This time of year, coinciding with Earth Day, the nursery at the South Florida Wildlife Center (SFWC) is bursting at the seams with wild youngsters who have been orphaned or abandoned. Often, close to 300 patients at a time are housed here. The youngest and most fragile are kept together in temperature- and humidity-controlled walk-in incubators, many fed every 15 minutes for 10 hours a day. The injured receive bandage changes, medication and physical therapy.
Earth Day is a perfect time to remind people what to do when they encounter wildlife who may need help.
SFWC has seen and heard almost everything relating to wildlife encounters — ranging from the most life-affirming to the truly bizarre — but we recently heard a new one: “There’s a baby raccoon in my toilet!” the caller said. “He’s been in there all night, and I really have to ‘go.’ Help!”
Courtesy Photo/The HSUS
The anxious man texted us a photo and, sure enough, there was a helpless critter in his toilet: a wet and agitated opossum. The industrious, recently-weaned marsupial had likely entered the house through a doggie door, open window or structural hole, made his way to the commode, and tried to take a drink, only to tumble in and get stuck. With our expert assistance, the bedraggled houseguest was fished out, found to be unhurt, and freed.
Most wildlife encounters are likely to be less dramatic, but people can often easily assist wild youngsters in trouble, harmoniously co-existing and helping to preserve and protect the ecosystem.
For instance, if you see a featherless bird or tiny pink squirrel fallen from its nest, unless you see signs of obvious injury, you can often successfully re-nest them. Mothers are not deterred by “people smells.” Ideally, you should replace them in their actual nest. You can also use a box with drainage and soft bedding safely secured as close to the original nest as possible. Mother squirrels will retrieve fallen babies, and most birds will continue to feed their young as long as they are in a safe spot close to the nest site.
Jesus Aranguren / HSUS
Wildlife mothers are clever about camouflaging their nurseries, which is why so many are accidentally disturbed by humans. And as we all know, these moms sometimes choose undesirable spots – like your attic or crawl space.
What many people don’t know is that these mothers will almost always move their babies to a better spot if they are humanely encouraged to move along. If you can’t wait a few weeks for them to grow up and leave on their own – which they WILL do – you can try techniques including shining lights into the area, playing a radio in the vicinity, or using natural substances like cider vinegar, to humanely encourage the mother to relocate her family.
One thing you should never do is board up the entrance to an attic or crawl space. Sadly, this happens frequently, and the outcome is never good. Doing so traps the babies inside — with or without their mother, this is a death sentence. Humane wildlife removal professionals can extricate the family from your home and install an exclusionary device to prevent any new unwanted tenants. Once they are in your yard, the mother will move her babies to an outdoor nest site.
Michelle Riley/The HSUS
You can also avoid disrupting wildlife families outdoors. Before you prune or remove trees, check to see if there are wild families living there. In addition to scanning for nests on branches, remember that some species of birds and raptors nest in hidden tree cavities. Moving or disturbing these nests can hurt the animals’ chances for survival.
Another incentive to wait before trimming: saving on electricity. Tree trimming during the warmer months takes away shade, causing a wasteful increase in energy consumption. Cutting, trimming and pruning during spring and early summer can also lead to diseased trees and intrusion of pests that harm trees. Early winter is the best time to trim branches when trees are dormant.
Nests aren’t just in trees. When gardening, mowing the lawn or visiting the woodpile, please be on the lookout. Rabbits, chipmunks, ground squirrels, skunks and many other creatures often nest at or below ground.
Michelle Riley/The HSUS
As for youngsters spotted in nests or on the ground and seemingly uninjured, SFWC’s counsel is almost always “If You Care, Leave Them There.” Typically, these youngsters are not abandoned or orphaned. Their parents are most likely foraging or may be warily watching you from afar before returning to their young.
Sometimes, expert assistance is essential. If your cat brings home a baby animal, veterinary care is required for the infant. Young opossums whose mother is dead or was chased away and left them behind will need raising. A nestling who tumbles from a tree and has visible wounds will need treatment, as will wild infants hit by cars or clipped by lawn mowers. In these cases, consult a veterinarian, animal control, or a wildlife rehabilitator. If you are located near SFWC, bring the animal to us.
While we do all we can to help our patients survive and thrive, the best place for wildlife babies, like human babies, is with their mother.
Thank you for being a wildlife family defender on Earth Day and year-round! To support SFWC click here.
Lead image source: Michelle Riley/The HSUS