Note: This post somehow fell under the “private” designation, and when I re-published it to “public,” my email app sent out a notice. This post is from 2009.

A fellow volunteer at the wildlife hospital was caring for three orphaned baby cottontails, using a highly specific regimen, feeding schedule, heating protocol and cage setup.

This is true of most species: each animal has its own needs and a precise set of instructions to help ensure its survival outside its habitat. This is one of the main reasons it is not a good idea to care for wild animals on your own. Well, that, and the fact that it’s illegal in California (and many other states) to possess wild animals unless you are licensed with an official wildlife or game agency.

Cottontail Babies: Often Alone, Not Always Abandoned

It’s the end of nesting season for many animals, but cottontails breed year-round. Cottontail babies are often rescued mistakenly. It’s important to assess the situation before you take the babies anywhere. Cottontail mothers leave their offspring for most of the day, feeding them only in the morning and at night. Like fawns and fledgling birds, the babies have not been abandoned in these cases. And young rabbits are surprisingly self-sufficient early on. It’s the natural order of things and they are best left alone unless you know for sure there is cause to disrupt them.

When to interfere? The first piece of advice I always give is to call a local wildlife hospital or rehabber for help. It’s what I do myself if I’m in a bind because for the better part of my life I will be a rehabilitator-in-training. Most hospitals have a helpline or person who can answer all of your questions. (More info on that below.)

In general, regarding cottontails, interfere only if: 1) You know for a fact that the cottontail parent has been killed or that the baby has been abandoned. Cottontail season opens in the summer in California (July). That may or may not be relevant to the timing of the found babies. Again, you may not see the parent return for feedings, particularly if it’s dark out, so you must be sure. 2) The baby is injured and needs care. 3) Baby has been caught by another animal. Cat or dog caught animals should receive care. They may have imperceptible puncture wounds that require antibiotics.

The Case of the Trail Baby

Hugh and I were hiking with our nephews in Southern California one morning when I saw a small shape on the trail ahead. As we approached, it appeared to be a dead cottontail baby. Animals can be unconscious, over-heated, dehydrated or injured and appear dead. So, I touched it gently and the baby moved.

It was almost 100 degrees out, the cottontail was lying on an open dirt trail with no nesting area, shade or parent in sight. I thought it was dead at first, but I touched it to make sure. It quivered. Fortunately, we almost always hike with a pair of gloves, a paper bag, and a clothespin. Many small animals can be transported safely this way, and the paper bags do breathe. Animals will not suffocate inside unless you leave the bag in heat or sun or similar hazard. We gently got the baby into a bag and found the nearest wildlife rehab center which just happened to be the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach. (Given our track record of rescues, we rarely travel without a list of wildlife hospitals along our route.) The prognosis for rabbit was good following body temperature regulation and hydration.

Cottontail & Wildlife Rescue Information

Adult Cottontail in Tilden Park (Berkeley) - ©ingridtaylar

Adult Cottontail in Tilden Park (Berkeley) – ©ingridtaylar

Wild Rescue in Texas has a good Cottontail Fact Sheet that may be helpful in assessing whether or not your help is needed.

Related: List of Wildlife Rehabilitators, State by State (from Wildcare)

** Always check with a local wildlife hospital or facility for the best instructions and advice on how to handle ANY wild animal rescue. Some animals should not be rescued by untrained people. Some animals do not need rescuing. A wildlife expert is always your best bet for sound counsel.