The woman on the phone was anxious but determined. She was calling City Wildlife, a rescue and rehabilitation center in Washington, D.C., because her dog had dug up a rabbit nest and killed three of the babies. There was one survivor. “I’m going to get some kitten formula and start feeding it, because that’s what I read on the internet,” she told the representative who took the call.
The woman had the best of intentions. She just wanted to help. But that kind of help would have ultimately killed the baby rabbit.
“The bunny wouldn’t be able to digest this milk,” explains Paula Goldberg, City Wildlife’s executive director. “The baby’s gut is disrupted. It gets a sort of colitis situation, and it’ll die.”
For animal lovers, the instinct to help can be difficult to ignore, especially when we see an animal who seems to be in trouble. But unless our good intentions are grounded in wildlife biology and best practices, we might actually harm the animals we’re trying to save.
“If you really care about them, it’s worth it to find out a little more,” says John Griffin, director of the HSUS urban wildlife section. By understanding how common species interact with their young and how to identify an orphaned or injured animal, it’s easier to provide the right kind of help—or figure out when none is needed. Here’s what you should know.
Animals who nest in trees face unique challenges. Strong winds, rainstorms or human activities such as tree-cutting can easily knock baby squirrels and birds from their nests. If you see a baby bird on the ground, she might just be learning to fly. These fledglings look like adult birds, but without long tail feathers. They’re testing their wings—literally—and can fly wherever they need to go, under the watchful supervision of a parent. But nestlings—smaller birds without feathers—might need help getting back to the nest because adult birds don’t have the physical ability to pick up their babies from the ground. If the nest is visible, you can gently pick up the bird and place her back in it. (It’s a myth that a mother bird won’t touch her baby if she smells a human on it, says Griffin.)