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The key to helping a wild animal is to put yourself in its place. This is easy, since all animals share the same basic anatomy and physiology. Like us, an injured animal suffers shock, pain, and dehydration. Its chances for recovery diminish rapidly if it is left without shelter, untreated.
Great Horned Owl, found hanging in a barbwire fence. Unfortunately, he was left hanging, in freezing temperatures, overnight, because people were afraid to touch him and didn't know who to call. A state wildlife officer rescued him in the morning and called us.
Bird Rescue flowchart and steps by Shannon Jacobs. Click for a printable PDF copy.
Mammal Rescue flowchart and steps by Shannon Jacobs. Click for a printable PDF copy.
Pick it up - Call us for help if you feel unsafe picking up an injured animal. But the outcome will be better if you can move it to shelter without delay. Keep a cardboard box and a blanket or large towel handy. If you can approach the animal without its running away, throw the blanket over its head and eyes. All species become calmer when they can't see. Transfer the blanket and patient into the box and close the lid. If the animal struggles as you pick it up, be sure to keep the eyes covered. Try to restrain the most dangerous appendages (claws or pointed beak).
Fish-eating birds, such as this Western Grebe, have long necks and pointed beaks. They often strike out at a person's hands and face. Be cautious when handling! This bird took a wrong turn in winter and landed at a ski resort. He was soon water-proofed and returned to the Columbia River.
Fox, found several days after being injured, missing part of a foot, emaciated and maggot-infested. Here he is shown recovering from anesthesia and wound debridement.
It's okay to let the animal rest in the box for a few hours if there are no open wounds. But we should try to begin treatment on the same day that you rescue it.
If an animal seems young, tame, naive, and has no obvious wounds, it may be awaiting the return of its parents. Fawns and bunnies are left unattended for hours at a time when their parents forage.
Healthy youngsters--don't kidnap them!
Healthy youngsters--don't kidnap them!
Fledgling owls, robins, and other birds hop on the ground or between branches for a few days prior to growing feathers long enough to fly. Tiny, precocial quail and waterfowl can run or swim long distances, vocalizing loudly to keep up with their families. Leave these animals alone, unless they seem debilitated or injured, or are next to a dead parent.
Girls on a wilderness outing searched unsuccessfully for several hours for this duckling's family before determining that he was alone. By late summer he was fully grown and joined a mallard flock in the pond at the Clinic.
In contrast, nestlings need help if you find them on the ground when they're too young to leave the nest. In early summer, be ready to help if you find a squirrel, raccoon, or bird that isn't moving much, and which has patches of un-furred or un-feathered skin. Bright-eyed, energetic nestlings will do best if you can find their nest and safely climb up to replace them. Usually though, the nest is too high, or the animal has suffered too much from its ordeal.
A Stellar's Jay and chipmunk.
A robin, scrub jay and starling nestling are happy to share a nest.
In our area, nestlings endure frequent windstorms in the summer. To the west, the tree canopy is quite tall, forty to one hundred feet. So in June and July, fallen nestlings are admitted daily. They arrive chilled and dehydrated, with bruises and fractures.
Most of our patients have been injured by collision--with a window, a car, or a power line. They may have two types of problems: brain injury and fractures. Keep both in mind when you're checking on a collision victim, trying to decide how much help it needs.
Window strikes -- Some preventative measures: hang reflective mylar tape ("bird scare" ribbon from a feed or garden store) outside large windows. Hang bird feeders far away from windows. If you rescue a window strike victim, place it in a closed, ventilated, cardboard box, with padding but no light. This helps minimize seizures resulting from head trauma. If the bird revives and flutters around in the box, test fly it prior to release.
Reprinted from Avian Medicine: Principles and Application, Ritchie Harrison and Harrison, Wingers Publishing 2004.
Head-on collisions, particularly window strikes, can fracture the coracoid bone (arrow). The bird may be able to flap, but can't rise more than a few inches off the ground. It will need bandaging and several weeks of healing. Note the large blood vessels and air sacs near this bone. Fracture cases may bleed into their airway, and have noisy breathing or blood in the mouth.
To test fly: Choose a small room in your house with no windows (bathroom or large closet). Release the bird on the floor in the closed room. If it can fly five feet or more off the ground, it can be released. To recapture the bird, turn off the lights. The bird will stay still in the dark, and you can pick it up in your hands.
Car collisions - Most of the animals we receive are under two years of age. They are as impetuous and naive as human children around cars. Some driving tips: On multilane roads with dense vegetation, choose the lane furthest from plant cover to avoid emerging animals. If you stop for a flocking animal, e.g., quail or deer, be prepared for its buddies to enter the roadway. Slow down at dawn and dusk when animals are feeding. Slow down in seasons when fruit- bearing trees and shrubs attract animals to a roadway.
Barn owls flutter like moths, low over the roadway at dusk. This owl was hit and fractured its metacarpals (fingers), where the flight feathers attach. It was released shortly after this photo was taken, in 2003.
Almost all our owl patients are admitted because they have been hit by cars. So, in rural areas at night, use your high beams and your peripheral vision. If you need to stop to let an animal cross the road, dim your lights so that it isn't blinded.
If you hit an animal, try to pick it up immediately. Automobile victims are vulnerable to hypothermia, predation, and additional car collisions. Also, they often crawl away and later can't be found.
Varied thrushes migrate from adjacent mountains to our area in winter. We usually receive them as cat-bite victims. These cases require repeated wound flushing, occlusive dressings, and oral antibiotics for several weeks.
Cat and dog bite victims - Prevention: Trim your cat's claws with fingernail trimmers. In early summer, try to keep your pets supervised, leashed, or else indoors, when you know young animals are emerging from nests in your yard. If you rescue a bite victim, try to flush the wounds if the animal isn't in shock. Use contact lens (saline) solution, dilute peroxide, or warm water. No matter how small the punctures, the animal will need antibiotic treatment as soon as possible. Pasteurella bacteria reside in pets' mouths, particularly on teeth with tartar buildup. The toxins they produce will gradually accumulate in the bite victim's bloodstream, eventually killing the animal if it's not treated.