New fellowship educates veterinarians on working with injured wildlife

If someone brought an injured red-tailed hawk to your hospital but the bird was too far gone to save, and euthanasia was the only option to relieve his pain and suffering, would you know what regulatory agency to call for permission to end his life?

It’s a trick question.

Veterinarians don’t need permission to euthanize a wild animal in cases like that.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone, says Julia Ponder, DVM, MPH, executive director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota and an associate professor at the school’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

While teaching a seminar at Exoticscon 2018—a veterinary conference focused on exotic patients—Ponder was surprised to find that many of the veterinarians in the seminar didn’t know that they have the authority to euthanize a wild animal to relieve pain and suffering. A large percentage of the veterinarians in attendance thought they needed permission from some kind of wildlife regulatory agency.

But on reflection, Ponder realized that it only made sense: For most veterinarians, the issue rarely comes up. Veterinary schools focus was on learning to care for domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, and horses—which leaves a void in the area of treating wild animals.

A new fellowship administered by Ponder and sponsored by Partners for Wildlife (P4W)—which works hand-in-hand with wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians interested in wildlife rescue to improve the welfare of orphaned, ill, and injured wildlife of all species—aims to change that.

The year-long fellowship kicked off last month with a three-day intensive weekend at the Raptor Center. The program brought together three wildlife rehabilitators (often referred to as “rehabbers”) and three veterinarians from across the US. Led by a mixture of experts, interns, and representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the fellowship seeks to give veterinarians and rehabbers similar training so they can work together more efficiently.

Ponder says the whole point of wildlife rehabilitation is to treat an injured or otherwise incapacitated animal and return him to the wild—a goal that is “dictated by the regulations.”

The problem is that most veterinarians are commonly unaware of the regulations, laws, and rules regarding the handling of injured wildlife, Ponder says. (Recall the trick question above?)

For instance?

“[A] rehabber brings a bird to a veterinarian for treatment [and she] wants to save the bird, but amputation is necessary. The federal regulations say that you cannot amputate a foot, leg, or wing. Any bird who needs a foot amputation, leg amputation, wing amputation above the elbow, or is blind must be euthanized.” But there are exemptions to that. “And the exemption requires a signature by a veterinarian. The veterinarian can sign that exemption, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife [won’t pursue it].”

But under different circumstances, it might be more appropriate to euthanize. In either case, it’s the veterinarian’s call, not the rehabber’s. Which can make it tricky for the veterinarian. “In some situations they can act, and in others they might act and it’s inappropriate,” Ponder says. It’s a question of education, or lack of it, about caring for wildlife.

It’s a question that the P4W fellowship was created to help answer.

Sonnya Crawford, DVM, co-owner of Grays Harbor Veterinary Services in Montesano, Washington, is a fellow in this year’s inaugural program. Unlike most veterinarians, Crawford is also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Crawford started working with rehabbers in her area about twelve years ago. But after a few years, she decided to get a rehabilitator’s license herself. “Veterinarians are only allowed to hold the animal for three days if they triage it before it’s released back to the rehabilitator,” she explains. And in some cases, she wasn’t comfortable releasing an injured animal to a rehabber that soon. “So I went and got my rehabilitator license so I could continue caring for them.”

Crawford’s biggest takeaway from the kickoff weekend: “All the different variables, thoughts, and emotions that go into the decision [of whether] to euthanize or not.”

Crawford elaborates: “Our goal in rehabilitation is always to release the animal [back into the wild]. The goal is never to keep him in captivity for the rest of his life or make a pet of him.” But she says different rehabbers take different views. “There are some who think that every animal should be saved no matter what. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum that believes that the only animals [who should] be [saved and] released [are those] who can reproduce and hunt—and the rest should be euthanized.”

Crawford finds herself somewhere in the middle.

“I see euthanasia as a success, as a good thing,” she says, but only provided that veterinarians can euthanize an injured animal early on, “before they end up spending months in a cage while veterinarians and rehabbers try to fix something that can’t be fixed and ultimately end up euthanizing them anyway. But then there [are people at] the other extreme who see euthanasia as a complete failure and are emotionally devastated every time they have to euthanize an animal. And that’s going to cause a great deal of burnout.”

Crawford completely gets that feeling.

“As a veterinarian and [the leader of a staff], I have to be able to sit down with [staff] and explain to them why euthanizing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. [Veterinarians] don’t always realize how emotionally taxing that is to everybody on the team.”

Crawford’s hospital handles a relatively small number of wildlife rehabilitation cases, but she says there’s actually a huge need for wildlife rehabilitation in her area. The fellowship has been an unexpected blessing in that regard: part of her homework for the upcoming year is to do a project.

“My project is going to be to develop a business plan for a medium-size rehabilitation center and then implement that plan,” Crawford says. It could take two or three years to implement, “but I’m going to try and get a center going in our area.”

Photo credit: © iStock/Songayenovellg

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