Euthanatized animals can poison wildlife: Veterinarians receive fines

Published on January 01, 2002
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In 1999, a veterinarian and a rancher in Colorado were dismayed to find that they had accidentally killed five golden eagles and two bald eagles. The birds died after feeding on two mule carcasses that had been euthanatized with sodium pentobarbital. This substance can be poisonous to wildlife and remains potent in a carcass long after an animal dies.

Unfortunately, these deaths were not an isolated incident; many raptors have suffered the same fate. Dr. Richard Stroud, veterinary medical examiner for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in Ashland, Ore., says that his laboratory alone has identified 17 eagles that have died from pentobarbital poisoning in the past 10 years.

Kathryn Converse, PhD, a wildlife disease specialist at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., says that from 1986-2001, NWHC linked the deaths of 34 eagles to secondary pentobarbital poisoning.

In British Columbia, 26 bald eagles became ill, five fatally, after eating one euthanatized cow.

The poisonings, say many authorities, happen more often than we know and involve both large and small animal carcasses. They occur for various reasons, including people leaving carcasses in a field, burying dead animals in shallow graves, or leaving carcasses uncovered in landfills. Dr. Converse says most of the 34 deaths that were reported to NWHC involved carcasses that people had made a good faith effort to discard properly.

"Many of these were associated with landfills, involving pets and domestic animals that had been euthanatized and had not been covered following disposal in a landfill," she said. The incidents in one state led to policy changes in how frequently landfills were covered.

In many states, various laws require that an individual dispose of a dead animal within 24 hours. In Illinois, for example, the Dead Animal Disposal Act dictates this rule. "They can bury it on their own premises or take it to a landfill," explained Dr. David Bromwell, chief veterinarian of animal welfare for the state of Illinois. "A person who fails to do this has committed a class C felony."

But laws that dictate disposal procedures aren't the only laws that are broken if the improperly discarded animal causes harm to wildlife. The veterinarian and rancher involved in the 1999 Colorado case were each ordered to pay $10,000 for involuntarily killing the seven birds. These broad-winged fliers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Eagle Protection Act, and Endangered Species Act. Maximal fines for killing a bald eagle or another bird protected by the EPA or ESA can run as high as $100,000 for an individual and $200,000 for an organization. Fines for killing other migratory birds can run as high as $10,000. Whereas hefty monetary penalties are issued in some cases, other offenders are dealt with less harshly and are, instead, charged with educating the community about the potential risks. One veterinarian was told to write a letter to a veterinary journal, and his letter appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of JAVMA.

To avoid fines associated with secondary poisonings, individuals must make sure to dispose of a carcass in an appropriate manner. When an animal owner, such as a rancher, is responsible for disposal, a form, signed by a rancher, may help a veterinarian avoid legal culpability, says Neill Hartman, deputy assistant regional director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver.

"This could be some kind of document that a veterinarian would give to a rancher that would say, I am going to [euthanatize] your critters, and be aware it is your responsibility to properly dispose of them," Hartman said. "I would think that this would absolve the veterinarian of responsibility."

Animal caregivers can also turn to the National Euthanasia Registry, a nongovernmental registry newly created and administered by the Raptor Education Foundation. This nonprofit environmental organization provides veterinarians with a three-part form that educates their clients about the potential for secondary poisonings and responsibilities of disposal. The form, signed by veterinarian and client, becomes a legal document that provides proof a veterinarian acted responsibly and informed the client to dispose of the animal.

In the Colorado case, $18,000 of the fines went to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a federally authorized nonprofit set up to manage and disperse money gathered from environmental fines. This money has been earmarked to educate veterinarians about the risks of secondary wildlife deaths from euthanasia agents.

According to Don Glaser, regional director for the intermountain west region for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the money has been collected, and preliminary discussions with Fish and Wildlife Service staff are under way to determine how to use the funds. Possibilities include supporting the National Euthanasia Registry, developing an educational CD or video to distribute to veterinarians, and paying experts to write articles and raise awareness. As of press time, Glaser hoped to finalize a strategy for using the money and implement the strategy in 2002.