No matter what my job title is, I will always be a wildlife rehabilitator at heart. So few people know what that means, so I thought I’d try to clarify the issue a bit. Want to know what the heck I spend my time on? Care about wildlife and the environment? Want to make a difference? Read on.
What is Wildlife Rehabilitation?
Wildlife Rehabilitation is the act of caring for ill, injured, or orphaned wildlife with the goal of returning them to their natural habitat. To return to the wild, animals must be able to find and capture food, avoid predators, interact normally with others of their species, and show appropriate fear of people. This can be difficult to achieve, as captivity is stressful and highly unnatural to wild animals and the husbandry needs between species vary drastically.
Wildlife rehabilitators are permitted by the state and/or federal government to provide this care, and must have an understanding of many topics including animal husbandry, behavior, physiology, wildlife nutrition, natural history, and basic medical care. They generally work closely with a veterinarian to provide appropriate treatment for the wide variety of injuries and illnesses they may encounter. Because of their unique position of natural history knowledge and public service, wildlife rehabilitators are often the best resources for humanely solving wildlife conflict situations.
Why Help Wildlife?
As the human population expands, undisturbed habitat for wildlife becomes smaller and more fragmented. This means that human-wildlife conflict is unavoidable. Ninety percent of patients seen at my wildlife center are there because of a human-caused problem – whether hit by a car, shot, or attacked by a cat, the suffering of these animals stems directly from human activity.
Short of the destruction or relocation of the entire human population, we cannot completely avoid these incidents. What we CAN do is relieve some of the suffering we cause by caring for (or humanely euthanizing) animals that would otherwise die slowly or painfully of dehydration, starvation, or medical complications.
There are many other reasons that wildlife rehabilitation is a beneficial pursuit. A great deal of information on the biology and care of wild animals comes directly from the rehabilitation profession, and there are still many areas that need further study. As species populations fragment and shrink, even a small number of adult animals returned to the wild can be significant to the continued stability of a population. Also, wildlife rehabilitation centers are likely to be the first warning of introduced or developing disease trends in wild populations – west nile virus and white nose syndrome are two recent examples of this.
I found an injured/orphaned animal. What now?
The first step is to safely and securely contain the animal. Usually, this means a cardboard box with an old t-shirt, towel, or other absorbent material. If the animal is too large or too dangerous for you to contain safely, contact a wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife center in your area for help. Be sure to wash your hands after any contact with a wild animal.
Second keep the animal warm and dry in a quiet, dark place. Do not handle, play with, or otherwise expose the animal to stressful situations. Wild animals are afraid of people; they prefer to keep space between themselves and us. The fear and stress they experience from forced contact have physical effects – sometimes so severe they can lead to death. Besides all this, humans can suffer from some of the diseases wild animals carry, and handling may put you and/or your family at risk.
Do not feed the animal or attempt to treat injuries or illnesses. Every animal has different needs, and if you are not aware of these requirements, you are likely to do more harm than good. For example, many species cannot tolerate certain medications, and feeding an emaciated animal anything at all can be deadly. Do not trust direct care instructions from the internet – most information is incorrect, and it is unwise to risk the health of a creature you are trying to save on your ability to sift through and find the truth. Even if you have access to the correct information, it takes a trained eye to determine proper care (are you confident you can identify emaciation or the signs of disease in an unfamiliar species? I’ve been in this field for twenty years, and I wouldn’t be!).
Last, find a licensed rehabilitator in your area and arrange to put the animal in their care. The NWRA and IWRC websites (below) can be a good place to start. Also, your state Department of Natural Resources or Department of Fish and Wildlife should have current lists of licensed rehabilitators. As a last resort, you can search the internet for rehabilitators in your state; even if they are not physically near you, they should be able to direct you to someone who can help.
How Can I Help Wildlife?
There are lots of ways to help wildlife in your area. Most of them are easy! Here are eight things you can do now to make a difference:
- Stop and help animals in need! Both birds & mammals
- Donate to or volunteer with your local wildlife rehabilitator
- Don’t feed wildlife – here’s why
- Prevent window-strikes – here are some ideas
- Keep cats indoors! Both for the cat and for the wildlife.
- Don’t relocate wildlife – find another way to solve the problem
- Cap your chimney and secure your garbage
- Learn about your local wildlife, and share your knowledge!
Thanks for caring!