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Canadian Projects

Canadian Projects: Wildlife Rehabilitation

Wildlife Rehabilitation
Photo: OCWC

Throughout North America, wildlife rehabilitators are, to varying degrees, facing opposition from wildlife management agencies — state and provincial agencies charged with licensing people and organizations to do wildlife rehabilitation.

The fight has become particularly volatile in Ontario, leading to an untenable situation, but the problems faced there by wildlife rehabilitators are also in play across the continent.

Before addressing the problem, a definition is in order. The term "wildlife rehabilitation" — or its more popular version, "wildlife rehab" — and its derivatives have been broadly used and misused, but for our purposes they mean helping individuals of wild species by providing them with temporary captive care. They are animals who otherwise would succumb to some problem that is usually human-caused. The idea is to allow such animals a second chance at survival in the wild, either by treating them for injuries or illness they have encountered or by raising them if they have been functionally or actually orphaned while still dependent on their parents.

Because most native wild vertebrate animals are in some way protected by provincial, state or (especially in the case of migratory birds) federal law, it is necessary to obtain appropriate government permits to conduct most of this work. That means applying to wildlife management agencies.

But wildlife management has never been predicated on any need to help individual animals, beyond managing populations. You can get a hunting, trapping or fishing license to kill individuals of those species designated as "game" or "fur-bearers" under certain regulated conditions, but the mechanism that allows one to actually help individuals of these or other species has not, historically, been in place.

Broadly speaking, problems that seem to be increasingly faced by wildlife rehabbers stem from an unwillingness of wildlife managers to endorse the concept overall. What follows pertains specifically to Ontario, where Born Free USA has been most active in Canada — indeed, where our Canadian representative has been involved in various ways with wildlife rehab issues for many decades.

To understand the problems it is essential to understand that, with rare exceptions, wildlife rehab has nothing to do with conservation. Wildlife rehabbers "get" that, but wildlife managers too often do not. On average, the vast majority of animals encountered by wildlife rehabbers are common species (obviously they are the ones most often encountered in need of help) where the species is in no way endangered. Furthermore, the abundance of the species is determined by the ability of the habitat to support it. Thus even if a distressed animal is successfully rehabbed and put back into the wild with the same chances of survival as others of its kind, it does not result in a statistically significant net increase in the numbers of the species overall.

But the alternative to wildlife rehab is abandoning animals in their time of need. In many instances it means they endure a painful death, although the means and will to save them are at hand. The child who finds a baby sparrow tossed from its nest by workmen replacing a sign must, in the absence of wildlife rehab, be told to let the tiny creature die. The bird is not needed to perpetuate the species. Never mind that humans put into the environment the fishing line that is entangling a gull and preventing it from flying. The thinking goes that we must, in the absence of wildlife rehab, ignore the gull's painful plight. The bird who hit the window, the baby raccoon whose mother has been trapped and removed by a wildlife control agency, the fox injured by a car and lying wounded on the side of the road, the skunk stuck in the culvert — they are all surplus to what the species need to survive, so let them die.

Of course compassionate people vehemently disagree, and when they find wild animals in distress they often are surprised to learn that there is no government-funded agency in place to provide help. There are volunteers or charity-supported organizations willing and able to help, but they are under siege. In Ontario the Ottawa Carleton Wildlife Centre (OCWC) worked successfully for many years taking care of sick, injured and orphaned wild mammals — some 1,200 individuals, including river otters, flying squirrels, bats, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and many others.

Wildlife rehab, to be successful, depends on highly specialized knowledge, specialized veterinarian services and an appropriate physical infrastructure to accommodate a wide variety of species-specific needs. OCWC recruited and trained numerous community volunteers and student interns and had a veterinary student-training program, and has always focused on educating the public to prevent human-wildlife conflicts in the first place, or resolve them without injury to either party. It has received much local support and recognition.

However, the 21st century brought a change in licensing conditions by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, when it required of rehabbers certain restrictions on their activities. These restrictions meant, in part, that baby mammals could not be raised with others of their own age but from a different litter, and could not be released more than a short distance from where they were found originally. Wildlife rehabbers were faced with agreeing with these conditions or being closed down, or even charged. While some acceded to these restrictions in order to keep their permits (and then many went ahead and surreptitiously released wildlife where they felt they would have best chances at survival), the OCWC decided not to indulge in such pretense. The wildlife rehab part of its overall service to wildlife and the community was subsequently shut down by the ministry. Many other rehabbers either went "underground" and continued to help animals but were hard for the public they served to find, or they simply gave up caring for those species for which a provincial permit was required.

The ministry thus succeeded in dividing an already small and fragile wildlife rehab community. It is now, in the most populous parts of the province, very hard or impossible to find effective wildlife rehab help. Many citizens wind up caring for animals they have found on their own, with potentially disastrous results. There is serious risk both to the animals given inappropriate care and to their human caregivers, who could encounter serious, even fatal, zoonotic diseases.

Why is there such animosity against the gentle, volunteer-driven and community-serving practice of wildlife rehab? Many believe that the answer lies within a larger context involving the need of wildlife managers to justify what they do. A major part of what they do is control wildlife and license its destruction. In order to do so, they must convince the public and their political bosses that there is a need. Wildlife is consistently demonized by wildlife managers, and one of the most insidious ways in which this is done is in promoting fear of zoonotic disease — disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. For example, throughout southern Ontario the specter of Lyme disease is invariably evoked whenever deer become numerous, because Lyme disease, a potentially very serious illness, can be transmitted to humans via ticks that feed on deer. But the disease actually only occurs in a very small area of the province, in some instances hundreds of kilometers, or miles, from where the threat of Lyme disease is raised in order to justify deer culling.

The strain of rabies that infects raccoons has only killed, so far as we know, a single human in spite of millions of interactions between raccoons and humans throughout the range of the disease. The policy of the MNR is to kill all raccoons within a radius of where the disease is detected, even though they don't have the disease. No matter that rehabbers keep young animals past the incubation period of the disease, and inoculate them against it before release, thus doing more to control the disease than to spread it.

It is all very sad, and very widespread in other jurisdictions outside Ontario. The cynical belief is that fundamentally there is a clash in values and subjective viewpoints between rehabbers and professional wildlife managers. The latter characteristically see wildlife as a "resource" to be utilized and controlled, thus justifying the wildlife managers' careers. Wildlife rehab, whatever it does for animals, also tends to educate the people about animals, essentially identifying them as part of the community. By seeking non-lethal methods to wildlife-human conflicts, and by successfully and intimately interacting with wild animals, rehabbers paint a picture of wildlife that is seen by wildlife managers (speaking very broadly, of course) as unrealistic. Animals are to be feared if the wildlife managers are to be successful in promoting the very programs that justify their employment.

We have tried to establish an interdisciplinary and broadly based committee of wildlife rehabbers and ministry staff and various experts in related fields, and have received permission to go ahead. The committee's job would be to advise the minister. But as of the current writing all is on hold as there has been a change in government, and there is now a new minister who has yet to review the file. Her predecessor was certainly sympathetic to animals — rare in a minister of natural resources — but she's gone and we have yet to hear from her replacement.

Learn more about coexisting with wildlife — no matter where you live — with our helpful brochure and coexisting with wildlife section.

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