How to tell if a wild baby animal needs your help—and what to do about it

How to tell if a wild baby animal needs your help—and what to do about it

Well-meaning humans can do more harm than good, especially when baby animals are involved. Here’s what to do—and what not to do—if you see a critter you think might be in trouble.

Published June 1, 2023

5 min read

Baby animals are adorable, and when we see one that appears to be in trouble, it’s not surprising that we want to help.

“Our brains­—and those of many species—are specifically wired to want to help babies and keep them safe,” says Jennifer Verdolin, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But a seemingly abandoned baby rabbit, a lonely fawn in the woods, or a struggling baby bison in a national park may not actually need human assistance.

Recently, staff at Yellowstone National Park euthanized a newborn bison after visitor Clifford Walters attempted to help the baby by pushing it from a river onto the nearby roadway. The young animal had been separated from its mother when the herd crossed the river, but once placed on the road, the calf kept approaching people and cars. The park service says it decided to euthanize the animal after its herd repeatedly rejected it.

“Unfortunately, the calf’s behavior on roads and around people was hazardous, so rangers had to intervene,” the service said in a press statement. The man’s handling of the calf, it said, resulted in the animal’s death. It’s unknown whether the animal would have been eventually reunited with its family. Yesterday Walters pleaded guilty to the crime of intentionally disturbing wildlife and he was sentenced to pay a $500 fine and also to pay $500 into a Yellowstone protection fund. 

Recognizing when an animal’s truly in trouble and learning how to safely lend a hand is something that’s difficult to discern, even for well-meaning nature lovers. To assess such situations, National Geographic asked Verdolin and other experts for tips on interacting with young animals, whether you’re in the remote wilderness or your own backyard.

Watch from a distance

If a person approaches a baby animal, it may flee and create new and stressful hurdles for a parent trying to locate its young, Verdolin says. Instead, she says, your instinct upon seeing a baby should be to grab a pair of binoculars.

Baby rabbits and deer, for example, are often left alone for lengthy stretches when they’re not being fed—stashed in tall grass or bushes while a parent forages, says David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation and a wildlife expert on Nat Geo WILD. Those parents likely leave their offspring alone to minimize disturbances that would catch the attention of predators, he says. Babies are also sometimes fragile, and you don’t want to increase their stress by handling them unnecessarily, he says.

Reptiles are typically on their own from birth and usually don’t need human aid either, Mizejewski says. Generally, people should give wildlife space. Many parks require visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from animals, and much further if it’s a predator like a lion or a bear.

According to the National Park Service, if you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re too close.

Yet there are exceptions: If you see a turtle crossing the road and it’s safe to stop your car and traffic, it’s fine to help the animal get to its destination, Mizejewski says. People should then immediately wash their hands to avoid getting sick from Salmonella, adds Verdolin.

Consider if the animal’s injured and how long it’s been alone

 When an animal’s visibly injured, the best approach is to call a local game and fish department, veterinarian, or a licensed local wildlife rehabilitator to get advice about next steps.

If the animal isn’t obviously injured, you will likely be told to wait for a day to see if a parent returns, Verdolin says.

Never try to kill an injured animal, she cautions. You may not be able to do it humanely and you may also be breaking the law. 

Do mothers reject their babies after human contact?

An often-repeated myth is that handling a baby animal, particularly a bird, may cause its mother to refuse to take it back.

Verdolin and Mizejewski do not know of any animal species that would be rejected by its kind solely because of its contact with a human.

When animal parents do abandon a baby, the reasons may include the length of the time the baby was away from its family and other stressors, such as food availability. “If the mother is really stressed for some reason and you mess with the baby, the mother may just cut its losses and leave,” Mizejewski says.

When to intervene

Beyond helping a turtle cross the road, there are other situations in which humans can safely help wildlife. For instance, if you accidentally knock a bird’s nest out of a tree or observe a baby bird fall, you typically can gently return the bird to its nest.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that parent birds don’t recognize their young by smell, so a human scent shouldn’t be a problem. But birds should only be put back into their nest if they’re nestlings—very young animals that are sparsely feathered and not yet capable of walking, flipping, or gripping tightly to your finger.

Fledgling birds—ones that are fluffy, with toes that are capable of tightly gripping a twig or a person’s finger, should always be left where they are, according to the lab. Their parents may not be visible, but they are likely nearby watching their baby learn to fly or caring for their other young.

(Read more: How fake animal rescues are being a new frontier for animal abuse.)

Though it’s difficult to watch, sometimes injured animals will just die or become the food for an animal trying to feed its own family, Verdolin notes. An animal being preyed upon by another is part of nature—even if it’s difficult to watch.

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