Caring for orphaned animals

16 May 2016

This text is about rescuing and caring for orphaned animals living in the wild. For information about other ways in which we can help animals see the rest of the pages on our section about helping animals in the wild.

Animals in the wild sometimes lose one or both parents. In such circumstances it’s unlikely that they will survive. Most orphaned animals will starve to death, die of dehydration, or be eaten by predators. The small number of orphans who do survive often undergo terrible hardships.

For evolutionary reasons, most animals die shortly after coming into existence. It’s very difficult for very young animals to survive. Most new-born animals receive no parental care, which increases their risk of dying. But those who do receive parental care may be so dependent on it that losing it means almost certain death.

Moreover, many nonhuman animals have strong emotional bonds with their families, and they miss their parents terribly and feel grief when they die. Social animals who are orphaned can also suffer from loneliness because they are deprived of the social interaction that is so essential to their wellbeing. Fortunately, humans can assist orphaned animals, by rescuing them and providing them with the care they need, though this seldom happens. It is only common to rescue orphans who belong to species at risk of extinction, out of conservationist motivations. Of course this benefits the animals who are helped. However, helping orphaned animals should be done for the sake of the animals themselves irrespective of how many other individuals happen to belong to the same species. Below are some examples of orphanages and ways of helping orphaned animals.

Rhinos give birth to a single calf after a 15 month period of gestation. Calves stay with their mothers for between two and four years.1 If they are orphaned they are very unlikely to survive. An orphanage in South Africa was established in 2001 in order to rescueorphaned rhinos. At the time of writing they are currently providing care to more than forty of them.2

Elephants too can become orphaned, because of drought, or by becoming trapped in mud for example. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust cares for orphaned elephants and rhinos, and at the time of writing they have successfully raised 244 orphaned elephants and 17 rhinos. For a list of the orphans they are currently caring for, including the reason they became orphaned, see here.

This article tells the story of ‘Ewok’, a baby red squirrel orphaned after her mother was hit by a car. She was treated for her injuries and fed with a syringe. She was cared for until she was old enough and strong enough to be released into the wild. Grey squirrels are weaned at around 10 weeks old, and typically leave their mothers at around 12 weeks. Only 1 in 4 squirrel kits survive to their first birthday.3 Those who are orphaned prematurely are even less likely to survive.

This orphaned baby seal was found walking about a mile from the ocean. She was malnourished and underweight. She was cared for at the Tracy Animal Center near Sacramento until she was fit to be released. Fur seals typically wean their infants at around 9 months old. Their feeding cycle involves spending five days at sea feeding themselves before returning to their breeding grounds where they spend two days nursing their pups.4 Fur seals are hunted by sharks and orcas. It is very likely that if a nursing mother is killed her infant will die of starvation. In dense colonies mother and pup can easily become separated, and mortality rates for month old pups in dense colonies are between 31 and 49%.5

The Senkwekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage Centre in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a sanctuary for the care and protection of orphaned mountain gorillas and eastern lowland gorillas. Gorilla infants are extremely dependent on their mothers and are highly unlikely to survive on their own if their mother is killed. Infants suckle at least once an hour for the first year, and continue to suckle with decreasing frequency until they are weaned, at between 3 and 6 years old.6 For the first five months infants never leave their mothers’ sides. At 30 months they spend around half of their time with their mothers. After weaning they begin to sleep in a separate nest. They reach maturity at around 10-13 years old.7

The video below shows two first time mothers, Brighter and Akiba, caring for their babies in Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon. Both mothers were themselves orphaned as infants. They were then sold as pets before being rescued. Because of the dedication and care of the rescue workers they have grown up and had healthy infants of their own.

Like gorillas, chimpanzee infants are totally dependent on their mothers for several years. As infants and juveniles they benefit from a close relationship with their mothers, in terms of food, warmth, protection, and the learning of valuable foraging and social skills. Chimps are in almost constant physical contact with their mothers for the first year of their lives. By the age of two they have started to travel and sit apart from their mothers, but never more than five meters away. From that point they become gradually more independent until they are weaned between the ages of four and six.8 Chimfunshi is an orphanage and sanctuary for chimps. Currently they are caring for 120 chimpanzees.

Orangutans are completely dependent on their mothers for at least the first two years of their lives. They are weaned between 3 and 4 years old, but they will stay with their mothers for another five years to learn the skills they will need to survive on their own.9 These skills include finding food, avoiding predators, building a nest and appropriate social skills, including the skills required for a female to successfully raise her own children. The bond between orangutan mothers and their infants is unusually strong, with female children coming back to visit their mothers until they are sixteen years old.10 The video below shows the closeness of the mother child bond and the sorts of skills that an orangutan mother must teach her child.

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation was established in 1991 to rescue orphaned orangutans. At the time of writing they are caring for over 600 orphans in their two centers in Borneo. They are fed by surrogate mothers who care for them round the clock. When they are ready they proceed to the forest school where they learn to forage for food and to build nests. Those who adequately learn the skills they need to survive are brought to a pre-release island, where they live independently while being closely monitored by technicians. Once they have proven themselves capable of living on their own they are released into protected wild forests where they will live completely independently.

Ninita, a deaf pygmy marmoset abandoned by her parents was rescued by the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. Caring for her included giving her massages with a toothbrush, in order to teach her to clean herself and to give her the affection she should have received from her parents. Despite being deaf Ninita was successfully socialised and introduced to the other rescued pygmy marmosets at the center. The video below shows Ninita enjoying a massage.

This racoon fell from a tree into a family’s back garden. She was only a month old, had broken her back leg and was very weak. After waiting for the mother to return the family concluded that she was an orphan. Since there was no raccoon rescue center they could take her to they decided to raise her themselves, and named her Pumpkin. They fed and sheltered her and when her leg healed they introduced her to their dogs. She would not have survived in the wild. But she has a good life with her adoptive family. Without their help Pumpkin would certainly have died. The video below tells her story.

This crow was pushed out of his nest by his mother. A family, seeing that he was being approached by feral cats and that his mother wasn’t going to do anything, decided to take him in and care for him until he was capable of living on his own. The videos below tell the story of four crows who were raised by a veterinarian and her family. The nest fell out of the tree. Knowing that their best chance of survival was with their parents they put the nest back in the tree. As time went on however it became apparent that the nest had been abandoned. The family successfully raised them until they were old enough to live independently and integrated with other wild crows in the area.

The video below shows an orphaned baby robin being fed and given antibiotics.

As with mammals it is vitally important to know when to help an apparently orphaned bird and when to leave him alone. This guide by an ornithologist at Cornell University goes into detail about when and how to rescue and care for an orphaned crow.

Sea turtles don’t provide parental care to their young.11 After covering her eggs, the mother returns to the sea and plays no further part in protecting or nurturing her children. Consequently the number of turtles who reach adulthood is very low, perhaps 1 in a 1,000.12 “Orphan” is a difficult term to apply to animals who don’t provide any parental care – in a sense either all sea turtles are orphans or none are. In any case, it is undeniable that the extremely high mortality rates in young turtles causes a great deal of suffering. People have made efforts to help baby turtles survive, albeit out of conservational motives.13 The video below shows volunteers in Wellfleet Bay animal sanctuary on turtle patrol.

Sometimes baby turtles get disoriented and cannot find their way to the sea. Sometimes this is due to artificial lights which disturb the turtles’ sense of direction. A beach in Bonaire is near an airport, and the bright lights distracted the newborn turtles and caused them to crawl in the wrong direction. Volunteers formed a human wall to guide the turtles towards the sea. In other cases baby turtles can get lost and die. The video below shows a biologist helping lost turtles into the sea.

The cases above demonstrate that humans can in many cases help orphaned animals, though it is important to recognise that in many cases this is done out of conservationist motives, rather than for the good of the individual animal herself. If we reject speciesism and accept that wild animal suffering matters then we can see that we have strong reason to help all orphaned animals, regardless of their species. We must also develop our knowledge of how to best help orphaned animals of all species.

For more information on ways in which we can help animals you can read the rest of our section on helping animals in the wild. One indirect but important way in which we can help wild animals is by working for a future in which the well-being of animals in the wild is widely accepted as important. We can do this in a number of ways, for example by challenging speciesism and by promoting the spread of concern for wild animal suffering. For more information see our page on working for a future with fewer harms to wild animals.

Further readings

Bovenkerk, B.; Stafleu, F.; Tramper, R.; Vorstenbosch, J. & Brom, F. W. A. (2003) “To act or not to act? Sheltering animals from the wild: A pluralistic account of a conflict between animal and environmental ethics”, Ethics, Place and Environment, 6, pp. 13-26.

Dawkins, R. (1995) “God’s utility function”, Scientific American, 273, pp. 80-85.

Donaldson, S. & Kymlicka, W. (2011) Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dorado, D. (2015) “Ethical interventions in the wild: An annotated bibliography”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 219-238 [accessed on 6 November 2015].

Faria, C. & Paez, E. (2015) “Animals in need: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 7-13 [accessed on 6 November 2015].

Hadley, J. (2006) “The duty to aid nonhuman animals in dire need”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 23, 445-451.

Horta, O. (2013) “Zoopolis, intervention, and the state or nature”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 113-25 [accessed on 21 January 2016].

Horta, O. (2015) “The problem of evil in nature: Evolutionary bases of the prevalence of disvalue”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 17-32 [accessed on 14 October 2015].

Kirkwood, J. K. & Sainsbury, A. W. (1996) “Ethics of interventions for the welfare of free-living wild animals”, Animal Welfare, 5, pp. 235-243.

Kirkwood, J. K.; Sainsbury, A. W. & Bennett, P. M. (1994) “The welfare of free-living wild animals: Methods of assessment”, Animal Welfare, 3, pp. 257-273.

Morris, M. C. & Thornhill, R. H. (2006) “Animal liberationist responses to non-anthropogenic animal suffering”, Worldviews, 10, 355-379.

Ng, Y-K. (1995) “Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering”, Biology and Philosophy, 10, pp. 255-285.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paez, E. (2015) “Refusing help and inflicting harm: A critique of the environmentalist view”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 165-178 [accessed on 10 November 2015].

Tomasik, B. (2015) “The importance of wild animal suffering”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 133-152 [accessed on 20 November 2015].

Tomasik, B. (2019 [2013]) “Ideas for volunteering to reduce wild-animal suffering”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, May 13 [accessed on 19 December 2020].

Torres, M. (2015) “The case for intervention in nature on behalf of animals: A critical review of the main arguments against intervention”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 33-49 [accessed on 11 December 2015].


1 Rhino Conservation Botswana (2020) “How to tell black and white rhinos apart”, Rhino Conservation Botswana [accessed on 31 August 2021].

2 Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary (2021) “Adopt an orphan rhino”, Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary [accessed on 25 August 2019].

3 Koprowski, J. L. (1994) “Sciurus carolinensis”, Mammalian Species, 480, pp. 1-9.

4 The exact nature of the feeding cycle and the length of time until the pup is weaned varies by species. See MarinoBio pages on South American fur seals and Antarctic fur seals for more information.

5 Seal Conservation Society (2019) “South American fur seals, Arctocephalus australis”, MarineBio [accessed on 31 August 2019].

6 Stewart, K. J. (1988) “Suckling and lactational anoestrus in wild gorillas (Gorilla gorilla)”, Reproduction, 83, pp. 627-634 [accessed on 4 December 2019]

7 Nowell, A. A. & Fletcher, A. W. (2007) “Development of independence from the mother in Gorilla gorilla gorilla”, International Journal of Primatology, 28, pp. 441-455.

8 Cawthon Lang, K. A. (2020) “Primate factsheets: Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) behavior”, Primate Info Net, April 13 [accessed on 1 September 2020].

9 Cawthon Lang, K. A. (2005) “Primate factsheets: Orangutan (Pongo) behavior”, Primate Info Net, June 13. Orangutan Appeal UK (2019) “Orangutan information”, Orangutan Appeal UK [accessed on 9 September 2019].

10 Animals Asia (2017) “Why separation is so devastating for orangutan mothers and infants”, Animals Asia, 15 November [accessed on 1 September 2019].

11 For a possible exception see Ferrara, C. R.; Vogt, R. C.; Sousa-Lima, R. S.; Tardio, B. M. R. & Bernardes, V. C. D. (2014) “Sound communication and social behavior in an Amazonian river turtle (Podocnemis expansa)”, Herpetologica, 70, pp. 149-156.

12 Sea Turtle Conservancy (2021) “Information about sea turtles: General behavior”, Sea Turtle Conservancy [accessed on 2 September 2021].

13 Gillingwater, S. D. (2008) “Effectiveness of nest protection and artificial egg incubation for turtles in Ontario”, Toronto Zoo [accessed on 25 October 2019].