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Tips for Handling Injured or Orphaned Wildlife

Each year, people with good intentions “rescue” thousands of young animals they find in the wild. In many cases, these animals do not require rescuing, and moving them places them at greater risk by separating them from their mother.

In other cases, rescuing an orphaned animal can save the animal from death. Birds are one of the most commonly “rescued” animals. To gauge whether a situation is a wildlife emergency, first determine if the bird is injured. Contact wildlife rehabilitation for advice if the bird is clearly injured or bleeding. The bird might also be injured if it looks exhausted, dehydrated, or lethargic.

If the bird is not injured, the next step depends on whether the bird is a nestling or fledgling. A nestling, which may have no feathers or be covered in down, is too young to fly and belongs in the nest. If found on the ground, carefully place the nestling back in the nest, then watch from a distance to see if a parent bird returns. If no parent returns, contact a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Alternately, if the bird has feathers but displays awkward movements, it is likely a fledgling. Fledglings normally spend time on the edge of the nest, then fall/fly off. The fledgling usually lands on the ground, where he remains for hours or days. If the bird appears uninjured, and other similar birds are nearby, leave the animal alone. If the bird is in danger due to a nearby cat or dog, try to place them in a nearby safe place.

Beyond birds, humans may encounter wild animals that seem to need their help. When handling wildlife, people should take precautions to protect against diseases such as rabies, which is fatal without treatment. Most common in bites from mammals like raccoons, bats, and skunks, the disease can be transmitted to humans by any wild animal.

To move injured small animals, people should don gloves, then place a piece of cardboard or a towel under the animal to transfer them to a small pet carrier. A towel or blanket over the carrier can make the carrier dark and help calm the animal. Particularly small mammals like chipmunks and squirrels may be able to escape through openings in the carrier door, so they will be better transported in a cardboard box or plastic carrier designed for rodents. Always ensure there are holes to allow for breathing.

As an alternative to a cage, baby animals can be placed in a bucket or pail with a towel in the bottom and a cloth over the top to keep the animal calm. This should be an option only if the animal cannot jump out.

Humans who attempt to rescue wildlife should take precautions to keep themselves and the animal safe. First, they should not give the animal food or water. Water placed in the container will inevitably spill, and small animals can easily drown or become cold and wet.

Next, avoid treating the animal for an injury. Wildlife professionals have the skills and knowledge to diagnose and treat injuries, while the average citizen does not. Children and family pets should not approach the animal. Wild animals may appear cute and harmless but may act aggressively when they feel threatened. Because they are already stressed from the injury, they may act unpredictably.

Consider the animal’s environment. Attempt to maintain a moderate temperature that would be comfortable for humans and avoid direct sunlight and air conditioning. Baby animals need warmth, but they can easily overheat. A wildlife rehabilitator can offer advice for keeping the animal comfortable during transport. Rescuers should note the precise location the animal was found so that rehabilitation facilities can release the animal in the same spot.

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Florida’s Precarious Manatee Problem

Manatees, also known as sea cows, were once among the endangered species in the state of Florida. While their current status of threatened is an improvement, their well-being remains at risk due to food scarcity and an unprecedented mortality rate. Several state-wide initiatives address this pressing environmental issue to protect manatees.

Scientists identified a decline in seagrass, the main component of the manatee diet, which negatively affected the nutrition and survival of manatees across the state of Florida. Fortunately, wildlife officials detected new seagrass growth in the Indian River Lagoon in May 2022. Located along the state’s east coast, the lagoon suffered from chronic pollution which suppressed the growth of seagrass last year.

While the return of seagrass is promising, it is not a guaranteed solution. Specialists comment that the plants may once again deteriorate under the reign of summer algal blooms. The foolproof long-term solution to sustain seagrass is to restore the water quality to nurture plant growth. However, reversing the impact of extensive pollution is a long process, and manatees cannot afford it.

More than 10 percent of Florida’s manatee population died in 2021, with less than 8,000 manatees surviving in Floridian waters. The record-breaking death toll of the state’s official marine mammal, which reached 1,100, alarmed governmental and environmental organizations alike, engendering additional efforts to save the struggling manatees.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched a feeding program in December 2021 to prevent starvation among manatees in Central Florida. The program entailed the distribution of over 200,000 pounds of lettuce, an alternative plant to fortify the manatee diet. Over the past few years, the animal struggled to procure its vegetarian diet of seagrass as a result of algal overpopulation and pollution, leading to countless deaths.

Since the program launch, manatee deaths have slowed, but they remain above the five-year average. In May 2022, Florida officials started considering an additional feeding program to support local manatees.

Further, officials have led several operations to rescue dozens of underweight manatees. More than 90 rescued manatees are currently recovering in Florida-based rehabilitation centers such as the Manatee Critical Care Center at the Jacksonville Zoo.

During his visit to the center, Governor Ron DeSantis announced the allocation of more than $30 million in the upcoming budget toward manatee rehabilitation. He also aims to boost financial support for manatee rescue operations and habitat restoration.

DeSantis is prioritizing the expansion of manatee acute care facilities and the execution of more programs including feeding trials, reserving $20 million for those objectives. Additionally, over $5 million will be given to the FWC to enhance its response efforts and open new positions for more effective manatee rescue work. The remaining funds, which exceed $4 million, will be dedicated to the support of aerial surveys and other conservation activities.

FWC law enforcement officers are also monitoring waterways across Florida to ensure that boaters follow strict speed limits within seasonal manatee protection zones. Boating is correlated with manatee accidents and preventable deaths. In 2022, watercraft have killed dozens of manatees.

The FWC urges boaters to avoid shallow areas where manatees are likely to graze. Boaters can also detect manatees by looking out for signs such as water rings that clearly mark the animal’s presence.