A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Five Things to Do When a Wild Animal Needs Help

Should you pick them up? Who should you call? And what’s the best way to help?

By Liz Stelow D.V.M.

Rescued wild animals needs specialized care at a wildlife rehab center. Photo by Wildcare

I was driving home from school one afternoon when I noticed a sparrow fluttering in the road as I passed. It was a busy four-lane road but I pulled over anyway. Suddenly, the coast was clear and I was able to see the bird, still fluttering, in the center of the road. I ran out and grabbed him with my bare hands and dashed back to my car.

OK, I’m about to tell you that this is not a good idea, so I’ll admit that I haven’t always set a good example in this area. Even so . . .

. . . It was then that I realized I had nothing to put the bird in. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll just hold him for the rest of my 10-minute drive. Too bad that this left me only one hand on the wheel and a phone and pager that kept sounding.

Fortunately, the bird was well-behaved all the way. At home, I looked him over (nothing obvious wrong, besides clearly being stunned), and put him in a cage in a quiet bathroom. Two hours later, he was flying like crazy in the cage and ready to be released.

Face it, we’re all “animal people” here. We all want to do what we can when we see an animal in danger or suffering. But we need to respond rationally, in the best interest of our health and the animal’s. In a previous column I noted that while it’s true that not every wild animal is inherently dangerous, some can get feisty when injured, be traumatized by being handled, or carry diseases that can spread to humans.

What to do

The first thing you must determine is whether the animal actually needs assistance. Bleeding is an unequivocal sign; others are less clear. For example:

Some birds have bizarre mating displays that make it look like they have a broken wing or neurological problem.

Baby birds learning to fly often appear to be distressed and vulnerable; but parents are always nearby to assist and protect.

Young rabbits and deer are often left alone for hours at a stretch and are sometimes mistakenly thought to be abandoned.

But, if you are certain that the animal is sick or injured, here are your best options:

1. If the animal is aggressive or seems potentially dangerous, call the police immediately. If the animal is no apparent danger to you or other people, call your local animal control agency. Tell them exactly where you saw the animal and whether it’s loose or confined.

2. If it’s a bird (crow-sized or smaller, and not a feisty parrot or bird of prey) or small mammal (rodent or rabbit), you can choose to scoop the animal carefully into a box or other suitable container and take her to your animal shelter. You’ll want to call the shelter first to check their hours; they may recommend a nearby vet or wildlife rehabilitator as a more appropriate destination for you and the animal.

3. Don’t handle wildlife with your bare hands. Use thick leather gloves or the actual container to corral the animal. And “small mammal” does not include raccoons, skunks, opossums, or wild cats; even the most docile-looking of these can turn quickly into a lunging mass of teeth and claws.

4. Be very careful with bats. A large percentage of bats found on or near the ground are rabid. This is one instance when a call to animal control (the police, if it’s after hours) is always best. Before you make the call, try to place an inverted box/container over the bat so she can’t get away and be prepared to wait for the animal control person, to ensure that no one disturbs her. Do not handle the bat (even with leather gloves). Rabies is nothing to take lightly.

5. Try not to become emotionally involved in the outcome. If you do rescue a wild animal, even if it seems like she’s not badly hurt, do not assume she will survive. Her condition may be more serious than it appears. She may die without warning while in your possession. If she’s deemed not releasable, the shelter/vet/rehabilitator may choose to euthanize her. It’s no fun to think of these possibilities – but it’s important to acknowledge them.

If this game plan does not work for a given situation, use your own judgment. It may be in your and the animal’s best interest to do nothing. Or, like me, you may find yourself with a sparrow in a cage in your bathroom.


Liz Stelow is a veterinarian living in Davis, California. She is also a busy mom and the author of a pet health blog at PetDoctorMom.com.