So You Found a Baby Animal – Now What?

            Did you know that rendering assistance to displaced or injured wildlife can end up doing more harm than good? Or that trying to give some types of wildlife food and water may have grave consequences?

            On July 27, the Marion Natural History Museum hosted Stephanie Ellis, executive director of the Cape Cod Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, who explained best practices when coming in contact with wildlife.

            First and foremost, “Don’t give them any food or water,” Ellis instructed. For the human, that may seem counterintuitive. But she stressed, “They won’t be able to digest it,” thus creating a bigger problem for the animal. Instead, simply keep the animal warm and in a safe place with subdued lighting, then call the center.

            Ellis touched on specific animals such as robins. This birds’ eggs are laid in a nest just big enough to hold a few eggs. Its development is rapid, and a fat baby robin is encouraged to leave the too-small nest before it can fly, making way for another clutch of eggs. The displaced robin chick will be seen bobbing along the ground learning how to source food with the mother close by observing and assisting. If the bird is removed from the ground, it is also removed from its mother’s care. “The best thing is to make sure domestic pets can’t get it,” Ellis advised.

            Birds represent the largest species aided by CCWRC, followed by rabbits, turtles, possums, squirrels and chipmunks, among other small mammals and rodents, Ellis said, adding that approximately 500(!) baby birds are assisted annually. “Baby birds need to be fed every 20 minutes between 6 am and 6 pm,” she said.

            A more hands-on approach is advised if a baby possum is discovered alone. “The possum is the only American marsupial. It is nurtured in its mother’s pouch until it is large enough to crawl onto her back with many siblings clinging on, Ellis described. “But if a baby gets knocked off, the mother will not go back and find it,” she said, noting that because the possum is a prey animal, the mother will keep moving. Following the principles used for nearly all abandoned baby wildlife encounters, “…keep it safe and warm and call us,” Ellis said.

            Squirrel mothers have a different strategy for protecting their families; they build more than one nest. Ellis suggested that if you find a baby squirrel, place it in a box where you found it and wait for the mother to return and take it to a new nest. In 2021, the center cared for 131 squirrels, of which 76 percent were returned to the wild. Again, do not provide food or water.

            Rabbit nests can suffer accidental encounters with domestic animals and humans because they are placed in shallow depressions under a blanket of turf often in groomed lawn areas and gardens.

            “Baby rabbits do not have any scent,” Ellis stated. The lack of a scent protects them from being discovered by predators, but it also puts them at risk of being “kidnapped” by well-intentioned humans. “If you move their nest, the mother cannot find them.” To determine if a mother rabbit is attending to her babies, Ellis said to place a tiny fence of sticks and string around the nest. If the mother is caring for her young, the fence will be disturbed. Ellis did caution that even with intervention in the case of an abandoned nest, rabbits are “very sensitive” to change. The center cares for some 400 rabbits per year.

            Visiting with Ellis on this day was a rescued turtle, which fascinated the children. Ellis told the group that if you find a turtle in harm’s way, such as a road where it can be hit by a vehicle, to move it safely to the other side in the direction it was headed. She also said that many turtles in this area are woodland creatures, not aquatic animals, so do not place them in water.

             Ellis’ presentation geared towards children focused on the importance of understanding when to give aid and then to withhold it should we encounter a wild animal we believe needs help. Ellis may have been speaking to the children, but the messages were clearly meant for the grownups too.

            The CCWRC, located in Eastham, provides assistance to injured, sick or displaced wild animals throughout the year. But spring and summer are the most active seasons for most wild animals, especially those that are breeding and raising their young.

            Ellis said that annually, the center cares for as many as 1,800 animals, a whopping 70 percent being injured through human contact (i.e. vehicle strikes.) Animals that cannot be assisted or need to receive more intensive care are transported to other facilities, but as a first point of contact during an emergency CCWRC is ready.

            To learn more about the Cape Cod Wild Care Center, visit To learn more about the Marion Natural History Museum programs, visit

By Marilou Newell

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