Why does this little Screech Owl look so horrified?

It’s not because of the color of the carpet, although I was probably wearing the same expression when I first saw it. It’s because she’s in a house, she’s scared to death, and she wants her mother. If that’s not possible, she needs the knowledgeable care of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Wildlife rehabbers love the public. Except when we don’t love the public.

We love the public because there are good Samaritans who will find an injured or orphaned wild creature and go out of their way – sometimes way, way out of their way – to help. They may have no idea what they’re doing, but their compassion overrides their doubt. Somehow they manage to get the bird or animal to a rehabilitator, even though finding one is often a feat in itself. And sometimes they even give us money, which elevates them to sainthood.

To these people, we owe our gratitude.

Why do wildlife rehabilitators not love the public?

For one – and we’ll stick with this one issue for now – because sometimes the public decides to keep the animal they have found, just for a little while.

This is always, always a bad idea.

The state of Indiana has been soliciting comments for a bill which would make the above scenario legal for 90 days, creating an uproar among those who are licensed to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. Today is the final commentary day. With luck, there has been enough negative feedback to stop this kind of insanity in its tracks, although it bears monitoring because there are no guarantees.


Even with the Internet up and running, rehabbers still receive nestling songbirds who have been fed milk with eyedroppers – at least, we receive the ones who haven’t immediately drowned. We receive nestling owls who have been fed nothing but hamburger, whose bones are so brittle from lack of calcium that they break when they try to stand.

In a perfect world, people would know better. They would realize that wild owls fly silently through the night and grab unwary rodents, not unsuspecting packages of processed cow meat. And they would realize that any species whose young tried to nurse with a pointed beak would be a short-lived species. But it’s not a perfect world and sometimes people fail to think things through, which is why unlicensed individuals shouldn’t be allowed to keep a wild animal for 90 minutes, let alone 90 days.


A pet cat raising orphaned ducklings! How cute! That is, until the ducklings grow up, are released into a pond, and greet the local feral cat colony as long-lost relatives. An orphaned fawn who is best friends with the family’s German Shepherd! How cute! That is, until … you get the picture.

So: what do you do if your six-year-old finds a baby bunny, and she can’t bear to part with him?

Explanations are simple: only a mother rabbit or a highly trained rehabilitator has a chance of raising and releasing a healthy wild bunny. And like humans, if a wild animal is injured he needs to be treated by a licensed medical person, not a well-intentioned accountant, plumber, or six year old child.

Instead, bring your child to fundraisers, to sanctuaries, to demonstrations with trained education animals. Teach her to do the right thing, even if it makes her a little sad, because help without knowledge is no help at all.

“Trust me,” says Kathy Uhler, co-founder of the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Stroudsburg, PA. “I know nothing about kids. If I found a child wandering around the mall and tried to take him home and care for him, I’d release him in much worse shape than I found him.”

To those compassionate, caring individuals out there who find themselves with injured or orphaned wildlife: if you love them, let them go – into the waiting hands of a licensed wildlife rehabber.

Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.