by Rebecca Michelin, Director, Schuylkill Center Wildlife Clinic
I found an orphaned baby_______. What do I feed it?
Type this question into your search engine and you will get hundreds of stories and videos about how to “raise” orphaned wildlife. Aside from the illegality of keeping wild animals (even if you intend to release them, the general public are not allowed to have wildlife), this question is one that comes up over and over every baby season, and haunts permitted wildlife rehabilitators everywhere.
Humans turn to food for care and comfort, but when it comes to wild animals that are injured or orphaned, food is often the last thing they need. Think of it this way – if you are out for a walk and get hit by a car, would your first thought be, “Hey, I could really go for a sandwich right now?” Lost children wandering through a store probably need help to find their parents, not be taken home and given ice cream. The same idea holds true for wild animals as well – our first action when finding an orphaned animal shouldn’t be to feed it, it should be to bring it to a specialist.
So what’s the harm? There are many reasons why rehabilitators will ask members of the public not to feed wildlife before bringing them in for care:
If the animal is injured and needs to be medicated or sedated, it is best to do so on an empty stomach. Feeding an animal can delay important treatment.
Wild animal diets are unique to each species and incredibly varied, so you are most likely not going to stumble upon the exact food that animal will need. We regularly see birds that eat only insects (like swallows) arrive with a dish of seed in the box beside them. Other times, people offer Gatorade or other sports drinks to wild animals, thinking it will alleviate dehydration. This can be very dangerous, as most animals can’t process dyes and sugars and end up with upset stomachs and diarrhea, making any dehydration worse. Many websites will tell you to feed puppy or kitten milk to orphans, but wild mammals like squirrels, cottontails and opossums all have very different milk compositions, and those formulas can’t meet their specific needs.
Finally, the hardest part of providing food for wildlife is the “how.” Some baby birds will open their mouths for food, but it is all too easy to accidentally get food or water into their airway, causing them to aspirate or choke. The same is true for baby mammals suckling from a syringe or bottle – without proper technique they can inhale formula into their lungs. We’ve lost a lot of babies over the years because by the time they had been brought to us, they had developed pneumonia or other respiratory issues due to improper feeding techniques.
If you find an animal in need, call our wildlife hotline at 215-8536271. We will advise you on what actions you can take and together we can give each animal the best possible chance for survival.