Wildlife - to treat or not to treat ...
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Wildlife - to treat or not to treat ...

Wildlife - to treat or not to treat ...

As vets, we are regularly presented with wildlife casualties which we have an obligation to treat, if only for the prevention of unnecessary suffering, which can mean immediate euthanasia. Very quickly, we not only have to determine what has actually happened to that animal, but we also then have to assess how likely it will be that it can be successfully released back to the wild such that it has a good chance of surviving naturally.

Unfortunately, for a wild animal to have been caught and presented to a vet in the first place, something catastrophic has almost certainly happened to that animal. The last thing a wild animal will willingly do is be caught by a human. Even though they may look uninjured on the outside, something major has occurred to prevent them escaping before they were captured.

Nature is often a very cruel beast. Most wild animals are living on a knife edge. They need to be able to evade predators but also to be able to find enough food to survive. If they cannot do either of these, then they will not be fit to be released because they will be easy prey for a predator or they will be likely to die a long slow death from starvation.

Most wildlife casualties fall into one of two categories: natural casualties and man-made casualties.

Natural casualties are those which occur naturally such as disease or injuries caused by predators or others of their own species. It can be argued that we should not always interfere in these processes as they are part of nature. Take, for instance, foxes with mange or pigeons with trichomonas infection (a parasite that infests the throat and eventually kills the bird). These are both naturally occurring diseases which we have the drugs to be able to cure. The dilemma we face is, should we treat these animals? Yes, we can cure them …. this time, but as soon as we release them, they may catch exactly the same diseases (treatment does not confer immunity) and die long slow deaths, but just not where we can see them.

Man-made casualties are those where man’s activities have caused the casualty, either directly or indirectly. Examples could include road traffic accidents, being shot, destruction of habitat or being attacked by cats or dogs (unnatural predators introduced by man). There is a stronger argument here to do as much as we can to treat these sort of casualties because man has interfered with nature and is upsetting the balance of natural selection. Before these animals encountered the human cause of their injuries, they were almost certainly fit and healthy so, if we can get them back to that state, then the aim must be to do so, or at least to a state where we are sure they can survive naturally.

It is a horrible thing to have to euthanise an animal - any animal - but it is an important part of a vet’s job. If we cannot return a wildlife casualty to a fit state (either because the injuries are too severe, or the recovery period would prove too stressful for that species, or there simply aren’t enough suitable rehabilitation places at wildlife hospitals such as Brent Lodge, or the costs of doing so are too great), then euthanasia has to be performed to prevent unnecessary suffering.

Sadly, bearing in mind the original fact that for a wildlife casualty to have managed to be caught in the first place, something disastrous must already have happened to it, statistically speaking, around 65% of all wildlife casualties are euthanised. Only 35% can be saved and released safely back to the wild.

At AlphaPet, we work very closely with Brent Lodge Wildlife Hospital and have many years experience of treating, rehabilitating and, sadly, euthanising, wildlife patients. Our over-riding obligation for those we manage to save and release is that we KNOW they are fit for release and WILL be able to compete and survive in the wild.

It was therefore interesting to read on the BBC last week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-west-wales-34541454) about the very laudable efforts of RSPB volunteers to rescue gannets that had become entangled in fishing nets on Grassholm Island in Pembrokeshire. An RSPB warden, Lisa Morgan, was quoted as saying “If we left them here, they would simply starve to death.” She reported that two of the rescued birds had to have a leg amputated because the damage caused by the rope was so severe. Mrs Morgan then said “We don't know whether gannets are able to survive in the wild with only one leg, but at least we are giving them a second chance.” So, were these two birds fit for release or were they simply saved from the fishing nets just to be thrown back to the wild to starve to death because they cannot survive with only one leg? Who knows? Most likely they will die slowly, out of sight of humans, so maybe that makes it alright? We don’t have to watch their suffering or take the decision to euthanise.

In law, an offence may be committed under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 if a released animal does not have a reasonable chance of survival.

So, the next time you find a wildlife casualty, please spare a thought for the very difficult, and often heart-breaking, decisions we vets and centres like Brent Lodge have to make every day. We will always treat those which have a reasonable chance of returning fit animals to the wild, but we will not release an animal back to the wild where we feel there is a significant chance they will simply be condemned to starving to death out of our sight or be easy prey for a predator.