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

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Helping Wildlife: What Can an Ordinary Person Do?


Pet Column for the week of April 8, 2002


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

Imagine that it is a beautiful spring day and you go out in your backyard to take in some fresh air. As you stroll along, you look down and see a disturbance in the grass. Further investigation reveals a bundle of baby bunnies! But there is a problem: where in the world is mom?! Is she taking care of them? Are they orphans? You feel that you may need to do something but what?? When people see wildlife that is potentially orphaned, 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 that the help you give will benefit the animal.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital 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 in to the wild or to a rehabilitator who provides supplemental therapy to assist in the final stages of recovery. Dr. Julia Whittington, the new director of the Wildlife Medical Clinic believes that minimal interference in the lives of these 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 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 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 their 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. The dynamic between mothers and babies in the wild is not always the same as it is for humans or domestic animals. Wild animals are always on the lookout for predators, and the mother's presence would alert a predator to the location where her babies are nesting. For this reason some wild animal mothers stay away from the babies and only visit the nest periodically to provide food.

Here is some specific information on the lifestyles of some of the animals that may be encountered in the Illinois great outdoors. This information may help guide people who are confronted with animals that they feel may be orphans.

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 give these fledglings lots of room.

Rabbits- Just because you do not see the mother around a nest of babies do not assume 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. 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.

Raccoons- Raccoons are very common in urban areas because much of their natural habitat has invaded by humans. This is why raccoons are frequently found nesting in chimneys or attics. 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 including tangled fishing line. 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 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 in their perspective ecosystems. 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 278-5773 for the number of a licensed rehabilitator near you.

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 www.cvm.uiuc.edu/wmc.