaned or abandoned. That is because it is illegal to raise wildlife without a license in Virginia. It is much more difficult than most people realize to rehabilitate and care for wildlife. They have very special needs that if not met can have severe consequences. Do not attempt to feed or care for wildlife and instead call a licensed rehabber. You can find a list of rehabbers here. Feel free to call the clinic any time with questions as well.