Animal Orphans

Every spring and summer hundreds of young, orphaned animals are brought into licensed wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Often these animals are not true orphans. Here is some information on identifying, caring for and transporting orphaned mammals. Be sure to contact a licensed facility for instructions, or to answer your questions before proceeding.


An orphaned animal is a young animal whose natural parents are known to be dead and is too young to survive on its own. Before rescuing an animal, make sure it really needs help. If you have witnessed the death of its mother, it obviously is an orphan. However, a dead rabbit in the street doesn’t necessarily mean the infant rabbits in your yard belong to that rabbit.
Many species have hiding techniques to protect their young. Cottontail rabbits only visit their nest at dawn and dusk to feed their offspring. They stay away form the nest during the day because they don’t want to attract the attention of predators.
If you find a nest of infants and believe the mother is missing, lay sticks in a specific pattern around the nest. Come back the next day to see if the sticks have been disturbed; if they have and the infants appear to be fine, the mother has probably made a visit to the nest and the young animals are not orphans. The best thing to do for them at this point is to leave them alone.
If you find a healthy, young animal out of its nest and you think it is an orphan, leave it where you found it (as long as it isn’t in immediate danger) and try to locate the nest yourself. If the animal is in immediate danger from pets or predators, place it in a safe spot while you look for the nest. Once the nest is found, retrieve the animal and return it to its nest.
Some nests, such as squirrels are often high up in trees and are difficult to reach. In such cases, leave the young animal in a shallow, open box at the base of the tree where the nest is located. If you cannot find the nest, place the orphaned animal in a safe and shaded spot away from the danger of pets, then watch from indoors to see if the mother comes to claim it. This may take several hours or overnight. If you cannot watch from the house, remain at least 200 feet away from the animal.
The mother will accept her offspring even after humans have touched it as long as you haven’t kept it away from the nest too long (a few hours) or have handled it excessively. Avoid having the orphan come in contact with heavy human scents such as perfumes, hairspray, or towels with laundry softener scents.
Keep the orphan away from contact with pets or children; there is a potential of disease. In the event the mother does not claim the young, contact Wind River 920-982-6825 immediately. Try to assess whether orphans appear to be injured, thin or cold. If they are they need to be carefully warmed and require veterinary treatment as quickly as possible. Some injuries require immediate attention, such as cat bites, which can be lethal to a young animal if not given proper medical attention.
Remember: a young animal’s best chance of survival is to be raised by its natural mother. It is important to make every effort to try to return the young to its mother. Only after all efforts to reunite them have been exhausted should the orphan be removed from the wild.


Once you determine the found animal is orphaned, you must work as quickly as possible to place it in licensed rehabilitative care. It is very important to call a facility before you begin making arrangements for capture and transport so you understand the best way to handle the situation.
Between the time of rescue and turning it over to the appropriate rehabilitation facility, you must keep the young animal warm and in a quiet place. Poke several holes in an empty cardboard box with a lid, put an unfrayed (so the infant won’t get tangled in loose threads) cloth on the bottom of the box to make a “nest” and place the orphan inside.
If you have a heating pad, turn it on a low setting and set the box halfway on the pad. If the animal gets too warm it can safely move away from the heat source. Keep the box in a dark, quiet room. It is important that the infant have no further human contact. Do not feed the orphan but transfer immediately to a licensed rehabilitation facility to be given appropriate attention.
Each bird and animal species, at different stages of development, has specific and special nutritional requirements. Feeding inappropriate foods or using incorrect techniques can cause the animal permanent harm or death. Wild animals are easily stressed by human contact. Excessive handling of young wild animals often leads to their death.


Eastern Cottontail Rabbits: Eastern cottontails feed their young only at night. You will not find the female during the day. Rabbits leave the nest when they are just three weeks old. A rabbit with its eyes open, ears standing up and approximately five inches long is self-sufficient and does not need your assistance.
Rabbit nest are shallow holes in the ground, commonly in lawns. The mothers line the nests with fur and dry vegetation. If you find such a nest, use a stick as a tool and cover the nest with grass. Try no to touch the nest or the rabbits. If you wish to determine if the mother is still visiting the nest, place a thread across the nest-top in the evening and see if it has been disturbed by morning. Cottontail mothers return to the nest even if the young have been handled or the nest exposed by a lawnmower. If the nest is disturbed, cover it with grass clippings.

Squirrels: Squirrels will retrieve their offspring when they fall or wander from the nest. They also have alternate nest sites if one nest is destroyed. LOOK to see if you can locate the nest site. If there is no evidence of a leaf nest, look for a cavity-type nest. Try placing the youngsters in a box on a branch of the tree to see if the mother will retrieve them. If she does not or if the young are injured, they may be brought to the center.

Virginia Opossum and Skunks: Opossums are marsupials. Their young stay in a pouch on the mother’s belly. Female opossums that have been killed by cars in spring and summer may have live young in their pouch that need to be rescued. The older the youngsters of these species are often seen accompanying their mothers on nocturnal foraging expeditions. If they are found alone, they should be left overnight. If they have not moved by morning, they have possibly become lost or orphaned. While still dependent, baby possums stay near their mothers.

Young skunks, however, often play alone near the den cavity or hole and should not be bothered unless they become noticeably weaker over a period of days. Skunks are a major carrier of rabies in Wisconsin and even the young are capable of defending themselves with their potent spray.

Song Birds and Birds of Prey: Nestling songbirds and birds of prey (hawks and owls) usually lack feathers and are covered with down. They are not yet able to perch. These young birds must be placed back into their nests or new nests must be constructed for them. Contact your wildlife rehabilitation facility so they can assist you in identifying the species and determine the best way to get the bird back into the nest.
When songbirds and birds of prey leave the nest, they are “fledglings” and have feathers covering their body. They leave the nest for short periods of time to hop along branches and often fall out of trees. Place the fledgling on a nearby tree branch out of the reach of domestic animals. Watch from a distance to see that the adult birds continue to care for the young bird.

Waterfowl: Young mallard ducks and Canadian geese are commonly separated from the rest of their brood as they follow parents to food or water. When you find a young duckling, note the location of possible ponds and streams where others of the same species may be, then place the duckling close to some of the same size. The mother will almost always take the “orphan” under her wing. Do not endanger yourself or others by attempting to chase young or adult waterfowl when they are on the road.

Raccoons and Fawns: Their mothers frequently leave these young animals alone for several hours at a time. This is true even when the young raccoons leave the hollow-tree nest to accompany their mother on her journeys. Youngsters of their species found alone are almost never orphans. Leave the animals untouched overnight. If the youngsters haven’t moved and are noticeably weaker, they probably need care and may be brought to the center.

Wind River Rehabilitation provides wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education services throughout northeast Wisconsin. Donations are tax deductible. Contact us at 920-982-6825.