Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

Wildlife: What Can an Ordinary Person Do?

Pet Column for the week of July 2, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

When people see wildlife that might be sick or injured, they often feel great concern but don't know what to do. Because it is so easy to cause more harm than good, a little bit of knowledge can go a long way toward making sure the help you give will benefit the animal.

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

For concerned people without a background in wildlife, it is sometimes difficult to know when an animal needs help. Michele Forbes and Beth Ellen McNamara, the two student directors at the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, say, "The best rule of thumb is that if you have to work at catching the animal, then it is probably okay and you should leave it alone!"

The Wildlife Medical Clinic, run by veterinary students and other volunteers, provides medical care to injured wildlife and releases recovered animals to the wild or to a rehabilitator.

The best tools for catching an obviously 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 afraid and will tend to lash out at you.

Here is some useful information about animals in Illinois that may or may not need help.

Birds- In the spring, there are many birds on the ground, running, flapping their wings, and just not getting lift-off. This is perfectly normal! They are just learning how to fly! The parents are nearby keeping an eye on them as they learn to use their wings, so leave them alone.

Rabbits- Just because you do not see the mother around a nest of babies does not mean that she has abandoned them. Mother rabbits usually come to the nest once a day between 3 and 5 a.m. to check on their young. If you are concerned that the mother is not around, try placing 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 okay to put the baby back. It is untrue that if you touch a baby animal the mother will abandon it!

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.

Raccoons- Raccoons are very common in urban areas. McNamara says, "We as urban pioneers have taken away much of the territory that would have originally belonged to wildlife. That is why raccoons are nesting in your house." The best thing that you can do to prevent this is to make sure that all chimneys and other openings are covered. If you find that you already have these unwanted visitors, you can encourage them to move on by placing foul-smelling ammonia near where they are nesting. You can also try playing loud music early in the morning. Like most tenants, they like quiet and privacy and if this is disturbed will find another place to live.

What else can you do to help wildlife? Try to remember it in everything that you do. Properly dispose of all trash. It is a major hazard to wildlife. Conserve resources whenever possible. Cut down on your contribution to pollution. Do whatever you can to leave 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 the gutters 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. McNamara and Forbes say, "Babies do the best when they are left with their mothers. While we do our best, we are no substitute for mom!"

The Wildlife Medical Center 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 Center at 217/244-1195, or visit the Web page at