“Mommy! Quick. I need a shoebox.”
Parents hear this cry spring and summer. Somebody has found a baby animal.
Before you respond to this plea in your home, take a moment for you and your child to learn about these cute, fuzzy, lovable baby animals. And remember – it’s a wild animal.
Most everyone has found, or knows someone who has found, a baby animal. Children are especially good at locating them, and reasonably so. Kids are curious, low to the ground, outside playing and willing to venture into areas adults would shun. Children have a difficult time understanding that animals naturally do what kids most fear – leave their young alone. The excitement of finding a bunny in tall grass or a helpless young squirrel at the base of a tree is enrapturing, and the urge that follows is irresistible – the baby must be saved! The idea of a new, exciting pet also appeals to children and, likewise, to many adults.
I have fond childhood memories of Baby Rabbity, a week-old bunny that I pulled from the mouth of a neighbor’s dog. I was thrilled that we couldn’t find the nest and that my parents agreed to let us keep it. I did not have the responsibility of the feedings throughout the night, so I was happier about the new visitor than were my parents. (In hindsight, we exacerbated our foundling’s problems because nestlings are typically fed only twice a day, and cow’s milk is an inappropriate substitute.) Our beagle paid no attention to the guest for about three weeks. Then the howling began. The rabbit’s scent had developed, as did an unfortunate trait of not wanting to be handled by little girls. After it bit a friend, my mother found a home for it with a breeder who had to promise to provide milk for Rabbity since it had never learned to drink water.
Although that rabbit’s chances of survival, if we had left it in the brush, were slim, we were not qualified to raise a young, wild creature effectively to achieve a successful release into its normal habitat. Today, those who live in Northern Virginia are fortunate to have a dedicated group of trained, licensed volunteers who are wildlife rehabilitators. When a young animal has been truly abandoned, injured or is ill, a call to your nearest nature center is a prudent step. We can provide you with the phone number of the nearest wildlife rehabilitator.
Most foundlings are not really abandoned but have been left alone for their own protection. As is the case of our bunny foundling, the young have no scent, whereas the mother does. Rabbits and deer both leave their young in a protected area for most of the day, returning only to feed them. A predator would be unlikely to find a quiet, still creature without scent to assist him. By the time scent is developed, the young should have developed skills for survival.
Allowing wildlife to remain wild is as important for human safety as it is for the wild animal itself. Many federal, state or county ordinances prohibit the harboring of wild “pets.” One reason is that these creatures can carry diseases which are transmittable to humans, including rabies, histoplasmosis, roundworm, salmonellosis and tuberculosis. Grey squirrels, while not common carriers of rabies, are flea infested. Fleas can rapidly spread disease.
Even if the goal is to release the animal back into its habitat at the earliest possible opportunity, caretaking is not advisable. Less than 10 percent of adopted wild animals survive in captivity. Relocating animals also has a low success rate. Rescuing wildlife and providing the care required for a successful release into the wild takes time, patience, training – and the proper permits! Rehabilitators are trained periodically. For information, contact the Wildlife Rescue League at 703-440–0800.
Author Suzanne Holland is the Assistant Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale.