The Call of the Wild—Knowing When an Animal Needs Our Help  

Photo of a baby racoon.

By Colleen O’Hara

This is the time of year when baby animals make their entrance into the world, and often times, into our hearts. Who can resist a fluffy baby bunny? Or a sweet, speckled fawn?  Very often we see baby animals on their own in the wild and wonder: Does it need help? Should I intervene? Or perhaps you’ve come across an injured animal.  What should I do and who should I call?

In Northern Virginia, there are two main resources to turn to for help and advice when dealing with wild animals. 

The all-volunteer Wildlife Rescue League receives on average 3,000 calls to its wildlife assistance helpline (703-440-0800) every year. The non-profit supports a network of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Northern Virginia who help and care for hundreds of animals that they receive every year.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington is part of the County’s Animal Control Department (703-931-9241). It responded to over 4,000 calls last year regarding pets and wildlife, including sick and injured animals. Over 1,000 animals went through its Wildlife Resource Center, which assesses injured, orphaned, or sick wildlife and transfers them to licensed rehabbers. 

When Should You Intervene?

Sometimes it’s obvious when an animal needs our help, and sometimes it is not. 

According to the Wildlife Rescue League, an animal needs help if it shows signs of flies, maggots, or worms, was caught by a dog, cat, or other animal, has a wound, is a baby and its parents are dead or separated and cannot be reunited, has suffered trauma such as being hit by a car or fallen from a high nest, is very cold and weak, is unable to move, or is not fully feathered or furred. 

However, in some cases, well-meaning citizens think an animal needs assistance, when it actually doesn’t, said Carolyn Wilder, the Wildlife Rescue League’s Chair of the Rehabilitator Committee, and Co-Chair of the Education Committee. For instance, baby cottontails and fawns are typically left unattended for most of the day by their parents, and fully-feathered baby birds on the ground are fledglings and are fine on their own.

“They do not need our help,” Wilder said. “They are learning to fly and they will continue to be fed by mom and dad.” Sometimes a fledgling will lean on one wing and it appears as if it is injured, but it is actually using it as a “training wheel”, she said. 

Raptors are an exception, however. A juvenile eagle or owlet that is on the ground and unable to get back to a tree, will need rescuing because their parents will not feed them if they are on the ground. Most raptors are transferred to Blue Ridge Wildlife Center for rehabilitation, Wilder said. 

Other Guidelines and Tips  

If you find an injured bird, or you witness a bird striking a window, place it in a box in a quiet location and call for advice. Do not give it any food or water unless a rehabber tells you to. Typically, a bird does not survive a window strike, even if sent to a rehabber, Wilder said. 

Photo of a baby robin in a garden planter.
Robin photo by Josie Weiss on

If a baby bird falls out of a nest, try to return it to the nest or make a nest out of a small plastic bowl and place it high up on the tree. The bird will not be rejected by the parents just because it has been touched. A bird egg on the ground cannot be saved, however. 

Photo of a baby racoon.
Raccoon photo by Thomas Dils on

If a baby squirrel falls out of the nest, keep it warm in a box lined with a towel or heated rice sock, and play baby squirrel sounds on your phone (you can find this online). The mother will typically come down, retrieve the baby and return it to the nest. Raccoon babies that have fallen out of the nest will usually be rescued by the mother at night. It’s a good idea to put it in a box near where it was found, such as the base of a tree. 

If you see a fox kit during the day, they are often just playing and exploring, while adult foxes are often looking for food or a new den. If a kit becomes separated from the adult, the adult will return to get it if it does not have a human scent on it, according to the Wildlife Rescue League. If the kit has been alone for two hours, then it’s time to call for help. 

If you happen to find a baby opossum on the ground, it’s time to call a rehabber whether it is injured or not. The mother opossum carries her babies on her back once they emerge from the pouch. She is transient, so if a baby falls off en route and she doesn’t notice, the baby can’t survive on its own. 

If you come across a baby turtle, leave it alone. When turtles fully hatch, they are able to survive on their own. However, if you find a turtle that is in a precarious location such as in the middle of a road, move the turtle to a safe spot in the direction it was headed. 

Legal Dos and Don’ts

In Virginia, it is illegal to take, possess, buy, sell, or liberate wildlife, or destroy bird nests that have eggs in them, with the exception of English sparrows (aka house sparrows), starlings and pigeons, which are considered non-native invasives. Rehabbers do not treat these birds, either. 

In addition, only a licensed rehabber is legally permitted to treat a fox with mange in Virginia.

Typically, if a fawn is crying, begging or showing other signs of distress, it would need help. However, a law that took effect May 1, 2023 in Arlington, Fairfax, and several other counties prevents any rehabber from taking in a baby deer because of the potential of spreading Chronic Wasting Disease, Wilder said. More information about Chronic Wasting Disease can be found at: Wildlife Center of Virginia. Note also that adult deer cannot be rehabilitated anywhere in Virginia.

Citizens can’t kill or trap wildlife without a license, either, although they can trap wildlife on their own property—they are just not allowed to relocate it. They can’t transport wildlife across state lines unless it’s a bird, and it’s illegal to keep wildlife as pets. However, a Good Samaritan law allows citizens to capture and transport wildlife to receive care, provided they have received permission from a veterinarian or a rehabber first, Wilder said.

The Wildlife Rescue League and the Animal Welfare League of Arlington welcome support for their wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts, Wilder said. Consider becoming a wildlife rehabilitator, care provider, or transporter!   

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