Commentary: Confessions of a reformed wildlife ‘rescuer’

Tribune Content Agency

Our household has baby fever. The songbirds who reside in our oak tree are expecting. We threw a shower of sorts by putting out a bowl of water in the Florida heat, and we are watching the nest eggscitedly. Then there’s the other new arrival, affectionately (if uncreatively) dubbed “Baby Bun.” The newest member of the neighboring rabbit family is now joining his parents for dinner at the Reynolds’, meaning extra cuteness for us and extra frustration for our dog, who doesn’t like waiting to go out while we check the yard to make sure Baby Bun isn’t around.

During spring in particular, I have to fight the urge to do more to “help” wildlife…since human interference usually doesn’t. I was the girl who wanted to feed wild animals and bring every “abandoned” baby home. But I’ve since learned that the best way to help baby animals is usually to leave them alone.

Animals in their natural environment know their needs better than we do. Wildlife rehabilitators advise against taking animals from their homes unless they’re obviously injured (as a result of an attack by a predator or otherwise), trembling, lethargic or dependent on a parent who was killed nearby. If they can fly or run away, they’re usually fine. The most they’ll need is to be watched from a safe distance for a few hours or days.

And contrary to what I once believed, adult birds won’t reject a baby who has been touched by humans. If you see a fallen baby bird with few or no feathers, put them back in the nest. If you can’t find or reach it, make one out of a basket or strawberry container (both have small holes in the bottom so rainwater can drain), hang it in a sheltered spot close by and watch for the parents to return. Fledglings—young, mostly feathered birds—may flap on the ground as they learn to fly. It’s OK. Their parents are usually watching. If they’re in immediate danger, move them to a tree or shrub, and if they’re hurt or sick or the parents don’t return, contact a wildlife rehabilitator. A nationwide list is available at

If you spot a turtle about to cross a road, then it’s time to act. Pick up small turtles, and use a sturdy stick to nudge large or snapping turtles gently onto a flat surface. Carry them in the direction that they were heading. They know where they’re going and will turn around if they’re rerouted. Similarly, it’s critical to act if you see a seemingly dead turtle. Because of their slow metabolism, injured turtles can suffer for weeks before dying. Pinch a toe or touch the corner of an eye. If you see any signs of life, rush the victim to a veterinarian or an animal shelter.

Fawns spend most of their time alone, nearly motionless. They’re often mistaken for orphans because mother deer only nurse them a few times a day. Babies don’t need assistance unless they’re visibly injured, wandering alone, calling out or lying flat on one side. In those cases, contact a rehabilitator.

When cottontail rabbits are about 5 inches long, they’re self-sufficient. If a nest of newborns has been disturbed, place the babies back in it and leave them there unless they’re injured or you’re certain that their mother has been killed. Cottontails usually feed their young only twice a day—at dawn and dusk—to avoid tipping off predators to the nest’s location. If you’re not sure whether the mother has come back, place a piece of string over the nest and check later to see if it has been moved.

Young squirrels are often found after their nest has been blown down from a tree. The mother will be looking for her young. To reunite them, place the babies in a box at the base of the tree. If she feels safe, the mother will usually retrieve her young and carry them to a secure location. If a baby squirrel is hurt, weak or shaking, use gloves to place them inside a warm, safe, newspaper-lined box before calling a rehabilitator.

Although it may be hard for those of us whose heart is in the right place, it’s usually best to leave animals in their right place as well.


(Michelle Reynolds is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;