Helping Wildlife: What Can an Ordinary Person Do?
March 14, 2005
Springtime brings lots of wildlife babies at a time when more people are outdoors. It's a time when many people encounter animals that might be orphaned, sick, or injured. Without having some basic knowledge about wildlife, many people might end up doing more harm than good if they try to help a wild animal.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana is run by veterinary students and provides medical care to injured and ill wildlife. These wild patients are treated at the Clinic and then released back into the wild or to a rehabilitator, who provides supplemental therapy to assist in the final stages of recovery.

Dr. Julia Whittington, medical director of the Wildlife Medical Clinic, believes that minimal interference in the lives of wild animals is best. "There is no substitute for Mother Nature," says Dr. Whittington. "Despite our best efforts, we are not able to imitate parental care to an optimal degree."

The first thing that people who want to help should realize is that both federal and state law prohibit owning any type of wildlife. It is also illegal to treat wildlife for sickness or injuries without a license. Wild animals kept as pets often have medical problems because the people who are keeping them are unaware of important nutritional, medical, or housing needs. Prolonged human contact also disrupts animals' normal behavior, making it more difficult for them to be returned to the wild.

So what should you do if you see an animal that is obviously injured? Bring it to the Wildlife Medical Clinic, but only if you believe that you can secure the animal safely. The best tools for catching an injured animal are a pair of thick gloves, a thick towel, and a cardboard box. Always use caution when attempting to capture a wild animal because it will be very stressed and will tend to use its natural defenses against anyone who comes near.

Another challenge when dealing with wild animals is deciding when a baby animal left alone is really an orphan. To avoid alerting predators to the location of her babies, a wild animal mother will stay away from the babies and visit the nest only periodically to provide food.

Following is information on the parenting styles of common wild animals:

Birds - In the spring, there are many birds on the ground, running, flapping their wings, and just not getting lift-off. This is a perfectly normal part of learning how to fly. The parents are nearby keeping an eye on them as they learn to use their wings, so give these fledglings lots of room.

Rabbits - Mother rabbits usually come to the nest once a day between 3 and 5 a.m. to check on their young. To verify that the mother is checking in, place a twig or leaf over the nest. Come back a day or two later; if it has been disturbed, then you know that the mother has been there.

Squirrels - Squirrels generally nest in trees. If you see a baby squirrel on the ground by itself, that probably means that it has fallen from the nest. If you can find the nest, it is perfectly OK to put the baby back. Dr. Whittington says, "The belief that if you touch a baby animal the mother will abandon it is untrue. By the time we are seeing these babies out and about, the parents have a huge investment in them and will continue to care for them."

Fawns - Fawns have no scent and have a dappled hair coat that can be used as camouflage. This means that a fawn can sit right out in the open and be virtually invisible to predators. Seeing a fawn all alone is perfectly normal. The mother will not hover too close because she does not want to draw predators toward her scent.

What else can you do to help wildlife? Properly dispose of all trash, including tangled fishing line, which is a major hazard to wildlife. Conserve resources whenever possible. Cut down on your contribution to pollution. Leave wild babies in their natural habitat.

For instance, if you find that there is a nest of baby birds in your gutters, consider waiting to clean them out for 6 weeks or so until the babies have left the nest. If you are concerned about your pets disturbing a nest of baby bunnies, consider covering them with some chicken wire instead of immediately removing them from your yard.

"Wildlife parents are innately equipped to care for their young and provide them with the training and skills to survive as functional adults," says Dr. Whittington. "By allowing these babies to stay in their natural surroundings and to be raised by their own species, we can minimize the impact that humans inherently have on them and foster healthy wildlife populations."

If you are certain that you have found a healthy orphaned wild animal, call the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at 217/278-5773 to locate a licensed rehabilitator near you.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic is a not-for-profit organization funded through public donations. If you would like to make a donation or have a question about wildlife, please call the Wildlife Medical Clinic at 217/244-1195, or visit the Web page at