“The fundamental issue is the moral issue. ”
When I started working as a wildlife rehabilitator it was harder than it is now to make contact with other, more experienced professionals since that most handy and valuable tool, the internet, was not yet a household item. This was particularly true for those of us here in Michigan and, still, despite great strides in the last few years to reorganize and energize our state organization, Michigan remains a majority of “lone wolf” rehabilitators.
What this means is that many of us simply don’t know each other very well. And today is one of those days I wish I knew far less about some who work in this field.
The standard by which wildlife rehabilitators are most often judged is a joint publication of the National Wildlife Rehabitators Association and the International Wildlife Rehabiliation Council aptly titled, “Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation“. A needfully lengthy and comprehensive publication, it lays out basic information for wildlife rehabilitators; running the gamut from intake to onsite care to end of life. Most importantly, it begins with “A Wildlife Rehabilitator’s Code of Ethics”, 11 behavioral. attitudinal, and moral considerations towards which each of us is expected to strive:
1. A wildlife rehabilitator should strive to achieve high standards of animal care through
knowledge and an understanding of the field. Continuing efforts must be made to keep
informed of current rehabilitation information, methods, and regulations.
2. A wildlife rehabilitator should be responsible, conscientious, and dedicated, and should
continuously work toward improving the quality of care given to wild animals undergoing
3. A wildlife rehabilitator must abide by local, state, provincial and federal laws concerning
wildlife, wildlife rehabilitation, and associated activities.
4. A wildlife rehabilitator should establish safe work habits and conditions, abiding by current
health and safety practices at all times.
5. A wildlife rehabilitator should acknowledge limitations and enlist the assistance of a
veterinarian or other trained professional when appropriate.
6. A wildlife rehabilitator should respect other rehabilitators and persons in related fields,
sharing skills and knowledge in the spirit of cooperation for the welfare of the animals.
7. A wildlife rehabilitator should place optimum animal care above personal gain.
8. A wildlife rehabilitator should strive to provide professional and humane care in all phases
of wildlife rehabilitation, respecting the wildness and maintaining the dignity of each
animal in life and in death. Releasable animals should be maintained in a wild condition
and released as soon as appropriate. Non-releasable animals which are inappropriate for
education, foster-parenting, or captive breeding have a right to euthanasia.
9. A wildlife rehabilitator should encourage community support and involvement through
volunteer training and public education. The common goal should be to promote a responsible
concern for living beings and the welfare of the environment.
10. A wildlife rehabilitator should work on the basis of sound ecological principles, incorporating appropriate conservation ethics and an attitude of stewardship.
11. A wildlife rehabilitator should conduct all business and activities in a professional manner,
with honesty, integrity, compassion, and commitment, realizing that an individual’s conduct
reflects on the entire field of wildlife rehabilitation.
What I want to address in this piece are items 7, 8, and 11. These have unfortunately become uppermost in my thoughts of late, based on conversations with various wildlife rehabilitators over time. What I have learned is that there are those who do not abide by these particular ethics and no matter how I twist and turn my thoughts, no matter how I try to examine things from every possible angle, I find I am unable to rationalize certain behaviors.
We’ll start with #7. This statement means that the welfare of the wildlife in our care must come first. Our own need for publicity, often justifiable in order to garner support in the form of public donations to offset the costs of doing this work (always paid for out of our own pockets), must never be the sole or primary driver for what we do with wildlife that comes into our care. But there are some wildlife rehabilitators who go out of their way to make their availability known and then quite literally charge the public exhorbitant “donations” to take in an orphaned, abandoned, or injured wild animal. Number 11 ties into this behavior, which is particularly troubling when the wildlife rehabilitator lies about having IRS recognition as a non-profit, and it is completely unacceptable when those wild animals are simply turned over to, say, their local animal control to be immediately euthanized.
This also ties in with #8 and, as another example, I have learned about some wildlife rehabilitators working with predator species who also accept orphaned, abandoned, or injured prey species. But what they do not tell anyone is that those prey species are not, as our ethics would dictate, raised or healed and subsequently released, but instead used to feed the predators in their care, often deliberately “crippled” so that the young predators can learn to kill. While I certainly can understand that predator species must eat appropriately, too, and can understand the “circle of life” reason to feed carnivores those prey animals who die or must be euthanized, I take adamant exception to the cruel deception and horrible suffering consciously inflicted on an innocent life that is contained in this scenario. There is absolutely NO excuse for this. Certainly we may be able to pick and choose the species with which we work, but that does not mean the lives of those species we “like less” may be treated so heinously, nor does that give anyone the right to betray the public’s trust. (Some will trap wild prey animals in order to do the same thing and I personally find this also incredibly cruel.)
Then there are wildlife rehabilitators who are also taxidermists. Early in my career, I remember stumbling across a web site belonging to a wildlife rehabilitator that had pages of wild baby mammals for sale, all neatly stuffed and mounted, and couldn’t help but wonder exactly where they’d all come from? Certainly would make the job easier to have the public just drop them on your doorstep….
Discussion of wildlife rehabilitators who make money on the side by selling wild baby animals as “pets” is a piece in and of itself. But by now, I think you get my point. The person who cared enough to stop and pick up a wild animal and gratefully leaves them with these types of wildlife rehabilitators is never told any of this. They go away thinking they’ve done the right thing and that the wild animal is going to get every possible chance to regain its birthright.
As I sit here writing, I can glance up from the monitor and watch young orphaned squirrels thriving in the warmth and security of their small weaning cages and I know that I would not be able to sleep at night if I did anything other than all of those things I do on a daily basis to insure they will grow up healthy, strong, and able to hit the trees with bushy-tail banners waving in that singular expression of sheer joy. For personal and practical reasons I do not rehabilitate carnivores, yet if I did, I would still give 110% effort to caring for squirrels and other prey species here. It is unthinkable to me that any of these small, innocent, trusting souls could find themselves, through no fault of their own, subject to the ultimate betrayal from hands that, by all rights and by all standards of what is good and moral and ethical, should hold them only in loving protection.
It is the stuff of which nightmares are made.
So how do the good-hearted find a truly ethical wildlife rehabilitator to help them? I wish there was an easy answer, but like all things involving humans, it’s not simple. As the old saying goes, “Those who have nothing to hide, hide nothing” so at the least careful questioning about a rehabilitator’s licensing and practices must be the start, including questioning someone who is referring you to a rehabilitator. (If you brought an animal here, you would see my permits and other credentials hanging on the wall, and I am more than happy to share information about any animals in residence, their care, etc.) Certainly ask what species they accept, and if they accept predator species, ask how they feed them. Ask if they belong to any professional organizations (state, national, international) and listen carefully to the reason why not (those who feel they “above the law”, so to speak, often will not have any such affiliations). Liars are inherently practiced and smooth talkers, but close attention to their responses can give them away; trust your guts if anything doesn’t feel right. The same as with all service providers, we are doing you a favor so don’t hesitate to take an animal somewhere you feel more comfortable.
You can easily verify if an organization has been granted non-profit status by the IRS by going to this web page.
You can find out whether or not a rehabilitator holds a federal permit (required to rehabilitate protected and migratory birds, which in Michigan is every species except feral pigeons, starlings, English sparrows, turkey, grouse, pheasant, and quail) by contacting the appropriate regional U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office. Your state Department of Natural Resources or Fish & Wildlife division also usually maintains a list of their wildlife rehabilitators who hold federal bird permits.
It’s horribly sad to think that “caveat emptor” must apply to those who profess to “love” animals, but again, whenever humans enter the equation, it seems that things are not always as they first appear to be.