There is a fine line between help and hurt when dealing with injured or orphaned wildlife

Nadia Reimer
Pratt Tribune
Ellen Lash, Osawatomie, Kans., submitted this photo to KWPT  last year as part of the annual Wild About Kansas photo contest.

Pratt, Kansas is home to the Operations Headquarters of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) – the sunflower state’s official natural resource conservation agency. While the agency is best known for its operation of 28 state parks and a plethora of hunting and fishing opportunities statewide, there’s much more to the agency’s offerings than what meets the eye. From conducting research and surveys, to implementing habitat programs, managing threatened and endangered species, to hosting an all-new podcast – KDWP strives to be a constant source of information and assistance for all things natural resource-related in Kansas.

Of all of Kansas’ natural resources, no one area receives more calls or inquiries than the natural resource that is wildlife. From nuisance animal complaints to rescue missions, KDWP staff receive weekly “asks” to provide assistance in the field. And while staff do their best to ensure a positive outcome for all wildlife, the truth is: An animal’s best chance for survival is a well-informed constituent. There is a fine line between helping and hurting an animal’s chances for survival. Consider raptors as an example in the following steps to determine if help is needed.

Assess the Injury

There are certain criteria that can be used to evaluate whether a raptor has a good chance of rehabilitation, such as the location of the break, the age of the injury, whether it is a compound fracture, and how long the bird has been down due to the injury.

“Observing the animal over time will often lead you to make a better determination as to whether the animal truly needs help,” said KDWP Law Enforcement major David Simonetti. “Finding injured and orphaned wildlife can stir our emotions and tap into that innate desire to help, but we need to be certain there is a problem before trying to solve one.”

Where the break occurred has tremendous effect on the raptor’s chances of survival. A break more distal to the bird's body has a better chance of healing and allowing the bird to fly again than one that is close to the body, such as a shoulder injury; Birds can compensate better the further out the injury is to the body.

Factor in Quality of Life

Injuries to joints are problematic because of stiffness and joint pain that will plague the bird for the rest of its life. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not allow the amputation of a wing above the elbow for this reason, so there is no hope of placing a bird in an educational setting if the break is above the elbow and/or requires amputation.

If a raptor has sustained an injury that requires severe amputation and/or if the bone has broken through the skin (compound fracture), those types of injuries can not only affect the raptor’s ability to keep itself balanced, but it can also significantly impact the animal’s overall quality of life.

If injuries are simply too severe, that’s when euthanasia can be the best course of action to ensure the animal suffers as little as possible.

Know The Risks

When people attempt to “help” wildlife, their actions can inadvertently “hurt” the animal’s chances of survival – especially when a wild animal is taken into captivity. Not only does capture not ensure an animal’s survival, many animals taken into captivity soon die. Those that don't often have their ability to find natural foods hindered, and the natural “wariness” that is learned in the wild – imperative to their survival – is forever impaired.

Species that are “re-released” back to the wild (regardless of rehabilitation status), have the potential to be seen as an unwelcome “intruder” into the home range of another member of their species, causing conflict and/or death; and, run the risk of introducing disease into a population where disease did not exist before.

For these reasons, KDWP asserts that it’s often best to “leave wildlife wild” and let nature run its natural course.

But that doesn’t mean humans should never intervene. Many cases exist where good can come from human intervention; it is very important to make sure intervention happens appropriately, and in the most effective manner possible.

Carefully Collect the Animal

If the animal appears healthy enough to be saved, and that a licensed wildlife rehabilitator will accept them, here’s the safest way to contain the raptor until the animal can be transferred for professional care.

1. Put on a pair of thick gloves. Raptors have tremendous grip strength, and often use their talons to defend themselves by flipping onto their back and trying to grab with their feet.

2. Place the injured animal in a cardboard box. Do not use a wire cage, as wire can severely damage bird feathers, compounding the animal’s injuries. To do this, tip the box over on its side, and scoot the bird into the box with a blanket or towel.

3. Right the box, and gently place the blanket or towel over the bird. When a bird’s eyes are covered, they are less stressed and able to calm down.

4. Secure the top of the box.

5. Lastly, do not try to offer food or water to the animal unless you have been instructed to do so by the licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Leave the box in a cool, quiet place until the animal can be transferred/picked up.

Help ensure the best outcome for all of Kansas’ wildlife by learning best practices and who to call for more information.

For more information about injured or orphaned wildlife in Kansas – including a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Kansas - visit ksoutdoors.com or contact KDWP at (620) 672-5911.