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Wildlife rehab crisis
spreading province-wide

by Sheri-Lynne Ljucovic

No pay. Piles of paperwork. Late nights. Strict rules of operation. Little thanks. Not exactly how most of us would want to spend our free time. But for the one hundred licensed wildlife custodians in Ontario, it's their love of animals and desire to give back to their communities that compel them to do this hands-on and satisfying work.

These volunteers offer a valuable service by providing wildlife rehabilitation across Ontario. They take in wild animals that are believed to be unable to survive in their natural habitat, because they are injured, sick or orphaned, and provide them with the necessary care to facilitate their successful return to the wild in a socially acceptable and responsible manner.

However, new regulations being implemented by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) make "responsible" rehabilitation a contradiction of terms.

New regulations "unworkable"

Effective April 1, 2005 the MNR is launching new regulations and restrictions on wildlife custodians province-wide. Many of these changes have already been in place for Eastern Ontario, since the rabies scare in 2002. This has created a crisis for wildlife rehabilitation in that area, with some of the few wildlife custodians available turning in their licenses because they found the regulations "unworkable."

"Rehabilitation could not be carried out responsibly under the new rules," said Selena Walker, former wildlife custodian from Stittsville, ON. "These regulations do not meet international standards for wildlife rehab."

The proposed "improvements" include:

  • New standards of care: to help limit the spread of disease from animals to humans and other wildlife; to help ensure the humane treatment of wildlife and reduce the chance that rehabilitated animals will become "nuisance wildlife" when released.

  • New minimum competency levels for new wildlife custodian applicants.

  • Extra training required by custodians to care for rabies carrier species (foxes, raccoons and skunks) within a rabies high-risk area.

  • Extending the release distance for young, non-rabies carrying wildlife.

At a glance, these regulations sound reasonable and look impressive on a media release. However, put into practice, many of them would do more harm than good.

On Feb. 3, 2005, Tom Cumby, Wildlife Services Coordinator at the MNR, met with a handful of individuals to discuss the proposed changes and feedback received. "We went over what parts were good (i.e., extra training) and what needs to be tweaked (i.e., release restrictions)."

The Ontario Wildlife Coalition, comprised of more than 75 wildlife rehabilitation groups, as well as environmental and animal welfare organizations, have the following concerns with the proposed regulations:

  1. The one-kilometre and five-kilometre release restrictions for orphaned wildlife prevent responsible and humane wildlife rehabilitation. Such restrictive release criteria do not meet proven international standards, and by the Ministry's own admission, there is no science to justify such stringent requirements.

  2. Release restrictions will prevent the critical final phase of wildlife rehabilitation, since many species require a "soft release" with transitional care provided at the release site

  3. It prevents foster care families from raising orphans in their homes-thus eliminating an integral component of wildlife rehabilitation.

  4. The proposed 50-kilometre intake radius is also problematic. Ontario is not so fortunate as to have wildlife care facilities in every city, let alone spaced every 50 kilometres across the landscape. Suppose a family on the way home from the cottage finds a dead mother raccoon with orphaned babies. They rescue the infants, drive home and deliver them to the nearest rehabilitation centre. The centre would be unable to admit the orphans and would be forced to inform the rescuers that euthanasia is their only option.

  5. The April implementation date is also not acceptable. Rehabilitators need to know the ground rules in January and February to plan for the spring, summer and fall rehabilitation season. By April, most rehabilitators will already have accepted animals into their care.

Hurting orphan rehab

With those orphaned babies in mind, the limitations being imposed on the acceptance, care and release of these and other animals just doesn't make sense.

Any single orphan would have to be raised alone in violation of international and humane standards, creating habituated "pets" that are dependent on humans-the utter antithesis to proper wildlife rehabilitation.

"We get more orphans than injured wildlife to care for," said Debbie Dumelie-Beacon of the Beacon of Light Animal Rescue, who has been involved in wildlife rehab for over 20 years. "And it's a five to six month commitment caring for orphaned raccoons before they can be released into the wild."

"So, after all this care, money and time are spent on these animals, it is illogical to release orphans within an unsuitable environment-whether it's one kilometre or five kilometres from where they were found," said Walker.

While it is fully accepted that adult wildlife should be returned to their familiar territory, orphaned wildlife have no established territory as they are still within the nest or den when rescued. And the majority become orphans as a result of the adult mother having been trapped and relocated, or killed on a busy road. Putting young animals, after months of rehabilitative care, back into these situations would be irresponsible, giving them no chance of survival.

Cutting volunteer help and available care

Given the few they are able to save, "and we can't save all of them," said Mary Catharine Kuruziak of the Niagara Wildlife Haven, the restrictions now being placed on volunteers will also greatly affect the number of wildlife being cared for.

Wildlife custodians used to increase the number of animals they rescued by finding homes with foster care families. Volunteers would be given detailed instructions on the feeding and handling of the wildlife. "Volunteer hands are an extension of our hands," said Kuruziak.

Under these new conditions, volunteers will still be able to help with wildlife, but only at the custodian's location. This means that the wildlife custodian can only accept a limited number of animals into their care, based on available space. "So when we're full, we're full," said Kuruziak.

After that, animals will have to be turned away and left to starve, suffer or be euthanized. However, a caring public will not find those options agreeable, leading to a growing number of untrained, but well-intentioned people taking wildlife into their own homes. Yet compassion alone is not enough. These people will not know proper dietary, housing and handling requirements, how to prevent animal deaths or how to protect themselves from diseases. This is exactly the situation that the government is trying to stamp out with these regulations-the so-called "backyard rehabbers."

In fact, it is illegal to have a wild animal in your care or to raise them yourself. Wildlife custodians are authorized under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act; not abiding by these laws is an offence.

"The courts deal with these offences differently," said Cumby. The act does have a non-commercial fine set at $25,000, "but no one will be slapped with a huge fine."

Not enough custodians

So these animals must be handed over to a licensed wildlife custodian-but there just aren't enough custodians to meet demand. To fill this gap, one option is to encourage "current foster care providers to become authorized wildlife custodians," said Beacon. "Yet to be honest, under these new regulations, I see even more custodians turning in their licenses."

The MNR also provides no funds or resources to rehabilitators, so most custodians work out of their own homes, hoping for small donations. "And there is some cost to the training required, but it also shows a level of commitment," said Kuruziak.

In the meantime, this will continue to create problems for individuals seeking assistance, as well as for those they now turn to for help-Ontario's humane societies and veterinarians. These groups are unable to provide assistance for wildlife and should not be expected to. These groups are dedicated to saving lives, but have been placed in the appalling position of having to euthanize healthy animals.

Protests falling on deaf ears

The proposed regulations will affect many groups, as well as the wildlife they are trying to protect. It's already been the case in Eastern Ontario. And in spite of two years of strong public protest, during which time the Ontario Liberals (while in Opposition) presented petitions from 9,000 residents in 260 communities demanding changes, these new regulations introduced by the McGuinty Liberals, in fact, make matters worse. And it makes them province-wide.

Another concern is the timing and handling of this process. It was done, "just a week before Christmas, with little time for public comment, without consultation with the majority of wildlife rehabilitators, and with parliament conveniently recessed until March 2005," said Barry MacKay, Canadian representative for the Animal Protection Institute in a release. As a result, there was no political opposition available to argue this highly contentious issue, and it left the public very little time to learn of it and add their voices to the protest.

Situation needs to be resolved

As humans continue to expand into and destroy wildlife habitat, conflict between humans and wildlife will grow. And when humans and wildlife collide, it's the wildlife that suffers. Rehabilitation gives these animals a second chance to live free in their natural habitat.

It seems everyone involved needs to pause, take a step back and find a way to make regulations governing wildlife rehabilitation work for the benefit of all-wildlife included. This issue is far from being resolved.

Ontario must simply adopt the standards governing wildlife rehabilitation care and release that prevail throughout North America: Orphaned wildlife should be raised with others of their own species to learn proper con-specific social behaviours. The group should then be released in appropriate natural areas, with transitional care for those species that require it, generally within the city or county of origin.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 49, Spring 2005. Copyright Sheri-Lynne Ljucovic.



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