It happens to every naturalist at one time or another. Too often, really. You’re working at the nature center when you see a distraught-looking visitor walking up to the building carrying a cardboard box, Rubbermaid tote, or cat carrier. Uh-oh - there’s something alive in there.
Sometimes, the sequestered animal really is in need of help; it’s been hit by a car, clobbered by a cat, or otherwise has been injured. Sometimes these animals can be helped. Sometimes they can’t.
Much more frequently however, we open the lid of that box and see… babies. Birds, bunnies, squirrels, deer- you name it, we’ve seen it. You look at the animals, in need of nothing more than to be left alone, and up into the eyes of their unassuming abductor who asks, “They were abandoned by their mother… can you help them?”
A common sight to the nature center: babies in a box. Can we help them? Probably not.
And, herein lies the true challenge of our jobs as naturalists. We are public servants, your concierge to the world of nature who can point you to the nearest trail or refer information regarding the breeding birds of our area. But so much more importantly, we are interpreters, translating the whispery language of the ancient, almost forgotten ways, the cadence and rhythm of the wild ones, the rush of the wind and water, the buzz of a dragonfly’s wing into a dialect that can still be understood by a human population who has all but discarded it. Sometimes, people don’t like what you have to say.
How do you break the news to someone, emotionally invested into this little life and steadfastly sure that they are the link to its survival, that by “rescuing” the animal they are almost certainly dooming it to its death? There is no easy way, let me tell you.
The root of the misconception, I feel, often stems from the belief that these animals need us to intervene. In fact, wild animals are very rarely abandoned by their parents, who are most often nearby, out foraging for food. In the case of the very young - the hairless, featherless, newborn babes fallen from the nest with eyes still closed, their best and virtually only chance of survival is to be returned to their own nest, or placed nearby where parents can find them. Our reaction is to rescue them - to remove them from the wild and raise them up ourselves, or drop them off to someone who will. Indeed, many wildlife rehabilitators work very hard and invest countless hours into the animals brought to them. But the truth is, I’m sorry to say, that in the hands of a human - even if it is the most skilled wildlife rehabber around - the animals very often die. And for the lucky few that survive? Most times they must remain in captivity forever, a wild thing in a cage, a square peg in a round hole.
Wildlife rehabilitators can help save the lives of baby animals, but their best chance for survival is in the wild.
Sometimes the babies brought in are not helpless at all, but are transitioning to life on their own. We see this most with fledgling birds, those still in stages of molt, obviously smaller than an adult, but with eyes bright and open and the flight feathers of adolescence. Like a sixteen-year-old pulling out of the driveway for the first time while Mom and Dad watch from the window, breath held, fingers crossed, these birds are, literally, leaving the nest. Very often, in fact, they fall out as they attempt to take first flight. Alone on the ground, still not quite able to lift up off the ground, they sit until they figure it out. And all the while, Mom and Dad watch, breath held, fingers (feathers?) crossed. They will still feed their fledgling offspring, and should a neighborhood cat clamber by, they will swoop down in aerial assault. Every bird you've ever seen has passed this gauntlet. The problem occurs when a well-meaning person intervenes. Thrust into a bare box, fed foreign tidbits of milk and dog food, lunchmeat and bread, these “orphans” often expire of stress and/or gastric distress. Every minute away from the wild counts against them.
These Eastern Phoebe fledglings may look like helpless babies, but they're well-equipped to handle life on their own
So what to do with those babies? Leave them alone. Put them back in their own nest, or prop them up into a makeshift one made out of a shallow tissue box, close to where you found them. Give them no food, no water. What about that storm coming? The stray cats? The uncertainty of night? Put an upturned laundry basket over them if you feel you must act. The solid top provides shelter, handle-holes let parents have access, but overall the babies are protected from larger predators. I can’t promise they’ll make it. Even in the most optimal of circumstances, many times they don’t. Babies become part of the unending cycle of life and energy. It is good not to forget that the fox you curse for raiding the rabbit nest has her own kits to feed. It is good to remember you belong to this cycle, too. Trust in these animals, in their ancient instincts, their intrepid will to be.
It is so hard to tell a person they cannot absolutely fix something that they desperately want to fix. We are assaulted by so much suffering and atrocious unfairness in the world around us - how could we not want to reach out and take action when we are personally touched by an experience like finding a vulnerable baby bird on the ground? I so value the compassion of those who drop everything in their day to rush to the nature center with an animal that they hope to help. And, I hope that I help them understand, help them let wild things be wild and to let go.
A mother deer may leave her fawn alone for the day while she forages, but under normal circumstances will always return for it
Do you really want to help the animals out there? Keep your cat inside. Advocate for green space in your community. Plant native plants in your yard that offer food, shelter, and shade. Stop spraying pesticides and fertilizers on your yard. Be mindful that the many small actions you make in a day add up to real change in the world around you. And, the next time you find a baby animal alone out there? By all means call us, or a wildlife rehabilitation center near you. We’ll work with you to make the right decision. Please know that if we tell you to leave that baby alone, it is only because we care very much about it - and you.