A raptor's reach

Defining and promoting wild animal welfare

BY CAROLYN BERNHARDT

eagle illustration Half a million wild animals are seen by passionate, engaged rehabilitators each year in the United States. While rehabilitation centers might be staffed with plenty of volunteers, their expertise and resources vary. The result? Dissimilar perceptions of what animal welfare really means and different approaches in striving to achieve it.

The world-renowned Raptor Center (TRC) has secured funding for a major three-year initiative, providing the opportunity to raise the bar for wildlife rehabilitation care across all species. The program is being designed and implemented by The Raptor Center with hopes of improving animal welfare in wildlife rehabilitation. TRC plans to use its 40 years of experience to strategically build community among rehabilitation centers. It will begin with pilot efforts in seven states.

Natural pathfinders

“When I first started my career, wildlife veterinarians talked a lot about umbrella species,” recalls Julia Ponder, DVM, MPH, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and executive director of The Raptor Center. “If we saved the top of the food chain, then everything under it would be saved. Later, we figured out that was a model that didn’t work—we could save the umbrella and there could still be animals underneath it that could become endangered or extinct.”

Scientists now understand that, especially in ecotoxicology, those top-of-the-food-chain predators—such as raptors—reflect what is happening beneath them. And a raptor’s ability to captivate the public eye helps spread awareness and passion for Preservation.

“Raptors are such high-profile animals,” says Ponder. “So much of wildlife rehabilitation is about outreach. Having a great poster child that is very easy to use as the example is key.” So not only do raptors play a key scientific role in making clear the state of the environment around us, they also can easily capture public attention.

Since raptors make great educators of ecological and environmental issues, perhaps the same can be said for The Raptor Center itself, considering the fact that TRC has helped make Minnesota a long-standing headquarters for quality raptor rehabilitation, medical and surgical care, and education. In so doing, faculty and staff at The Raptor Center couldn’t help but notice a need for grassroots support to help self-taught and self-funded rehabilitation centers improve animal welfare conditions. TRC and its ambassadors can only do so much for improving animal health and safety on their own because when wildlife rehabilitation peers face financial and resource-related obstacles, outreach is limited.

But the project is designed for all species. “Raptors are just a piece of it,” says Ponder. “We are applying our framework and helping to start the conversation and put in a structure that will benefit wildlife.”

Identifying dissonance

Some centers will err on the side of placing a bird in education rather than euthanizing, even when the animal experiences chronic pain or cannot adjust to human interaction. This lifetime of discomfort is only debatably better than euthanization. In the view of TRC, all species would benefit from wildlife rehabilitation centers agreeing on a set of priorities for animal care.

Another disconnect exists between veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitation centers. While most wildlife rehabilitation centers are required by law to have a veterinarian of record, the relationship between them exists on a sliding scale— some centers have an engaged relationship with their veterinarian, some a nonexistent one. An absent veterinarian of record can lead to wildlife rehabilitators making ill-informed decisions in an effort to problem solve, which can result in unhealthy outcomes for patients.

Ponder says the variance in veterinarian engagement results from veterinarians not fully understanding what their obligations are going to be, or vets lacking the expertise to competently and confidently guide a center’s care practices.

“Today’s students want to work with wildlife rehabbers; they want to include this as part of their professional life when they graduate,” says Ponder. But creating a clinical wildlife veterinarian workforce has proven to be a third obstacle for quality wildlife animal welfare. “When students graduate, reality sets in—they may work for someone who does not allow them to do pro bono work, they may not have time to do pro bono work, or they may not have the expertise required. Whatever the reason, the passion from vet school disappears and we want to figure that out.”

Closing the chasm

“The project presents a three-pronged approach,” says Ponder. “We will work directly with wildlife rehabbers; we’re working to build more community within clinical wildlife veterinarian medicine and wildlife rehab; and we will help train new clinical wildlife veterinarians.”

The mentoring part of the project will give The Raptor Center a chance to measure the needs of its fellow wildlife rehabbers. As TRC works with each center to analyze its capacity to provide care, it will strategize opportunities for improvements and upgrades. This, in turn, will make TRC a resource to wildlife rehabbers across the country while also standardizing approach among centers.

The project also aims to make communication between veterinarians and rehabilitators more of a habit among the clinical wildlife rehabilitation community. Each of the three years the grant is in effect, three wildlife rehabilitators and three general practice veterinarians will be named to the fellowship program.animal illustrations“We are creating a community where they can interact routinely and develop partnerships,” says Ponder.

These 18 fellowship recipients will start off their position by being trained in by TRC’s staff and colleagues. Throughout their fellowship, they will remain in touch with TRC about hurdles they are facing in their centers and be encouraged to work closely with their rehabilitator or veterinarian counterparts to find solutions. At the end, veterinarians and rehabilitators will pair up to build a proposal intended to improve or inform animal welfare.

The third arm of the project will infuse clinical wildlife rehabilitation centers with more qualified staff in order to build each center’s capacity to care for animals. The Raptor Center has created a new veterinary internship program, which will provide already-passionate veterinary students with the opportunity to receive nuanced training that they would otherwise lack. The hope is that these interns will grow into mentors for future veterinarians with an interest in clinical wildlife veterinary medicine.

In bringing passionate people together, working toward a common set of objectives, it is TRC’s hope that awareness and understanding will spread. This model has acted as the backbone for The Raptor Center for decades, as the center has used public education and veterinarian training to further improve the lives of raptors and the environment.

“This project is mission-driven because our mission is not just about us; it’s about leveraging our knowledge to help wildlife,” says Ponder. “Built into this program are various ways of trying to change the world of wildlife rehabilitation—by improving it, and by using new tools to educate people.”

TRC’s new funding will improve wildlife rehabilitation in those seven pilot states, helping animal welfare soar a little higher.

Illustrations by Hairun Li