Rescuing trapped and injured animals

Rescuing trapped and injured animals

This text is about helping trapped and injured animals in the wild. For information on the ways in which animals in the wild can be injured, see our page on physical injuries in wild animals.

Animals often suffer accidents and injuries in the wild. They may be injured by predators or in intraspecific conflicts over territory or mating; burned by wildfires or frozen by sudden frosts; trapped by difficult terrain such as mud ponds or frozen lakes, and face painful, lingering deaths; or they might simply have an accident in the normal course of living their lives, just as humans do. Unlike humans, though, animals in the wild rarely have effective help available to them when they endure accidents or injuries. They find themselves almost helpless against stronger animals, extreme weather conditions, and natural traps. Nevertheless, humans do sometimes manage to rescue injured or trapped animals, even in difficult circumstances.

Ice and snow

Deers and elks can get trapped in frozen lakes. Deers may cross frozen lakes in search of food, only to fall into the water when the ice breaks underneath them. If the ice isn’t solid, then their efforts to get out of the water simply break off more ice, leaving them trapped in the icy water. Unable to free themselves, they may die from hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia in mammals include shivering, confusion, lethargy and weakness, and reduced heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, and, eventually, unconsciousness and death.1 Alternatively, they may die from shock, organ failure, exhaustion, drowning, starvation, being eaten by predators, or as a consequence of injuries they incur as they struggle to break free. Sometimes even if the ice beneath them doesn’t break, deers can lose their footing on the frozen surface. Unable to regain their footing, they can be trapped on the ice, far from land. Many cases have been documented of rescues of animals from these kinds of situations. In the first video, we see a helicopter pilot using the downdraft from his rotor blades to push a deer off of the frozen lake she was stuck on.

The second video shows two men skating out onto a frozen lake and using a harness to pull a trapped deer back to land.

In the video below, we can see several examples of animals in similar situations being rescued. They include a moose and a dog trapped in icy water. The dog is in a great deal of pain when the rescuers arrive, as we can tell from his yelps and cries. When they managed to get him out of the lake, he was suffering from hypothermia and was lucky to survive. The video also includes cases of small animals being frozen in place by sudden frosts. In the first, a small bird is stuck to a railing because ice has completely covered his feet. He is unable to move until a man rescues him by melting the ice with the warmth of his hands and his breath. Had he not arrived in time, the bird would almost certainly have died, either of hypothermia, dehydration, or by being eaten by a predator. The cat too is trapped by ice, with her feet completely frozen to the ground. After being rescued, she made a full recovery.

In the video below, a snowboarder in Chile found a horse helplessly stuck in the snow. He spent the entire day working to free the horse and save her life, saying, “I couldn’t, in good conscience, let that horse die up there.”

Animals in cold climates may become trapped on ice floes and end up floating far from the coast, stranded until the ice melts and they drown or die of hypothermia in the freezing waters. Sometimes it is possible to help these animals. The video below shows a sailor swimming in icy water in order to rescue a dog helplessly adrift on an ice floe. Without help, he would almost certainly have died.

Whales can become trapped by sea ice too. As the ice thickens around them, whales can be cut off from deeper water. When this happens, they can drown, suffocate, or starve to death. Though rarer than beachings, the rate at which whales become trapped by ice seems to be increasing.2 Rescuing whales trapped by ice is often more difficult than rescuing beached whales, though there have been successful rescues involving ice breaking ships, de-icing machines, helicopter rescues, and using chainsaws to keep breathing holes open. For example, these four orcas became trapped by ice off the coast of a Russian island. Rescue workers broke a path through the ice floes, allowing them to return to deeper water.


There are documented cases of rescues of animals trapped in mud ponds. This happens most frequently to large animals such as elephants. Elephants frequently bathe in mud ponds in order to protect their skin from insects or the sun, or simply because it feels good. Sometimes, they become stuck in the mud. In these situations, they can drown or be slowly eaten alive by other animals. One notorious case was documented in which a baby elephant was eaten alive by hyenas in a situation in which it was feasible to save the elephant but humans chose not to help. There are many similar cases in which the animals were rescued.

A group in Kenya spent three days rescuing this 40 year old male elephant who had become stuck fast in a mud pond. The mud had formed a kind of glue around his body, rendering him completely immobile until rescue workers were able to pull him free using land cruisers and heavy straps. He had gone three days without food, water, or shade and was completely exhausted. After the administration of IV fluids by a vet, he regained enough strength to get back on his feet.

Not all elephants who become trapped in mud ponds are so lucky. Rangers in a Borneo jungle found a herd of pygmy elephants trapped in a mud pond. They had most likely entered the pool to bathe and cool down, but underestimated the depth and sticky consistency of the mud. When the rangers arrived on the scene, the elephants had already been stuck for at least a week. Five of the nine elephants had already died of dehydration or starvation and two more were so weak and blind from dehydration that they had to be euthanized on the spot, leaving only two survivors. The pool has since been filled in with sand to prevent any further deaths.

Birds, even those who can fly, can become trapped in mud. They, too, can often be saved. This young eagle crash landed in a mud bank and was completely stuck. A photographer waded through the mud and managed to drag him out. He was about 6 months old, and it may have been his very first flight.


Cetaceans such as dolphins and whales can sometimes become disorientated and end up stranded on beaches. Although there is no universally accepted explanation for why cetaceans become stranded, several theories have been proposed. For example, many whales rely on echolocation to navigate, but they have difficulty detecting very gently sloping coastlines, especially when the sea floor is sandy. Some mass strandings may be explained by the strong social bonds between individuals of some species of whales, as they may follow each other into dangerous situations or respond to distress calls. Others may become stranded due to injury or illness. It is estimated that up to 2,000 animals are beached worldwide each year.3 Without aid, it’s almost inevitable that the animals will die, either by dehydration, by drowning, or by injuries to their internal organs caused by their own body weight. Due to their size and weight, it can be difficult to rescue stranded whales, though there have been many successful rescues. One of them took place in 2017 in Brazil, where a Humpback whale was successfully rescued.

Other traps – human made and natural

There are many other situations in which animals can become trapped. In some cases, especially in urban environment, they may become trapped in structures created by humans. But they often get trapped in other ways in the wild. In some cases, this may mean life or death for these animals. In Amboseli national park, a baby elephant had fallen into a shallow well. Her mother tried to free her but was unable to do so.

Animals frequently become trapped by human infrastructure and buildings. This seagull was trapped by a fishing line on a chimney.

This toad became stuck in some discarded plastic tubing and likely would have starved or been eaten by a predator. Fortunately, he was found and brought to an animal rescue center where he was cut free.

This fox got himself wedged between two trees, possibly while trying to jump through the gap. He was trapped all night and had attempted unsuccessfully to chew through the bark. He was released without injury.

This barn owl got his wings stuck in a bush by a river. He was partially submerged and might have drowned or starved had he not been rescued:

Treating injured animals

Animals living in the wild are frequently injured in conflicts or accidents. For example, they may be injured during conflicts with other animals. They can be injured by predation, fighting to defend their territory, to secure resources, in conflicts over mating partners, or to attain a higher social standing within a group. In some species, females are often injured by males in forced copulation. And, as with humans, wild animals can become injured in accidents. It is often possible to treat their injuries. For a more detailed account of the kinds of physical injuries wild animals endure, see physical injuries in wild animals.

Animals in the wild are sometimes territorial. Often they can defend their territory with ritualized aggression, for example by intimidating displays, vocalizations, and gestures. Sometimes, however, they are forced to fight to defend their territory, and this can result in serious injuries. Squirrels are highly territorial, especially during the mating season. The video below shows a grey squirrel being treated for severe injuries sustained as a result of a conflict with another squirrel over territory. She was attacked by another squirrel in her territory and received multiple bite wounds. During the struggle she fell from the tree she was in and sustained injuries to her head and spine. She was partially paralyzed and unable to move her forelimbs or support her own weight. She recovered after a month of rehabilitation.

Squirrel injured in a territorial conflict being treated for her injuries

Broken limbs are a frequent occurrence among animals in the wild, and without intervention, they are often a death sentence, as the injured animal is less capable of finding food and evading predators. Limbs can be broken in accidents or through conflict with other animals. If treated, animals can often make a full recovery. The video below shows a badger with a broken leg being treated and rehabilitated.

A broken wing is usually fatal for wild birds and other flying animals. Most are relatively easy to treat however – birds and bats who are brought to a wild animal rehabilitation center usually make a full recovery.

This pigeon with a broken wing would have died without corrective surgery. She needed to have pins inserted into her wing to line up the bones correctly, and a splint to allow the bones to heal.

Butterflies frequently lose some or all of a wing. It’s possible to fix a broken insect wing at home, as the below instructional video shows.

Forest fires can leave wild animals with severe burns. In the video below, volunteers in Greece are searching for animals injured in a forest fire in order to get them medical attention.

The above videos show that human beings have both the will and the ability to rescue trapped and injured animals. Currently, though, the assistance we give to wild animals in such situations is sporadic and limited, and often constrained by poor funding, lack of knowledge, and insufficient personnel. Since we reject speciesism and we know that wild animals are just as capable of suffering as domesticated animals, we must realize that the duty of rescue extends to all sentient beings in need, whether they live in our homes or in the wild.

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, 274 (6), pp. 80-85.

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

Faria, C. (2016) Animal ethics goes wild: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature, PhD thesis, Barcelona: Pompeu Fabra University.

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 15 March 2017].

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

Horta, O. (2013) “Zoopolis, intervention, and the state or nature”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 113-125 [accessed on 22 January 2016].

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

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

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

Sen, A.; Das, D. & Chatterjee, Apurba (2016) “Technique adopted to rescue and rehabilitate Ganges River Dolphin, Platanista gangetica gangetica (Roxburg, 1801) from Donk river at Kishanganj District of Bihar, India”, International Research Journal of Natural and Applied Sciences, 3, pp. 175-185 [accessed on 2 June 2019].

Sözmen, B. İ. (2013) “Harm in the wild: Facing non-human suffering in nature”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 16, pp. 1075-1088.

Thompson, K.; Leighton, MA. & Riley, C. (2015) “Helping hands, hurting hooves: Towards a multidisciplinary paradigm of large animal rescue”, Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 30 (2), pp. 53-58 [accessed on 3 June 2019].

Tomasik, B. (2014) “The predominance of wild-animal suffering over happiness: An open problem”, Essays on Reducing Suffering [accessed on 3 December 2014].

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 10 January 2016].

Westdal, K.; Higdon, J. W. & Ferguson, S. (2016) “Review of killer whale (Orcinus orca) ice entrapments and ice-related mortality events in the Northern Hemisphere”, Polar Biology, 40, pp. 1467-1473.


1 See here for symptoms of hypothermia in humans. See here for signs in dogs, and here for symptoms in small mammals.

2 Matthews, C. J. D.; Raverty, S. A.; Noren, D. P.; Arragutainaq, L. & Ferguson, S. H. (2019) “Ice entrapment mortality may slow expanding presence of Arctic killer whales”, Polar Biology, 42, pp. 639-644. Although when many people think of trapped animals they may think at first about so-called companion animals, we can see that those living in the wild need assistance much more often. This is the case even if we only consider cases in which we can intervene and help. The following piece shows this: Brennan, E. (2013) “Suffolk: Livestock tops fire service animal rescue list”, Ipswich Star, 11 February [accessed on 17 January 2019].

3 Martin, A. R. (1991) Whales and dolphin, London: Salamander.