When nature falls and can’t get up

Photo copyright Martha Benedict. Used with permission.

Last spring, after morning drop off at school, I was given a baby squirrel by a fellow mom whose husband found the tiny critter at a construction site. Huddled in a blanket inside a shoe box, the 3-inch long creature was hairless and helpless.

“We don’t know what to do with it,” the mom told me. “Maybe you could help.”

Well, I don’t have any vet training or animal husbandry skills, but I did know a friend who, in addition to working as a registered veterinary technician, had done her fair share of animal rescue work. Karin was—and still is—extremely passionate about animals, especially wild critters.

After explaining the situation to Karin, I learned that taking care of a baby squirrel is the equivalent of watching after a newborn. You need to keep the baby warm with a heating blanket, you’ve got to purchase special milk, and you have to feed at two-four hour intervals—even at night! I knew I couldn’t do that, so after some more phone calls—with leads from Karin—I found out that the nearby Pasadena Humane Society had a wildlife rehabilitation program the would accept my youngster.

I went down to the society, presented my little shoebox squirrel, gave a donation and walked away knowing the critter was in good hands.

Indeed, families who find themselves in similar situations should remember that the biggest threat to any urban wildlife is, surprise!, human intervention.

Wildlife rehabilitators say that often “orphaned babies” are just kidnapped by overly eager rescuers by mistake. Removing babies from their parents greatly decreases their chance of survival, so in most cases, it’s best to just leave the baby alone. It’s OK to check up on them from a distance to see if mom has retrieved them, but avoid the instinct to swoop in and help.

For example, nestlings—featherless birds—that have fallen from trees can be safely put back into their nest. Don’t worry; the mother won’t reject them because they “smell like a human”—that’s only a myth.

Fledging birds – feathered but with limited flight—are not in danger if you find them hopping under trees. They are just practicing their flying.

In addition, hummingbirds found on the ground on very cold mornings are probably still in a stupor—it’s a kind of nightly hibernation they do to use less energy overnight. Once it warms up, they will be up and at ‘em.

Remember, mammal moms—like skunks, possums, deer, etc.—will never abandon their young. Observe the animal from a distance, and if no mom returns for two-three hours, then call a wildlife center for advice.

But there are scenarios where human aid will help. Animals need to be rescued when they have an obvious injury, are bleeding or have a heavy discharge from eyes or nose. Likewise, you can step in if the animal is cold to the touch, makes continuous distress calls or if the mother is known to be deceased.

As a rule, place the animal in a small box, keep it in a warm, dark and quite place. And, despite your good intentions, do not give the creature anything to eat.

Karin has seen some strange rescue meals. “More people hurt the animals by feeding them the wrong thing,” she writes to me in an e-mail. “I’ve had baby rabbits fed milk, baby pigeons fed steak, young birds aspirated on strange homemade formulas etc.”

Above all, she says, contact a wildlife rehabilitation center as soon as possible.

True, there are only a few rehabilitation centers in Southern California, but there are plenty of rehabbers who specialize in specific animals. Technically, the only people allowed to do wildlife rehab are those who are licensed. A center or a person will be licensed and they might then have other people who they’ve trained to help out with the animals.

In the end, when you hand over your critter to an agency, try to give them as specific information as possible where you found the animal—rehabbers often try to re-introduce animals back to their old territories.

And since most of these places are run with more love than funds, be sure to be generous with your check book. After all, they are doing not just you, but nature a great service.

For a list of wildlife rehabilitators, check out the California Department of Fish and the California Council for Wildlife Rehabilitators. Other good resources are the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, Pacific Wildlife Project in Laguna Nigel and Project Wildlife in San Diego County.

 — Brenda Rees, editor

Article reprinted from L.A. Parent Magazine, April 2007