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Care of Sick, Injured & Orphaned Wildlife

By Susan Predl, Principal Biologist and Amy Wells, Wildlife Rehabilitation Program Coordinator


When out in the woods pursuing deer, turkey or trout, you may encounter a young, seemingly orphaned or injured wild animal. What should you do? Is it hurt? Or sick? Is it abandoned? Should you feed it? Is there a risk of contracting a disease from the animal? Should you take it home?


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This pair of juvenile great horned owls sport sharp bills for tearing flesh and powerful talons to kill their prey.


New Jersey has a number of licensed volunteer wildlife rehabilitators who can answer these questions. They work beyond typical office hours and are available seven days per week to assist injured and orphaned wild animals. Wildlife rehabilitators are licensed by New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to care for young animals until the animal can be released and survive on its own. Rehabilitators are located in fifteen counties and may be licensed to rehabilitate one or many species of mammals, birds and/or reptiles.

Although New Jersey has only 37 licensed rehabilitators, these volunteers rehabilitate approximately 16,000 animals annually. About 40 percent of the wild animals brought to a rehabilitator survive and are successfully released back to the wild. Volunteer rehabilitators answer approximately 46,000 phone calls from the public each year.

Becoming a wildlife rehabilitator is an involved process and includes serving a minimum one-year apprenticeship, proving knowledge about wildlife, providing suitable rehabilitation facilities, acquiring various state and federal permits, passing the facilities inspection, maintaining good records and submitting timely reports.

To ensure the safety of the public and provide the best care for the animal, only persons who demonstrate proper knowledge and ability to care for injured, orphaned or displaced wildlife—from intake to the point of the animal’s release back into their natural habitat—are considered for licensing as wildlife rehabilitators. Being a licensed rehabilitator is a major responsibility and requires time, knowledge and dedication. Wildlife rehabilitators donate their time and do not charge for their services.

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Injuries such as the multiple fractures suffered by this young raccoon require the expert care of a trained wildlife rehabilitator.


Do not attempt to rehabilitate a wild animal yourself. New Jersey has strict laws governing the possession of wildlife. Although well-intentioned, more problems can be created by people mistakenly feeding the wrong food, pouring water in its mouth or handling the animal incorrectly. Most times, what appears to be an orphaned young animal is not orphaned and the best thing to do is leave the animal where it is found. Young mammals such as rabbits, raccoons and fawns are typically left alone for hours at a time while the parent feeds. The adults won’t return while a human is nearby. Generally, unless it is known that the mother has been killed or injured, the public is urged to leave all young wildlife alone.

Young birds typically spend a few precarious days on the ground before learning to fly. Young birds found on the ground can be placed in a shrub and the parent will return to feed it. Keeping cats indoors is the most effective step the public can take to protect vulnerable young birds and mammals. And regarding the handling of young birds or mammals, let us dispel a myth. It is untrue that once handled, human scent on a young animal will keep the parent away. The maternal instinct trumps human scent anytime.

Not every rehabilitator has the experience or the facilities to rehabilitate every type of animal, so call ahead prior to transporting an animal to a rehabilitator for care. Once it has been determined that the animal needs care, the rehabilitator can provide specific directions on the best way to capture and handle the animal.


For information and a list of licensed rehabilitators, go to Fish and Wildlife’s Web site, then click on Wildlife and select Injured/Orphaned Wildlife. If you have no computer access at the time you encounter the animal, contact Fish and Wildlife during business hours at (609) 292-2966 so we may look up the nearest rehabilitator for you.

When you bring a wild animal in need of care to one of these dedicated volunteers, be sure to thank the rehabilitator for their commitment to wildlife and for the time and care they provide.


Photos: Courtesy of Woodlands Wildlife Refuge


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