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August 2005
Urban Wildlife Rescue 101
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews

City folk are often surprised to stumble upon wildlife on their evening promenade or in the midst of a rush hour commute. It counters the assumption that pigeons, cockroaches, and rats are the city’s only local wild fauna. But raccoons, coyotes, eagles, rabbits, opossums, bats, even white-tailed deer are known to inhabit our beloved “concrete jungle.”

With habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation of resources, chemical toxins and pollution, diseases, predators, and competitors, NYC wildlife have a lot to deal with. So it’s no surprise that many of us encounter orphaned or injured wildlife. Every year I receive dozens of calls—“Kym…we found a hurt animal, help!” With the best of intentions, compassionate folk often pick the animals up and spend the rest of the day frantically scratching their head in frustration—trying to figure out what to do and who to call. Unfortunately, in most cases ‘rescuing’ is unnecessary and can be injurious the animal.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind the next time you come across an animal apparently in need.

For Babies, There’s No Place Like Home
The fact is, unlike human babies, wild babies spend large amounts of time alone. Most are actually under the watchful eye of their parents when they are scooped up and carried away by ‘concerned’ human hands. Like curious human children, animal babies may also wander off. The first thing you should attempt to do is reunite the baby with their moms. Here are a few tips:

If you come across a baby bird—more fuzz than feather—who is unable to stand, or seems weak, then they have probably taken a tumble from their nest. Take a moment to check for the nest in nearby trees, bushes, ledges or rafters, dumpsters, etc. Ideally, placing the pre-feathered tyke back in her nest is the best thing possible. Don’t worry about leaving a human scent—contrary to popular belief, birds have a poor sense of smell.

If you notice that the bird’s nest has fallen as well, and is in desperate need of ‘home improvement’ place the nest pieces into a plastic container similar in diameter to the original nest—a margarine tub—with holes cut into the bottom, for drainage. Place the improvised nest close to the original nest site and gently put back the baby birds. Hang out—a good distance away—for an hour or so to make sure the parents come back. If not it’s time to take further action.

If the bird you find is completely feathered—or more feather than fuzz—he is probably a fledgling. While birds learn to fly, they spend a bit of time on the ground. Fledglings are not abandoned baby birds and usually don’t need rescuing.

Ducks and Geese
It is not uncommon during an excursion in one of NYC’s beloved parks, riverfronts and other outdoor areas, to come across a duckling or gosling wandering alone. Most of the time they have just wandered away from their family and need to be reunited. If the family is nearby, simply move the baby closer and step away quickly. If you don’t see the parents, place the young bird in a shallow cardboard box in a shady area—preferably where the adults were last seen. The baby’s peep usually attracts the parents. When they come into view gently tip over the box, release the baby and leave the scene immediately. The little one will run to the wings of mom and dad.

There are more than 20 squirrels per acre of open space in New York City. These mostly fat and clever animals have essentially become our closest wildlife connection. It’s no surprise that we come across stray baby squirrels. Some wander away from the nest while others take a fall after their nests become damaged by bad weather or other adult squirrels. Momma squirrel usually comes to the rescue within a matter of minutes. However, a mother squirrel will not take back a baby that has gotten cold. If you come across a lone baby, wait a few minutes. If momma doesn’t come you can warm the baby in your hands or hold it close to your body and place them back down. If the weather is cold, place the baby or babies in a box with some paper toweling and a wrapped hot water bottle. You can also try attaching the box to a tree. Usually when mom hears her babies crying she will come and get them. Never assume there is just one baby. Take a look around—under leaves, behind trees. If a nest has been destroyed there can be up to nine babies wandering around.

Raccoons, Opossums, and Other Nocturnal Animals
Believe it or not these critters do indeed live in our city. Keeping out of sight, these day sleepers make their homes in trees, abandoned houses and fire escapes. If you come upon a baby, watch for a few hours from a distance to see if the mother will retrieve it. Often parents are close and will retrieve babies who have fallen out of or ventured from their home. If not, it’s time to step in and contact a rehabilitator.

Baby bats are often found in attics, basements, roosting behind shutters or any perpendicular surface protected from the environment. A quick look around should reveal the roost, and the baby can be hung back from where it fell. Use heavy gloves handling a baby bat and simply place it on the surface it fell from. If it falls again, it is probably sick or injured and it is time to help out by contacting a wildlife rehabilitator.

These baby fur balls make their nests in small depressions in the grass. If a baby is found, replace them back in the nest unless they are injured or the mother is dead. Moms usually visit the nest early in the morning and at dusk. If the babies feel cool and appear restless, bring them to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. It is crucial with baby bunnies to bring them in only as a last resort. They tend to have a high death rate when orphaned. Note: baby rabbits are only about five inches long when they become independent of their mother.

Time to Lend a Hand
They are cute, cuddly and have incredibly innocent eyes, but you must remember the number one rule of handling wildlife—especially adults—is to keep your own safety foremost. These hurt or orphaned animals are scared and in pain, so they will defend themselves anyway they can. Always use gloves when handling them. Always use a towel to cover and pick the animal up too. Sometimes the best thing to do is get a box with air holes or blanket to put over the animal and leave someone with it while you call for experienced help. Adult raccoons and bats who look very sick have a slim chance of being infected with rabies. But just to be on the safe side they should not be handled under any circumstances until you speak with a rehabilitator and receive instructions.

Animals should be rescued if they show signs of:

• Bloody nose or mouth, unusual discharge from eyes or ears
• Bloating, diarrhea, or bloody urine
• Obvious wounds, abrasions, bruising, or swelling
• Unusual fur/feather loss; blood, oil, sticky substance on fur/feathers
• Central nervous system problems: animal walking in circles, unable to support head, unable to move legs, blindness
• Gasping, sneezing, or other respiratory problems
• Baby is cold to the touch
• Baby has visible parasites—ticks, fleas, mites, maggots, etc.
• Parents and other siblings known to be dead
• Baby found in unusual situation—pool, car engine, etc.
• Baby is not responsive to human handling—doesn’t try to hop away, bite or scratch
• Baby is alone for long period of time in abnormal situation

Emergency Care
If you must rescue an animal, here are some things you should and shouldn’t do while you’re trying to reach an expert. Please remember that even baby animals can hurt you, so use great caution when handling them.

• Put the animal in a box, with tissues or paper towels. Cloth can have loops that little claws get stuck in and are not the best material to use.

• For babies, place the box on a heating pad, set on LOW or use a warm water bottle, and place it under the tissues, placing the baby on top.

•Handle the animal as little as possible, and resist the temptation to talk to it. 

• Don’t give them any food, water, or medicine. Young animals and birds can get fluid in their lungs and drown. Never give cows’ milk, as it will make most wild orphans sick and dehydrated.

• It may be tempting for you or your child to experience holding the animal, but remember you are dealing with a wild animal. Rather than giving the animal comfort, our voices and touch can cause additional stress.

• Babies need to be fed every 15 minutes to every hour, so contact a rehabilitator as soon as possible to find out what food they should eat.

• Don't be a wildlife kidnapper! Most "orphaned" babies are unnecessarily taken from their parents.

Now that you know Wildlife Rescue 101 be a wise urban critter helper. Always contact a wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian immediately upon rescuing an animal. The information I have presented is just the tip of the iceberg. Each species needs specialized care that most people are unable to provide without proper training and equipment.

For information contact any of the following local wildlife rehabilitators and referral services in the NYC area:

Berkshire Bird Paradise: (518) 279-3801,
The National Wildlife Rehabilitative Association: (320) 259-4086 or 24-hr hotline (210) 698-1709
Animal Medical Center: (212) 838-7053
Volunteers for Wildlife: (631) 423-0982,




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