PAWS Magazine

Issue 36, Winter 1998

Giving Wildlife a Second Chance

In the beginning there was wilderness

by Jeanne Wasserman

HOWL, the PAWS Wildlife Center, was started in 1981 to respond to the need for wildlife care. Prior to that time most injured and orphaned wild animals brought to PAWS were euthanized due to a lack of an existing facility and knowledge to treat wild animals. Recognizing the importance of preserving and protecting wildlife in a natural state, HOWL was formed to give injured and orphaned wild animals a second chance to return to life in the wild. During its first year of operation, the Wildlife Center treated 600 animals. Now the center treats well over 5,000 animals a year.

Our patient load has grown, in part, because of our increasing reputation. As more people hear about our work, they turn to us when encountering wildlife in need. The other contributing factor is the tremendous human population growth in Washington state. The more people that live here, the more wild animals are injured in collisions with our cars, attacked by our pets, displaced by our housing developments and faced with other human caused dangers. Unfortunately, this urban growth is not predicted to slow down anytime soon. Consequently, the demand for wildlife rehabilitation services will remain high. As the largest wildlife center in the Northwest, the PAWS Wildlife Center is committed to mitigating the negative impact that people have on wildlife by repairing the injured and returning them to live out their lives in the wild and helping people find ways to share space with wildlife.

Wildlife rehabilitation is almost as difficult to describe as it is to accomplish. The picture in your mind’s eye of a hawk taking flight from the caregiver’s hand is correct. However, much goes into reaching that moment of release to the wild and a lot can go wrong along the way. Successful wildlife rehabilitation employs several disciplines: veterinary medicine, wildlife biology, natural history, and animal husbandry. Adding to the complexities of combining these fields is the rapidly changing nature of the work as more is learned about wildlife. Compared to what we know about domestic animal medicine, wildlife medicine is in its infancy.

The long and winding road to recovery

To illustrate the long and winding road to recovery let’s look at the example of a young female red-tailed hawk with a fractured wing. A number of things have to happen correctly in order for the hawk to be returned to the wild. If any one of them goes wrong the hawk may not survive.

First, surgery is needed to set the fractured wing. If the hawk doesn’t eat, he/she may not be strong enough to withstand the anesthetic and die during surgery. The correct surgical technique for the particular injury must be used or the hawk may never fly again. If the wing is repaired correctly but the hawk doesn’t eat during its recovery, she may die. If the hawk doesn’t eat we need to figure out if the food or the presentation of the food is inappropriate, or if stress or other illness is causing the hawk not to eat. We also need to calculate how many calories the hawk needs per day using a formula based on the species, age, and state of health. If the hawk is eating and the surgery went well but she becomes habituated to people she may not be releasable. Or if the hawk becomes too stressed from being in captivity he/she may die. The hawk could also develop a number of secondary problems during captivity that could prevent her survival. For example the animal may contract a disease or develop a heavy parasite load. The hawk may develop foot lesions if perches aren’t just right for the size of her feet. The hawk may injure itself or damage his/her feathers if caging materials are inappropriate for this type of bird. What happens if another red-tailed hawk is introduced to the cage? Some animals will tolerate members of their own species and some will not. If the hawk is a young animal, can it learn to catch and kill prey without being taught by her parents?

Let’s suppose everything goes well and the hawk has recovered. How do we know the hawk is ready for release? Specific release criteria must be met. We need to know that the hawk is behaving normally, therefore we need to know what is normal behavior for a red-tailed hawk. Are the hawks body weight and blood values normal? What are the blood values and weight range for that species? Can the hawk fly well enough to bank and turn and soar and catch prey and does she recognize prey? Can the hawk capture and kill prey without being injured? Is the hawk old enough to be on its own? We need to know at what age red-tailed hawks become independent from their parents. How is the hawk’s stamina? Can it maintain flight for several minutes without showing signs of exhaustion? Is it afraid of people and domestic animals? Is it acclimated to outside temperatures? Many criteria, depending on the species and nature of the injury, need to be met.

Now we’re ready to consider the release itself. It must be carefully planned or the rehabilitation effort is wasted. Some of the things that need to be taken into consideration are whether or not there are territories, food and water available for the animal? Is it the appropriate time of year to release at that given location? Has the species already migrated? Is the weather suitable?

And all of this is compounded by the fact that we have these same information needs for the several hundred different species that come through our doors.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of considerations and problems we face daily in wildlife rehabilitation. The PAWS Wildlife Center with its professional staff, expertise, and constant quest for new knowledge in the field of wildlife rehabilitation is able to face the challenge and offer wild animals the best chance of recovery and return to the wild.

Meeting the special needs of large animals

HOWL received its first orphaned bear cub in 1987 from the northeastern corner of Washington. The long drive into the night to rescue the tiny cub marked the beginning of what has become one of the most successful large mammal rehabilitation programs in the country. One of the greatest challenges of rehabilitating large mammals such as bears and cougars is providing sufficient space and privacy from people. Human expansion near our facility has made it difficult to meet the needs of these animals. Once circled by trees, we are now surrounded by homes and shopping malls. This growth shows no signs of stopping. A December 31th, 1997 Seattle Times article stated that the Puget Sound area has gained almost half a million people since 1990 and can expect 60-70,000 more in 1998 and the same in 1999. In addition, over the past five years, the number of wild animals treated at the Wildlife Center has doubled and the demand to treat large mammals has increased dramatically.

As a result, we are planning to build a remote facility on approximately one hundred acres for the rehabilitation of large animals. The new facility will include large penned in areas for animals such as bears, cougars, deer, elk, eagles and other raptors. Away from the sights, sounds and smells of cars, people, and domestic animals and in an environment where there are trees to climb, wild smells on the wind, and room to roam, the new facility will allow us to give large mammals and raptors the best chance for successful return to the wild. Donations are welcome for this project and can be marked Large Mammal Facilty, and mailed to PAWS Wildlife Center, P.O. Box 1037, Lynnwood, WA, 98046. Another way to support this project is by attending the Wildnight Auction. See page 16 for more information on this event.

Jeanne Wasserman is the Director of the PAWS Wildlife Center.

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