Catching a stray animal can be a serious challenge, depending on the animal’s level of socialization, fear response, and any number of environmental factors. Professionals carry catch poles (long poles with a noose mechanism that allows them to slip a leash over the animal’s head without getting close enough to get bitten). Some animals actually have to be trapped – and then getting them out of the trap can be all kinds of interesting.
Sadly, well-meaning people often get into trouble while trying to capture a stray. If they get bitten, then the captured animal gets marked as a bite case. If no owner can be found to confirm the animal’s state of health and vaccination history, then the animal will probably be euthanized and sent for rabies testing. That’s a pretty harsh outcome, both for the animal and for the person who tried to help him. So it’s very important to know how to capture an animal safely.
Please realize that I am not an animal control officer. I am not a vet or vet tech. This information is based on my knowledge and experience as a rescuer who has actually done these things for real. I, like most rescuers, have taken some stupid chances. I have seen people get seriously injured, and I have narrowly escaped injury myself. I have rescued animals that survived, and animals that didn’t. And there have been some animals that I couldn’t rescue at all.
The odds of the human getting hurt go up exponentially if the animal you’re trying to catch is sick or injured. Your first job is to capture the animal without hurting him or allowing him to hurt you. If the situation is beyond your skill level, call in a professional animal control officer, game warden, or wildlife rehabber. Remember that if you get hurt, the animal will probably be put down. Do NOT underestimate that animal.
If you decide to go for the capture, there is some equipment you should have on hand. Depending on what species and weight class we’re talking about, some useful tools include heavy gloves, a thick towel, a couple of slip leashes, a catch pole, and a crate. A sturdy jacket to protect your arms and midsection is a good idea too, as are long pants and stout shoes. Please don’t try to capture an injured stray or wild animal in shorts, tank top, and sandals.
One of the tricks I learned early on was to use a slip leash to make a makeshift muzzle. Drop the leash over the dog’s head, and then wrap it around the muzzle several times to keep his mouth closed. This is not meant to be a long term precaution, but it’s handy if you need to lift an injured or frightened animal into a crate or vehicle. For smaller animals or animals with short noses, that heavy towel can also help to protect you and them. You can swaddle the animal, or even drop the towel over his head so that he can’t bite. Some animals instinctively freeze when their faces are covered. Some don’t, but the towel disorients them and muffles their ability to seek and hit a target (ie, you).
If the animal is down when you find him, you may reasonably think he is too injured to stand. NEVER assume that means he cannot bite or claw. Fear and pain create adrenaline, and adrenaline translates into a surge of strength, typically at the worst possible moment. A downed animal always creates another urgent question: is it safe to move him, or will I make it worse if I do? The truth is that there is no single answer to this question. It is entirely dependent on the type of injury and how critical the animal is.
The most common scenario, sadly, is going to be an animal hit by a car. Automotive injuries can range from bumps and bruises to major trauma with open wounds and broken bones. Again, your job is to get the animal to safety without hurting him or yourself. This is another use for that thick towel. You can gently slide the injured animal onto the towel, and then two people can lift the towel like a stretcher. If there are open wounds, try not to touch them unless there is major bleeding in progress.
Your best option for most kinds of injuries is to keep the animal still and calm en route to the vet’s office or shelter. Gently lift the injured animal into your vehicle, hopefully into the safety of a crate, and DRIVE.
Now that the animal is “safe”…but wait, is he really? People often rescue injured animals on the spur of the moment, but then have no idea what to do next. Every night, I see dozens of pleas on social media. “Help! I saved this dog, but he has two broken legs and needs surgery. I don’t have any money and my landlord won’t let me bring him home.”
I’m going to tell you what you don’t want to hear. If you cannot afford to treat the animal, and you don’t have the rescue connections to get him immediate help, take him to the shelter. Shelters have rescue networks. Some have vets in house who can at least stabilize the animal and control his pain. And if he has to be put down, better it should be immediately and humanely than after days of suffering because the person who “saved” him can’t get him treated.
For wildlife, don’t go to the shelter. Call the game warden or call your local wildlife rehab emergency number. Be aware that many adult wild animals cannot legally or safely be treated; they will be euthanized. But again, it’s better than a slow terrible death. And those rehab folks can do amazing things.
My best advice: be prepared. Have the equipment on hand. Have the right phone numbers in your phone. Carry treats to tempt or occupy a scared animal. And above all, be safe out there.