River Life: Advice on Handling Wildlife in Distress

September 07, 2023

When we see an animal in distress, our initial instinct is to help. We receive calls and emails from people who have seen what they perceive as a wild animal that is hurt.  This is especially true of marine mammals in the St. Johns River or on the beach. And while we think we need to do something, usually the best thing to do is nothing. Don’t touch, handle or in any way come in contact with the animal. Instead, call the appropriate agency like local animal control if it is a domestic pet, or Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) if it is a marine or other wild animal.
This also applies to anything you might catch incidentally while fishing. While rare, folks do catch things other than fish, like sea turtles, manatees, or dolphins. If you can easily remove the hook, do so quickly but also minimize your contact with the animal. With manatees or dolphins, under no circumstances should you remove the animal from the water. In all cases, notify the proper agency, which in Florida is FWC. You can reach them by calling the FWC Wildlife Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC).
When you remove a marine animal from the water, you put a great deal of stress on the animal. Manatees, dolphins, and whales depend on the buoyancy of the water to support their weight and that allows them to breathe. When they are out of the water, the weight of their body compresses their lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. Such stress can lead to death. 
Recently someone may have hooked a young dolphin, then removed it from the water to take pictures, which they then posted on a popular website. Their actions may have led to the death of the calf. There is a strong possibility that the dolphin was sick or injured before it was caught. That might explain why the person was able to hold the dolphin for the picture. A young healthy animal would not be easy to hold out of the water. 
Similar advice holds for beached whales too. In almost every case, do not try to push or pull the animal back into the ocean. The whale beached for a reason. Usually it is sick or ill. Pulling the animal by its tail can result in additional injury. Observe the animal, maybe keep it wet and upright so its blowhole is not in the water, and call FWC. They have the expertise to treat and maybe successfully rescue the animal. 
The same applies if you find a baby animal. It is best to leave it alone. Rarely are animals actually orphaned.  Do not pick up baby animals or remove them from their natural environment. Our natural instinct is to help, but usually the best thing to do is nothing. Maybe observe for a while and then notify FWC if you think the animal is truly in danger. 

Glad you asked River Life

The latest Hurricane Idalia just missed Jacksonville. Dora was the last hurricane to directly hit here in 1964. Is Jacksonville somehow protected from direct strikes by its location? The somewhat twisted answer is yes, no and sort of. Jacksonville’s geographic position does keep it out of the path of many hurricanes. We are the western most city on the Atlantic seaboard, and the weather patterns put us in a transition zone which makes our weather highly variable and subject to change rapidly. However, it really is just a matter of time before we take another direct hit. The good news is that the science of forecasting is getting better and better. After all, Idalia was the first major hurricane to hit the Panhandle in over 125 years.
River Life runs the first Tuesday of the month in The Florida Times-Union. E-mail A. Quinton White, executive director of Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute, with questions about our waterways at qwhite@ju.edu. For more on the MSRI, visit ju.edu/msri.


Dr. Quint White


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