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Wildlife Rehabilitation Crisis in Ontario – A Case Study

The Problem

Unwarranted 15-kilometer Release Restriction

The Solution

Animal Alliance joined with other organizations and individuals drawn from wildlife rehabilitation, animal welfare and environmental interests from across Ontario to form the Ontario Wildlife Coalition. The Coalition was formed to urge the return of a progressive wildlife rehabilitation service in Ontario, to advocate on behalf of wildlife and to seek long-term, humane solutions for human/wildlife conflicts through remedial action, public education and habitat protection. Members represent a cross-section of people, including journalists, veterinarians, educators, lawyers, scientists and administrators.

Wildlife rehabilitators represent a valuable resource in Canada. They serve as dedicated volunteers and, together with the corporate and community financial support, they are able to offer a wide array of positive wildlife services in education, conflict resolution, environmental collaboration and rehabilitation for orphaned and injured wildlife. They also offer a buffer for those rare occasions when orphaned or injured animals might pose a threat to humans.

The Need for Services:

People across Canada want to see humane help for wildlife. Many will go to extraordinary lengths to find help for an animal in distress. They expect provincial governments to provide a legislative framework that supports compassionate and progressive community-based programs.

The demand for such services is growing. It is based on the need brought about by extensive development and loss of habitat and the resulting increase in human-wildlife encounters and conflicts. At the same time, people recognize that it is the actions of humans that are responsible for most of these problems and are increasingly becoming aware that there are humane and cost-effective solutions to such concerns.

The majority of Canadians reside in urban areas and their view of wildlife is considerably different from that of a previous, rural-based population. A recent national study in the United States examined human-wildlife interface and found the interaction between urban residents and wild animals centered on non-consumptive recreation, such as attracting and viewing wildlife, finding humane solutions for human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife rehabilitation for orphaned and injured wildlife.

The study found that wildlife rehabilitators are the frontline when it comes to these concerns in their communities. This is not surprising given that these wildlife issues are beyond the scope of natural resource departments, which are focused on game animals and regulating consumptive use of wildlife resources. Studies found that the majority of people were unable to identify their government wildlife agency, while others indicated that a distrust of natural resource agencies has been on the rise for at least a decade.

The concern for the environment and biodiversity has also prompted very different attitudes and expectations within the community. Young people, in particular, will be increasingly influenced by changing values as Canada’s education system introduces a comprehensive approach to sustainability and biodiversity within the curriculum.

 

Wildlife Rehabilitation Crisis in Ontario – A Case Study:

Wildlife rehabilitators in Ontario serve as dedicated volunteers whose positive wildlife services include education, conflict resolution, environmental collaboration and rehabilitation for orphaned and injured wildlife. They also offer a buffer for those rare occasions when orphaned and injured animals might pose a threat to humans.

This is a resource that is being lost due to the actions of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and the inaction of the McGuinty government in providing the necessary leadership to correct this situation.
Today there are less than half the number of wildlife rehabilitators than existed five years ago. And many of these custodians care for only a small number of animals each; others can no longer care for animals for whom they specialized, i.e. deer because of unwarranted release restrictions imposed by the MNR.

The fact that so many former rehabilitators, including long-established centres across the province, can no longer operate under these restrictions clearly indicates a problem. But it is the increasing numbers of members of the public who are complaining to animal welfare organizations about the lack of help for wildlife that will require politicians to fix the problem.

 

The Problem:

The Ministry has created a problem with respect to wildlife rehabilitation where none existed before. It has introduced unwarranted regulations that too often require the release of orphaned wildlife into highly developed and busy urban areas where they would have little chance of survival. The regulations also often mean single animals would have to be raised alone, completely contrary to humane standards and effective wildlife rehabilitation practices. These regulations also eliminate the critical role provided by volunteers with suitable property who agree to provide the transitional care required for young animals as part of their release.

The discretionary authority given to regional Ministry staff in the application of these unworkable regulations means an unfair and inconsistent set of standards is being imposed across the province. Further, wildlife rehabilitators are denied any right of appeal over decisions, often not even being told the reason for those decisions. This perpetuates a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of Ministry staff.

 

Unwarranted 15-kilometer Release Restriction:

The major point of contention for all rehabilitators who have discontinued their service is the purely arbitrary 15-kilometer release restriction for rehabilitated orphans. The lack of commonsense that is inherent in the 15-kilometer release restriction is found in MNR Condition #36 “wildlife that was immature when originally captured shall be released as close as possible to the site of original capture up to a maximum of fifteen kilometres away, and in similar habitat when possible”. First, baby wild animals are not “captured”, they are rescued, generally having crawled out of a tree nest, starving to death. Others, like baby raccoons, are found orphaned and hanging around shopping centre dumpsters. Several have been found in vats of fat outside restaurants. Should they be put back in similar locations, within the 15-kilometers radius?

The majority of orphans are found in our cities and result from the adult mother having been trapped and relocated, killed on a busy road or otherwise compromised because of extensive development. The typical city has a boundary that extends to 90 kilometers or more, with a very busy inner core that makes up 30-40 kilometers. Putting young animals, after months of rehabilitative care, back into these busy core areas would be irresponsible and inhumane, giving them limited chance of survival. It would also be rightfully criticized by residents because of the impossible situation faced by the animals and the predictable human/wildlife conflicts it would produce.

Wildlife rehabilitation and responsible release is a hugely challenging task. Ideally it should be accompanied by objective research into the effectiveness of various methods, done with the support, not the opposition, of the governing body. It is impossible enough without having to jump through artificial hoops, taking into account the age and health of the animals, to have to find suitable release sites using a map and compass! When you consider that there are few people willing or able to provide transitional foster care that have a suitable release site for wildlife, the logistical nightmare of the 15-kilometer release restriction becomes apparent. How many foster families are going to live in an area that falls within the 15-kilometer radius from where the animal was found?

The Ontario Wildlife Coalition has been clear from the outset as to what should occur: “that orphaned wild animals be raised with others of their own species to learn proper conspecific social behaviours and that these animals be released in appropriate natural areas, with transitional care for those species who require it, generally within the city or county-of-origin”. This reflects the practice of what occurred in Ontario, without any negative consequences it should be added, until the MNR decided to limit wildlife rehabilitation by imposing unworkable release restrictions.

 

The Solution:

Wildlife rehabilitation services must be removed from the administrative jurisdiction of the Fish & Wildlife Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources as it represents a conflict of interest. This department views wildlife from a population perspective and manages it as a resource to be harvested. Rehabilitators, and the public who rescue these animals, see them as sentient creatures that have value as individual animals.

Because the Fish & Wildlife Branch obtains much of its operating revenue from licensing activities that involve the consumptive use of wildlife, its clientele is not the general taxpayer but those who hunt, fish and trap. This culture is deeply imbedded in the Ministry, so there has never been a great deal of support for wildlife rehabilitation. In fact, wildlife rehabilitation is seen to run counter to the Ministry’s need to have the public regard wildlife as a resource to be utilized rather than seen, sympathetically, as individual animals worthy of saving.

Appoint a Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Committee to provide independent and knowledgeable input and review of all policies and regulations affecting wildlife rehabilitation. This should include rehabilitators, veterinarians, animal welfare and environmental organizations, as well as members of the general public. This committee would be in contrast to the small group of wildlife rehabilitators that the OMNR has co-opted to serve in a controlled and coercive environment that lacks fairness and transparency. An advisory committee with a broader base of allied professionals, as well as members of the public who rely on wildlife assistance in their communities, is essential to creating a responsive and accountable wildlife program in Ontario.

Prepared by the Ontario Wildlife Coalition Spring 2008 http://helpbabywildlife.ca/backgrounder.html

For information visit Wildlife Ontario web site at http://www.wildlifeontario.ca/

For information on wildlife orphan care visit http://www.orphanedwildlifecare.com/

For advice on how to resolve human/wildlife conflicts, visit http://wildlifeinfo.ca/conflicts.html