Wildlife are not pets: Responsible treatment of wildlife

It’s a fairly safe assumption that supporters of the JSPCA would describe themselves as animal-lovers. The same is true for JSPCA staff, whether their specific role brings them into direct daily contact with animals or not. We all care passionately about the animals we have the privilege of looking after, be they domestic pets or wildlife. But how does love for animals actually translate into how we treat them?

Pet owners know that the unique bond they have with their pet informs how they care for them and inspires them to make the best decisions for their welfare. When a loved pet sadly comes to the end of its life, deciding whether euthanasia is the kindest option is made by considering its welfare and quality of life, i.e. does it have a life worth living? The criteria we use to make the decision for euthanasia in wildlife is the same : is their welfare poor with no hope of improvement and, if they survived the presenting injury or illness, would they have a life worth living? However, in contrast to pets, the parameters that are required for a good quality of life can be very different (and species-specific) and this can lead to decisions on euthanasia that may be hard for pet-owners to understand.

As a licensed animal sanctuary, we work within the Jersey Wildlife Law to treat, rehabilitate and release wildlife, and treatment of sick/injured and orphaned wildlife comes under the JSPCA ‘3 Ps’ (prevent cruelty, promote knowledge, and provide for the aged, sick, lost and unwanted animals of Jersey). In addition, vets have an oath to prevent and alleviate animal suffering. As prolonged periods of time in captivity will negatively affect the welfare of most wildlife, and releasing an animal that cannot fend for itself will cause suffering, the challenge we face on a daily basis is that of making timely decisions as to whether an animal can be successfully rehabilitated and released. It can be difficult to predict absolutely which animals are going to make it: we can use certain evidence-based criteria, for example where a fracture occurs near to a joint in a bird’s wing, it is unlikely to fly successfully again once the fracture has healed, but often it is down to experience. Being a busy wildlife centre, our staff have gained valuable experience over the years from seeing many similar cases.

When sick or injured wildlife first comes in to the JSPCA, the following factor into decision-making on whether to treat or humanely euthanase: the nature of the injury/illness, the species and the overall condition of the animal. Some examples below illustrate this:

Myxomatosis in rabbits – unfortunately this viral disease, spread by fleas, is not survivable and rabbits that come in to us are usually extremely emaciated and suffering from advanced pneumonia and blindness. Swift euthanasia is the kindest and only option for these animals.

Grounded birds – with the exception of fresh injuries, grounded birds have usually been down for some time and can be debilitated and weak. Often the only reason they can be picked up is because they are so poorly. We take into account the bird’s weight or condition score, underlying cause of grounding and likelihood of rehabilitation before deciding if treatment or euthanasia is in the best interest of the bird. Here species is also very important: birds of prey, such as peregrines, sparrow hawks and kestrels rely on peak fitness in order to hunt and feed, and they can lose muscle mass very quickly when in captivity. Thus, any injury that will affect their ability to hunt, including any vision damage as well as damage to bones or flight feathers, may not be recoverable. Other species such as buzzards tend to rely on scavenging dead animals and so their flying fitness is not so critical.

Fledglings – over the years, JSPCA staff have become adept at hand-rearing baby birds from nestling age upwards. Great care is taken to ensure these birds do not become imprinted on humans as this will impact on their ability to be successfully released and to survive in the wild.

Orphaned small mammals – again, staff have a good success rate with rearing these to release, without imprinting.

As you can see, decision making on euthanasia and treatment of wildlife is based on much broader consideration than with pets and a good knowledge of species-specific requirements is paramount.

At the JSPCA, we constantly aim to improve our ability to assess, treat and rehabilitate wildlife, but euthanasia will always be something we need to consider to prevent suffering.