There are few checks done to see how well injured or orphaned Australian animals survive after they’ve been released into the wild, we found in our new research published on Sunday.
That’s a worry for the more than 50,000 native animals that are released in Australia each year. It’s especially worrying for any orphans who’ve never experienced life in the wild.
But we found the rules governing the return of wildlife are not always in the animal’s best interest.
Our review of Australian animal welfare legislation, regulations, codes of practice and policies found a complex regulatory system that varies between states and territories. It’s a system that is fragmented, contradictory and inconsistent.
This makes it difficult for the many thousands of volunteers and others who try to rescue and rehabilitate native animals.
We believe Australia lags behind the developed world in animal welfare and animal law. This situation evolved haphazardly and is hampered by policies that rely on assumptions based largely on neither scientific nor factual evidence.
Current policy mandates that rehabilitated rescued animals must be placed into the wild. The survival of these animals after release depends on their behavioural and physical attributes, yet some could be ill-equipped to survive.
From our reading of current regulations, any such assessment of an animal’s suitability for release is either negligible or questionable.
There is also no reliable method of identifying animals after release. Indeed, most jurisdictions forbid it and, perhaps as a direct result, there is minimal monitoring to show what happens to released animals.
In general, all Australian jurisdictions require rehabilitated animals to be returned to the wild. But rather than using a more general definition of rehabilitation we should think of returning the animal to its natural habitat or state.
The distinction between these two possible destinations is far from semantic. It can be argued the natural habitat (or state) of a hand-reared orphan animal, is one of captivity.
Many wildlife carers releasing an animal and seeing it disappear into the wild may equate this with success, but this may be an unfortunate convenient illusion.
The released animal may not be the happy state that carers may prefer to assume. Vague assumptions that naturalness in releasing animals to the wild is reliably associated with better well-being are largely unfounded.
But wildlife carers have no choice in the matter. They are required to consign the animals, to which they have devoted hours of care, to an uncertain fate for which they may be very poorly prepared.
And they must do so even if their knowledge, experience and pragmatism directs their thinking to more favourable alternative solutions. These include allowing some native animals to be kept in large-scale facilities such as private fenced enclosures, national parks, islands and other fenced options.
The regulations make no distinction between animals that are injured, rehabilitated and released, and those that are rescued as orphans. These are often physically unharmed but require milk substitute feeding from a bottle and nurturing by – and possible inadvertently bonding with – humans prior to release to the wild.
Adult and juvenile native animals raised in the wild usually have all their innate and learned behaviour instincts intact when they are injured and rescued.
Unless they remain in captivity for a prolonged period, or are subjected to inappropriate housing and handling, their instincts generally persist and kick-in once they have been released. They have an opportunity to survive.
In contrast, the chances for orphans to survive after release seems remote.
Orphans that needed hand-rearing generally become habituated to the smells, sounds and sights of human presence and the captive environment.
The requirement to return orphans to the wild, with no account taken of their mental state, may be difficult to defend on conservation, ethical, moral and practical grounds.
The physical and mental protection of Australian injured or orphaned native wildlife should be recognised as an important animal welfare issue. The physical and mental well-being of the wildlife carers who rehabilitate them is just as important as a human welfare issue.
In the absence of criteria that take into account the mental well-being of the animals and their carers, the current policy of releasing all hand-reared wildlife to the wild must be reviewed.
Using a One Welfare approach – that considers the the animals, the humans and the environment – would see a regulatory framework that balances the needs of rescued wildlife, wildlife carers and conservation.
The public and Australia’s extraordinary wildlife carers deserve to be confident that regulation is consistent among jurisdictions and reflective of best practice for the rescued wildlife and the environment.
Australia’s wildlife is unique and endearing, with many species found nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, it isn’t rare to encounter sick or injured wildlife around your home or by the side of the road. My research, recently published in the Australian Veterinary Journal, estimates between 177,580 and 355,160 injured wild animals are brought into NSW veterinary clinics alone every year.
But until now, very little was known about what happens to wildlife after they’re brought to a vet. My colleagues and I surveyed 132 veterinary clinics around Australia, examining the demands and expectations of treating wildlife. We also looked for risks to animal welfare as a result of these findings.
Most clinics only saw a handful of wildlife patients every week, with birds and marsupials such as possums the most common. Sadly, the majority (82%) of wildlife arrived in veterinary care due to trauma of some kind. The most common cause was animals being hit by cars, followed by undefined trauma and predation by another animal.
Most clinics examined and treated wildlife for free, with less than 10% receiving some kind of payment. These were usually made by wildlife rehabilitation groups or members of the public.
Due to the painful and serious nature of trauma, around a third of clinics reported euthanasia was the most common outcome for wildlife at their clinic. More positively, more than half indicated that wildlife were usually passed onto wildlife rehabilitators, suggesting this is the most common outcome.
Almost three quarters of veterinary clinics said they only saw wildlife when they had spare time. This is concerning, as delays to treatment raises serious animal welfare concerns.
Additionally, many veterinary clinics indicated they felt a lack of time, knowledge and skills interfered with their ability to treat wildlife.
As veterinary clinics are small businesses, wildlife present a conundrum. They are not owned (although technically they are owned by the Crown), expect treatment with no payment and don’t look like the usual pets seen by most vets. With clinics full of paying clients expecting prompt treatment, it can be hard to prioritise wildlife.
So what is the solution?
Ideally, either the state or federal government would take financial responsibility for wildlife. The federal government does pay for some wildlife treatment at private veterinary clinics, but this is part of a biosecurity monitoring scheme and isn’t open to most clinics.
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Donations from the public to treat wildlife would also likely be welcomed. However, help can come in other ways. One large clinic in Sydney is trialling an in-house wildlife carer, who would triage wildlife and take responsibility for ensuring wildlife are prioritised. Appointing a “wildlife champion” in a clinic is another option, where an interested vet or nurse is designated the “go to” person for wildlife cases.
Some animals aren’t actually injured, such as fledgling birds which are learning to fly, and others (such as goannas) can be dangerous, so be sure to seek advice before approaching wildlife. If you don’t know who your local wildlife care group is, type into a search engine “wildlife carer” to locate one near you.
Armed with advice from a wildlife carer, ensure you don’t put yourself in a risky situation to rescue wildlife. Take care around busy roads, use a barrier between yourself and the injured animal (such as a towel or welding gloves) and avoid the bitey end! Wildlife are inherently fearful of people, which means they might attack if scared.
You don’t want an injured animal to escape in your car on the way to the vet. If the injured animal is a bird, small reptile or baby marsupial, a cardboard box with air holes and lined with a towel makes a good transport container. Don’t offer wildlife food, as they have very special diets and digestive systems.
When you get to the vet, ensure you provide detailed information on where you found the animal. If the animal is healthy enough to enter wildlife rehabilitation, the wildlife carers will need to release the animal as close as possible to the location where it was found. This is because many animals, such as possums, are fiercely territorial and often die if relocated outside their territory.
Ultimately, many injured wild animals cannot be saved and will be euthanased after being dropped off at a veterinary clinic. This is not a bad outcome. Wildlife aren’t pets – they need to be fit to survive if they are ever going to have a chance in the wild. Injuries such as a badly broken wing or losing an eye would condemn wildlife upon release to starvation or predation.
It is much kinder to humanely euthanase injured wildlife which have no chance of survival rather than let them suffer a prolonged death in the wild. Even if the animal you drop off at the vet is ultimately euthansed, you have still saved it from prolonged suffering.
It was my intention to return to Blogging today, however, I have had a significant accident at work today involving a ladder, height and a terrific fall – so I am very sore and incapacitated to a degree with some severely injured (typing) fingers (among a host of other injuries, including head injuries). Hopefully I can get back to Blogging sometime this week. Thanks all.