Wildlife First Aid & Rehabilitation
Wildlife Rescue Course Principles and Goals:
The primary aim of the rescue, first aid and veterinary treatment of wild animals is to remove them from immediate danger, heal any injuries that would prevent them from functioning effectively in the wild, and ultimately to release them back into the wild from whence they came.
In essence, many of the basic principles of first aid for wild animals are the same as those for first aid for humans. The key difference is that, in addition to any stress, pain or suffering caused by the injury or situation, wild animals are extremely stressed by being close to human beings. To most wildlife, humans present a threat.
They do not appreciate being handled or comforted in the same way that domestic animals do, and the terror of interacting with us may be enough to cause death through fatal shock independently of the trauma from which we are trying to rescue them.
With this in mind, we now consider the four key principles of wildlife first aid.
Principle 1: Preserve life
Preserving life (or preventing death) can be considered the primary goal of the first- aider. In most emergencies, where an animal has sustained an injury or has been found in a life-threatening situation, the goal of preserving life is paramount.
Depending on the context of the situation, concepts such as ‘healing’ or ‘rehabilitation’ are medium-term goals secondary to the immediate aim of keeping the animal alive. The specific actions and techniques necessary to meet this goal will depend on the situation.
Principle 2: Maintain life until professional treatment is available
When the immediate threat to life has been averted or removed, the next goal of the first-aider is always to maintain life. This means stabilising the casualty until a veterinary professional arrives at the scene or takes custody of the animal.
The veterinary professional will have access to medicines, resources, equipment and skills that far exceed the usual resources of a first aider, so it is important that your animal casualty receives professional attention as soon as possible.
In many cases, however, there may be a critical time delay between your initial response to the emergency and the availability of professional attention. During this time, you must be vigilant to ensure that the casualty’s condition does not deteriorate, and that the animal is not at risk of any further harm. This is especially important if, in this interval, you need to transport the animal to a veterinary clinic. Transportation is a traumatic experience for any wild animal.
Principle 3: Prevent further harm, pain or stress
The natural reaction is to hide or flee, but because of injury (or because they is in your custody) the animal is unable to do so and this causes extreme stress.
Therefore, one of the primary considerations for anyone administering first aid to a wild animal is to minimise stress levels as much as possible, and to prevent further pain. Key to achieving this is to keep handling to a minimum. When it is necessary to handle the animal, it is usually best to do so calmly, firmly and gently. Remember that the biggest risk of further pain for a wild animal is from its own struggling and attempts to flee. In general, the less an afflicted animal can see or hear about what is happening during rescue, the less stressed the animal will become.
Principle 4: Prevent harm to human helpers
When we consider human helpers, we include all people associated with the capture, restraint, transportation and treatment of the casualty. This includes you as the primary first-aider on the scene as well as any other people helping you, or even bystanders.
It is important to remember that a wild animal is likely to see all humans in its vicinity as potential predators. If it is unable to escape from the situation, it may react with aggression. When fuelled by the extreme stress of capture, this aggression may be shocking in its speed, ferocity and unpredictability. Be aware that the animal may be ‘acting’ calm in an instinctive attempt to deceive you into lowering your defences. Be prepared for an aggressive reaction at any time.
We must remember that wild animals are unlikely to welcome your presence, regardless of how much trouble they are in or how good your intentions are. Interacting with humans is often terrifying for injured wildlife.
These four principles of wildlife first aid are universal. This means they apply to any type of wildlife first aid situation, involving any species or circumstances. Of course, some situations will call for special considerations in addition to these principles.
Furthermore, every individual animal is unique and as in the human animal, stress can cause unusual reactions. No matter how well you think you may know a species, this animal may well be the one to surprise you. Be prepared for unexpected behaviour.
The most important piece of legislation relating to administering first aid or care to wild animals in the U.K. is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It relates to several aspects of rescuing, treating and rehabilitating wildlife.
The Act grants protection to certain animal species. An animal protected by the Act can only be removed from the wild in order to provide the treatment or care necessary for recovery, and to release back to the wild. Thus, the goal of returning injured animals to the wild is not only a moral obligation, but in many cases a legal obligation too.
This ultimate aim means that we must consider carefully how we are going to care for and house the animal in a way that prevents taming. A wild animal that becomes too tame, and therefore dependent on humans, will not survive well if returned to the wild.
The only other reason, for which the Act allows us to remove a protected animal from the wild, is to euthanise in a humane manner if there is little chance of recovery to thrive successfully in its natural state.
There are important exceptions to this rule where non-indigenous species are concerned - that is, animals that are not originally from the U.K. The Act seeks to limit their dominance in the wild by making it an offence to re-release them or to allow them to escape from your custody in certain parts of the country.
Some of these non-indigenous animals have become very familiar to us. Grey squirrels for example, are not an indigenous species so if you remove an injured Grey squirrel from the wild for treatment, the law says you are not allowed to rehabilitate and release. Instead, you have to euthanise the squirrel.
This poses a moral dilemma, and one that will be discussed within the course.