Caring for injured wildlife – introduction
At nearly all times of the year vets and wildlife carers are inundated with injured wildlife. Although there is a steady flow of these patients all year round, spring and summer really see a boom in numbers as animals breed and their offspring are presented. Animals are presented with problems ranging from life-threatening injuries following a collision with a motor vehicle through to well-meaning people “rescuing” baby birds learning to fly.
The initial point of contact for these wild animals with people is usually you – the general public; the people who stop their cars to help an animal on the road, or rescue a bird from their cat or out of their swimming pool. The ultimate aim of caring for wild animals is their successful rehabilitation and subsequent release. This achievement of this aim starts with the rescuer, that is – you.
What do I do when I find an injured animal?
The first thing to try and assess is whether the animal is in fact injured. If it is a young animal (but not obviously an unweaned young chick or joey) and is not injured, it will probably have a better chance of survival being left where it is and letting the parents look after it. Obviously, if it is somewhere where it is likely to be killed or injured, you will need to move it to a place of safety.
If you decide you will need to remove it from where you have found it, the next thing is to try and identify it. If you can’t identify it, at least think about the most likely way that it can hurt you! For example, a hawk or an eagle will do more damage with its talons than its beak, while a parrot is just the opposite. Waterbirds with long beaks can easily poke your eye out (and they will try to) while honeyeaters can cause incredible pain with their claws. Use a towel or something similar to carefully envelop the bird and place it in a box.
Next, note exactly where you have found it. Many native animals are very territorial, and if not released back into their own territory they are often killed as intruders.
Lastly, seek professional advice for the animal. The local National Parks and Wildlife office may be able to put you in contact with wildlife carers or a vet who will help you. Local animal refuges will often take wildlife on a short term.
Some issues about injured wildlife
Why is the animal injured or sick? Many times we see wildlife that is sick or injured because of the effect man has had on their environment. These animals deserve our help as much as possible. But sometimes Nature is just taking them out of the gene pool. This has to be considered as a selection mechanism, and to treat and release these individuals may actually be to the detriment of the species as a whole.
Whose responsibility is this animal? Wildlife is the responsibility of the community as a whole. National Parks and Wildlife, although responsible for the environment and the species as a whole, has no chartered responsibility for individual animals (although most if not all rangers will do everything they can to assist). Vets and wildlife carers, although equipped with more skills and experience than the general public, have no more responsibility for wildlife than anyone else they just take it on out of a love for animals and wildlife in particular. So the answer really is if you rescued it, it is your responsibility until you can find someone willing to take it on. No one else is ‘obliged’ to care for a wild animal. It’s just that many people will do it for you – don’t abuse their generosity.
Should this animal be released? One of the issues surrounding wildlife care is “should a particular animal be released?” Sometimes the answer is NO. For example, a lorikeet with Beak and Feather Disease may appear to have recovered, but continues to act as a source of infection. Such a bird, released back into the wild, will do more harm than good. So sometimes the hard decision has to be made to euthanase a bird rather than release it. Please accept this decision; it is not made lightly.
I want to keep this bird as a pet. Can I? No. You will need to check with your local National Parks and Wildlife office to obtain a permit to care for the bird until it is fit for release. But it is highly unlikely that you would be able to keep it permanently. It is unfair, and probably cruel, to confine a bird that has been free and wild. The bird’s best interests have to be served, not yours! Sometimes a decision is made to keep a bird in captivity e.g. baby birds that have imprinted on people, but such decisions are made on a case by case basis, and you should never assume that you can keep a wild bird as a pet.
Caring for a wild animal at home
Occasionally you will find a wild animal that needs minimal treatment and can be cared for at home. Wildlife carers are the best people to do this, but even they had to get experience somewhere! There are a few simple rules to follow:
- identify the animal, and research its normal habits and diet. I have seen people offer hawks bread, or lorikeets seed, or Frogmouths dog biscuits. You need to feed the bird as close a natural diet as possible
- make sure the animal is actually eating and drinking. More than one wild animal has starved to death in captivity because it didn’t recognise what was been offered as food
- don’t try to make a pet of the animal. Minimise the time you spend with it, don’t allow it to imprint on people
- reduce stress on the animal eg don’t put it somewhere the cat can sit and watch it, or put it in a cage next to a predator. Keep it warm and quiet
- make sure the animal is getting any treatment that may have been prescribed by a vet. Keep the vet informed on the patient’s progress – one of our biggest gripes is that I treat hundreds of wild animals, but we rarely find out how they went once a carer takes them home!
- talk to experienced carers and vets about releasing the animal. An animal that has been in a cage for several weeks will lose its natural fitness, and may die quickly once released. It can take a few weeks to build up a animal’s fitness prior to release.
Caring for injured wildlife and the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery
At the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery, we ask finders of wildlife for a $10 contribution towards the costs of caring for the animal. While it may be the only wild animal you have found that day/week/month, it may be the 5th or 10th wild animal we have seen that day. Each year the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery spends between $15,000 and $20,000 treating wildlife with no government or private support given. Please note:
- Please ring first to see if the clinic is open; we do not come in to the Surgery after-hours for wildlife cases
- We cannot come to you and pick up the animal. If you cannot bring it in, please ring 1300 ANIMAL (1300 264625) The ambulance may be able to bring it in
- We cannot call you back with an update; we will not have time to call back on every wildlife case that comes in the door. Feel free to ring us back later the same day if you want to know how things went.
These may seem like common sense suggestions but every one of these rules has been broken many times. We have been abused for not coming out at midnight to pick up a bird, criticized for not operating on badly injured animals at our own expense, asked about a animal we treated over a year ago, and so on. A little common sense and courtesy makes it easier for everyone!
Caring for injured or orphaned wild animals can be fun and rewarding. There is a lot to be learnt, and we can all feel that we are making a contribution to our environment. But it is not all hugs and kisses there are procedures to follow, things to be done, and sometimes hard decisions to be taken. But at the end of the day watching a wild animal be released back into its environment and take its place can make it all worthwhile.
And we would like to take this opportunity to praise another group of unpaid, unsung volunteers in our society – the wildlife carers. As vets, we could not do our job of caring for our native animals without these wonderful people. Thank you from all of us!