Sentient advocates for evidence-based wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. This document outlines Sentient’s position on responsible native wild animal care in the context of rescue, rehabilitation and potential release.
For the purposes of this document, the terms ‘wildlife carer’, ‘rehabilitator’ and ‘rescuer’ refer to any person engaged in managing sick and injured native animals in the short or long-term either on a professional or volunteer basis.
The key principles of responsible wildlife rehabilitation are as follows:
• Mandatory minimum animal welfare standards for native wildlife care
• Licensing system for all wildlife carers
• Prevention and treatment services and facilities supported by government
• Training in wildlife rehabilitation for all carers, veterinarians and veterinary nurses
• Support within organisations, including mental health initiatives to prevent burnout
• Research into factors that improve the success of wildlife rehabilitation
• Collaborative relationships between wildlife carers and veterinary professionals
Mandatory minimum animal welfare standards
There is a need for nationally consistent, compulsory and enforceable evidence-based standards for wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and release. These should encompass training, accreditation[SH1] [RE2] by a state licensing system, and the administration of volunteer wildlife care, addressing all aspects of animal welfare.[SH3] [RE4] Adequately resourced monitoring and enforcement schemes should be in place to ensure compliance with minimum standards[SH5] , including Standard Operating Procedures developed by government departments and organisations such as zoos for the care of specific species or for animals in specific conditions, such as quarantine[RE6] .
The following are some areas where such standards would improve the welfare of wildlife in care:
Handling: Capture, handling and bringing wild animals into care are stressful for wildlife and can affect their health and chances of successful release (Hing et al 2014). Exposure to sources of stress such as handling should be minimised.
Husbandry: Animal husbandry including housing, nutrition, temperature, light and substrates must meet species specific needs (Warwick et al. 2018). Many species require specialised facilities and care (eg. cetaceans, pinnipeds, seabirds).
Use of animals for training: The use of native animals for formal training [SH7] [RE8] purposes (such as demonstrations) must be approved by a formal Animal Ethics Committee and be used in accordance with that approval. Sick or injured animals should not be examined and handled unless required for medical attention. Those who have been assessed as unfit for release must be euthanased as soon as possible by a veterinarian, unless they are otherwise healthy (eg. imprinted animals) and could be sufficiently accommodated in permanent care by a wildlife rescue centre or sanctuary. [SH9] These animals should not be retained for training purposes or as pets.
Environmental enrichment: [SH10] [RE11] Enrichment, that is, improvement of the environment to better meet animals’ needs, is essential to ensure the quality of life of wildlife in care. Enrichment strategies engage numerous sensory and motor modalities and may include a naturalistic environment, materials for climbing, hiding spaces, foraging opportunities and feeding natural food items. Species-specific strategies should also be introduced, such as helping wombats to build burrows or introducing macropods to the outdoor environment and providing objects for practising their hopping skills.
Medical care: Wildlife carers should have animals medically assessed as soon as possible, and certainly within 24 hours, by a veterinarian or experienced rehabilitator, and this is required by some state-based guidelines and codes of practice. This ensures that animals requiring euthanasia will have their suffering ended, and those with a chance of rehabilitation will receive accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatments, including analgesia, with advice to carers regarding quarantine requirements.
Release: Minimum standards for release must include criteria relating to the animal’s state of health, behaviour and ability to survive in the wild. The most appropriate release site and time (eg. season, time of day/night) must be selected. Factors that may increase the likelihood of post-release survival include areas with no introduced predators or the option of predator control, high quality habitat, proximity to conspecifics, falling within the animal’s former range and accessibility for monitoring. Release of rehabilitated wildlife should be coordinated and planned rather than ad-hoc release of animals onto private properties or local nature reserves, which can result in overcrowding and competition for resources.
Post-release monitoring: Long-term post-release monitoring should be conducted to provide information about the success of wildlife rehabilitation.
Euthanasia: In many cases, the most appropriate medical care for rescued wildlife is euthanasia, which should be provided by a veterinarian when possible, or failing that, by trained personnel. State-based codes of practice all specify approved methods of euthanasia for animals where veterinary assistance is not accessible, such as in some remote areas. Sufficient oversight is required to ensure that only humane [SH12] methods of euthanasia are used. Humane killing is when an animal is either killed instantly or rendered insensible until death ensures, without pain, suffering or distress. Some codes of practice (eg. in Western Australia) list ‘humane end-points’, which are guidelines for when to euthanase various species of wildlife. [SH13]
Record keeping: All wildlife carers should meet minimum requirements for record keeping for traceability, to monitor outcomes and ensure individuals and organisations are achieving their stated aims in terms of animal welfare and conservation.
Licensing system for wildlife carers
The actions of carers can have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of native animals and on their chances of successful release.[SH14] The welfare of individual animals should be of primary concern, regardless of whether this contributes to improving conservation outcomes. [SH15]
Systemic changes are needed to support wildlife rehabilitation as a recognised and sustainable profession. State licensing systems for wildlife carers are required to ensure accountability and monitoring for compliance with animal welfare standards. All persons involved in wildlife care must adhere to relevant Federal and state legislation including respective state and territory animal welfare laws. All personnel involved in wildlife rehabilitation, including veterinary staff, must also comply with the relevant codes/standards for wildlife care that apply in their state or territory. [SH16] [RE17]
Prevention and treatment services and facilities
Government funding is required for initiatives to prevent wildlife illness and injury (eg. habitat preservation, wildlife crossings and corridors to reduce road accidents). Government funding is also needed for wildlife treatment services, including 24-hour public clinics and support for private veterinary practices to treat wildlife. Practice owners must support veterinary involvement in wildlife care by providing essential resources. Wildlife treatment space should be used exclusively for wildlife to avoid exposing them to domestic species and to offer quarantine as needed. Access to appropriate medication is also a priority.
Training for wildlife carers and veterinary staff
All rescuers, carers, veterinarians and veterinary nurses should have access to training in wildlife rehabilitation. Vets may require continuing professional development about wildlife medicine, surgery, anaesthesia, imaging etc. Veterinary staff and wildlife carers may also require training to understand the needs of particular species in the wild. This understanding will assist treatment decisions and assessments for suitability for release.
In addition to practical skills, training in psychological readiness for wildlife care is important. For example, wildlife carers may require training in self-care to prevent burnout and to prepare for the prospect that an animal in their care may have to be euthanased if not fit to survive in the wild.
We recommend that all wildlife organisations develop policies and procedures to address the support needs of wildlife carers. Support systems should be in place for when a carer’s ability to care has been exceeded (such as referral on to other carers or resource pooling). Systems and plans may also be required to prevent and provide intervention for ‘rescuer hoarders’ and ‘overwhelmed caregiver hoarders’ who may feel compelled to take more animals than they can look after properly.[SH18]
Examples of support systems may include:
• mentoring, buddying and debriefing for wildlife carers
• workshops on stress management and burnout prevention
• Mental Health First Aid Training to identify and assist carers at risk
• A human resources manager (or equivalent) to screen for readiness for wildlife rehabilitation and to oversee the wellbeing of volunteers
Government funding is needed for research into the factors that improve the success of wildlife rehabilitation, particularly the success of release programs (via post-release monitoring) and best practice veterinary care (including pain relief and adequate nutrition).
Collaborative relationships between wildlife carers and veterinary personnel
Positive working relationships between wildlife carers, veterinarians and veterinary nurses are mutually enriching and increase the chances of providing optimal rehabilitation to native animals in care. These working relationships need to be fostered by a set of protocols [SH19] or Memoranda of Understanding to support good communication, cooperation, reasonable expectations and respect.
Guy AJ and Banks P (2012). A survey of current rehabilitation practices for native mammals in eastern Australia. Australian Mammalogy 34: 108–118.
Hing S, Narayan E, Thompson RCA and Godfrey S (2014). A review of factors influencing the stress response in Australian marsupials. Conservation Physiology 2: 1-17.
Warwick, C., Jessop, M., Arena, P., Pilny, A., and Steedman, C. (2018). Guidelines for Inspection of Companion and Commercial Animal Establishments. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 5.
State-based codes of practice
Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation in Western Australia (2015)
Code of Practice for Injured, Sick and Orphaned Protected Fauna (2011)
Code of Practice for Injured, Sick and Orphaned Flying-foxes (2012)
Code of Practice for Injured, Sick and Orphaned Koalas (2018)
Code of Practice for Injured, Sick and Orphaned Macropods (2018)
Code of Practice for Injured, Sick and Orphaned Wombats (2018)
Code of Practice for Injured, Sick and Orphaned Birds of Prey (2016)
Code of Practice Care of Sick, Injured or Orphaned Protected Animals in Queensland (2013)
General Requirement for the Care and Rehabilitation of Injured and Orphaned Wildlife in Tasmania (2005)
General Guidelines for the Management of Protected Wildlife in Captivity in South Australia (2010)
[SH1]By accreditation do you mean a state licensing system or membership of a certain organisation? Would suggest the former is preferable in this context
[RE2]Yes thanks Steph, we need a state licensing system. Am not sure how this would be initiated though.
[SH3]“Supporting carers in their capacity to care” is an important recommendation so not to detract from its importance at all but as far as I’m aware this is beyond the scope of the national or state animal welfare codes of practice or standards and guidelines. It is more like something that would go in a business or organisation’s own policies. Suggest relocating this to another section.
[RE4]Great point, have done
[SH5]Do you also want to mention relevant SOPs?
[RE6]Sorry, what does SOP refer to?
[SH7]Need to be clear what you mean here by ‘training’? Are you referring to use of native animals for scientific education which may fall under the definition of ‘scientific use’ and come under state legislation & the NHMRC Code? Or are you referring to training in a looser sense eg. corporate training days, children’s outreach activities/’edutainment’ etc. because these activities may fall outside the definition of scientific use and therefore are not required to have AEC approval. If this position statement is specifically about wildlife rehab then perhaps are we more broadly concerned with ‘use of rehabilitated wildlife?’ and what happens to animals who are retained in long-term care?
[RE8]Thanks Steph, will email you about this. My initial concern was my own experience of seeing wildlife used for branch meetings (being poked and prodded when they were intended to be euthanased) to demonstrate certain conditions, and also for the more formal training workshops. Derek Spielman advised me that for any of this, formal ethics committee approval should be obtained. This should be outlined in the state codes of practice so will look there again but I find it rather confusing.
[SH9]What if an animal is unfit for release but is otherwise healthy eg. imprinted but their needs could be sufficiently accommodated in a rescue centre?
[SH10]I see the concept of enrichment as being more than ‘providing as natural an environment as possible’ and there are many more benefits than ‘engaging in behaviours that sustain survival in the wild’. This position statement need not go into all that in detail but consider using broader statements that encompass all not just some of the key concepts.
For example -
“Enrichment, that is improvement of the environment to better meet animals’ needs, is essential to ensure the quality of life of wildlife in care. Species-specific strategies…Enrichment strategies engage numerous sensory and motor modalities and may include…”
[RE11]Done, thank you Steph.
[SH12]May be beneficial to define ‘humane killing’ eg. when an animal is either killed instantly or rendered insensible until death ensues, without pain, suffering or distress. The term ‘humane end-point’ may also be useful to introduce in this section as this is something that many wildlife rehabbers struggle with (eg. see the WA Code as they list some humane end-points for various taxa).
[SH13]This point is repeated in the mental health section
[SH14]Not all of the content relates to “the actions of carers” so I would move this to the relevant section eg. licensing system or training
[SH15]Is this statement necessary? It is a little bit ambiguous, do you mean “regardless of the animal’s conservation status”? or “even if improving welfare will not improve conservation outcomes”?
[SH16]Is this level of detail necessary?
[RE17]Agree, probably not for a Position Statement!
[SH18]More common than you think unfortunately…
[SH20]These may be beyond the scope of this position paper but what about -
Rehabilitation of invasive species and other non-native animals?
Long-term care vs wildlife pet keeping where is the line?
Managing wildlife reproduction while in rehabilitation and care
‘Rescue’ vs poaching/removal from the wild
Selling/trading rehabilitated wildlife
When rescuing isn’t rescuing eg. baby birds
[RE21]Maybe these could be separate articles, eg., wildlife as pets, poaching, sale of wildlife