Hungry orphan songbirds. Owls and hawks with broken wings. Squirrels in nests that fell during stormy weather. Homeless young opossums and raccoons.
All these animals found refuge recently at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in suburban Chicago. Any of them could have shown up at a local veterinary clinic.
Practitioners should note that laws and regulations govern the possession and rehabilitation of wildlife. The rules differ from state to state and species to species. Legally, a practitioner usually can stabilize a wild animal before locating a rehabilitator or rehabilitation center with the appropriate permits to care for the animal.
But handling wildlife is challenging, even for brief periods. Practitioners can turn to government authorities, wildlife veterinarians, and rehabilitators for guidance on legalities and other considerations.
Eliza Savage, a regulatory analyst with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said federal rehabilitation permits primarily cover migratory birds and endangered species.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the possession, without a permit, of the migratory birds that fall under four international treaties. In 2003, the USFWS created a rehabilitation permit specifically for these birds. The rule established an exemption allowing veterinarians to accept migratory birds from the public.
"We knew that your typical person who finds an injured bird doesn't know what to do with it," Savage said.
Within 24 hours of stabilizing a migratory bird, a veterinarian in private practice must find a rehabilitator or rehabilitation center with the appropriate permits. Veterinarians must notify the local USFWS Ecological Services Offices upon receiving threatened or endangered species.
Veterinarians also may euthanize migratory birds, but they must keep records for five years of birds that die in their care—including the species, injury, date of acquisition, date of death, and whether the veterinarian euthanized the bird.
Savage said the international treaties cover most of the birds in the United States, except for nonnative species such as starlings. Native birds that don't migrate, such as wild turkeys, tend to fall under state laws regarding natural resources.
"Some states don't have any laws at all about possessing birds, and some have very strict laws," Savage said.
State laws also can govern the possession of wildlife other than birds. Savage said every state has a department of natural resources, department of game and fish, or similar agency that can offer information about the state's laws on wildlife.
To find a rehabilitator, Savage suggested Web sites from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. Information is available at www.nwrawildlife.org, under Need Help?—Finding a Rehabilitator, and at www.wildlife-international.org, under Emergency.
Handling wild birds
Dr. Sallie Welte treats wild birds as clinic director for Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Del., where she works under the organization's federal wildlife rehabilitation permit. She said practitioners who receive wild birds must take into account ethical, practical, and medical considerations.
"Wild birds are wild and, with rare exceptions, need to stay that way," she said. "Respect for their wild nature affects everything that you do in their care."
Dr. Welte said minimizing stress is important when caring for wildlife. So is remembering that wild animals can carry diseases of concern to other patients and staff. She suggested placing wild birds in a warm, low-traffic area away from cats, dogs, people, other predators, and domestic or exotic birds.
Housing with solid sides, such as a cardboard box, protects the feathers of birds and provides a sense of security. Draping the front of a cage with a sheet or towel also can reduce stress. Nestling songbirds may need a nest cup, such as a margarine tub lined with coiled paper towels. Birds capable of perching need appropriately sized perches. Very young or sick birds require thermal support.
Feeding wild birds can be difficult, as dietary needs vary by age and species. Young songbirds require a high-protein meal as often as every 20 minutes during the day. While cat food may serve as a short-term diet for some songbirds, it does not meet their long-term nutritional needs.
For a bird with injuries, veterinarians must be realistic about their ability to return the animal to full function. Euthanasia is sometimes the most humane option.
"It is very unlikely that a kestrel, a small hawk that hunts small prey while hovering in the air, will fully recover from a shattered carpus," Dr. Welte said.
For a bird that has a chance of recovery, veterinarians should transfer the animal to a rehabilitator as soon as possible. In the common case of birds that fall from a nest, Dr. Welte said, practitioners can consult rehabilitators to provide information to clients about when and how to intervene.
"The rehabilitator and the veterinarian bring different skill sets and knowledge to the table," she said. "By working together, the best possible outcome is determined for the birds."
Handling wild animals
Dr. Karen Shenoy treats a variety of wild animals, not only birds, as a staff veterinarian at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities area.
Dr. Shenoy's first piece of advice for practitioners who receive a wild animal is: "Put your own safety first—and the safety of the other patients in the clinic."
How to proceed depends on the location of the clinic, in terms of local rules and local resources. Minnesota veterinarians can possess a wild animal that falls under state laws for 48 hours before transferring it to a rehabilitator. Around the Twin Cities, veterinarians can transfer an animal to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center right away.
In areas without a wildlife center, the veterinarian might want to treat the animal. Dr. Shenoy said practitioners should consider their experience and equipment in deciding how to handle an animal.
In Minnesota, rehabilitation permits reflect the difficulty of different situations. The novice permit is for raising healthy songbirds, rabbits, and rodents. A general permit is for rehabilitating wildlife except big game and large birds of prey. The master permit is for rehabilitating wildlife except big game and endangered species. Special provisions cover deer, bears, and endangered species.
"Minnesota is one of the states that is pretty forward in wildlife rehabilitation," Dr. Shenoy said, adding that some states are still establishing permit systems.
Dr. Shenoy mentioned that the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center began in 1979 as a student group at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. She gives lectures to veterinary students at the college on basic wildlife medicine and rehabilitation. Some other veterinary colleges offer similar lectures for students. Veterinarians with the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, including Dr. Shenoy, also visit veterinary colleges to offer the NWRA Wildlife Medicine Course.
Interest in wildlife medicine seems to be increasing among veterinary students, Dr. Shenoy said, but the typical clinic is not the ideal place for wildlife. When possible, she said, the best approach might be to send people who bring in wild animals directly to a nearby rehabilitator.
"The basic take-home message is know who you can refer people to," she said.
The Willowbrook Wildlife Center near Chicago illustrates activities at a large-scale rehabilitation facility.
"We do spend a lot of time educating the public," said Rose Augustine, a wildlife keeper at the center. "We don't take in healthy animals if they're not truly orphaned."
In the receiving area, the staff starts a chart for each animal by questioning the person who brought it in. Then the animal goes into a triage area. The facility includes a surgery room and intensive care unit, and a staff veterinarian and veterinarian volunteers determine the course of treatment.
One nursery at Willowbrook recently was home to litters of squirrels and opossums. Staff and volunteers feed the young mammals by hand three to four times every day. The kitchen is next door. Across the hall is a room for birds of prey, such as owls and hawks, where they won't stress prey animals.
In a nursery for older mammals, a young raccoon was crying for attention. Augustine said caretakers try to minimize the animals' habituation to people. The center maintains outdoor cages for prerelease conditioning.
Songbirds and rabbits stay in another building, often inside wooden boxes, because of their susceptibility to stress. All the birds go through a graduation process, moving from smaller to larger cages, just like the mammals.
The caretakers range from a former zookeeper to bank tellers. Augustine studied biology in college, and she fell in love with wildlife rehabilitation during her summer job at the center.
"It's a matter of knowing your animals and knowing your natural history," Augustine said. "We don't have a degree for what we do, but we spend a lot of time working with other people and learning what we can do better."
Because rehabilitators consult veterinarians for medical expertise, Augustine said, a good way for practitioners to work with wildlife is to volunteer with a rehabilitator.
Dr. David Jessup, past president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, noted that rehabilitation of common or nonnative species can be controversial among wildlife veterinarians who manage populations of sensitive species.
"We tend to weigh what's good for the population over what's good for the individual," said Dr. Jessup, senior veterinarian at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center through the California Department of Fish and Game.
Many AAWV members do rehabilitate wild animals, though, particularly as part of conservation or recovery programs. Some wildlife rehabilitation centers try to integrate with conservation and recovery programs, often by focusing on specific populations such as marine mammals.
While rehabilitators revel in releasing individual animals back into the wild, programs that reintroduce wildlife to native habitats also are seeing some successes. Yet, urban sprawl is expanding the domain of people and domestic animals. The interaction of nature and civilization continues to result in injury and illness for many species—and the involvement of many veterinarians.