On a day that I would come to regard as quite fateful, my curiosity drew me to the enclosure of a rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) who was under acclimatization for release into the wild. My approach was met by an instant and extremely disgruntled snarl. In his fierce declaration a few hours prior to his final reintroduction, I felt reassured that the wild instincts within him were unbroken – and that he was ready to reintegrate into the wilderness from which he had been abruptly removed as an orphan many months ago.
This remarkable creature bore a unique badge of honour, being one of the pioneering members of this elusive species to undergo a journey from being captive-raised to getting ready for reintroduction. Watching him on the brink of being released and reclaiming his place in India’s wild landscapes, for that moment, I was overwhelmed with joy. This moment embodied the essence of our organisation, RESQ CT’s mission and the importance of the principles guiding our actions for years. Every decision we make is based on a blueprint of ethics and a journey that is invariably filled with trials, triumphs and the transformative power of mindful intervention.
Background and rationale: the emergence of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation
Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is a relatively modern practice, but the informal practice of individuals and communities helping animals in distress dates back thousands of years. From a global perspective, the emergence of professionalism and standardization in these domains is a relatively recent development, tracing back to the latter part of the 20th century, when it is now being closely tied to wider environmental and conservation movements.
For India, the legislation of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was a key turning point in marking the future as the “post-hunting era”. This typically refers to the period post the 1970’s in which hunting wildlife for sport, trophy, or sustenance was significantly reduced or eliminated in favour of wildlife conservation and preservation. In more recent times, the establishment of professional wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organizations, as well as the developments made by governmental authorities in recognising the impact of human activities on wildlife and granting permissions to these organisations have further contributed to the advancement of the field.
Is there a need to rescue or rehabilitate a wild animal whose existence should be determined by its ability to survive or thrive in its environment?
Animals exhibit remarkable adaptability, evolving in response to environmental changes. Yet, in a world rapidly advancing with urbanization, industrialization, shifting land-use patterns, a significant increase in illegal wildlife trade, and major climatic upheavals, the survival of many species is severely imperilled. Moreover, countless animals now encounter life-threatening situations that render them more vulnerable than they have ever been.
Human-wildlife interactions often engender a complex tapestry of conflicts that pose significant challenges for both parties involved. For wildlife, these challenges run the gamut from becoming victims of road accidents, and contracting diseases, to being subjected to attacks by free-roaming domestic animals. Furthermore, they become the target of hunting for human consumption, their wild freedom constrained by illegal captivity. They are subjected to the brutalities of trafficking and trade, their existence commodified in an illicit marketplace. These threats, often a direct consequence of human actions, encroach upon their natural habitats and disrupt their inherent life patterns.
The significance and impact of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation emerge starkly amidst these challenges. When executed diligently, it can significantly mitigate these adverse effects, providing a crucial lifeline to animals affected by human activities. Today, this essential field, rooted in science, compassion, and a rigorous ethical code, has evolved into a profession of its own. It plays a pivotal role in wildlife welfare, aiding in conservation efforts, and maintaining biodiversity.
What is wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and what is it not?
Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is a vital yet often misunderstood practice. At its core, it involves rescuing wild animals in distress, providing them with the necessary care and treatment, and ultimately reintroducing them into their natural habitats. However, it is not simply about healing injuries or nursing animals back to health. This endeavour is rooted in a profound understanding of an animal’s physiological, behavioural, and ecological requirements, incorporating principles from veterinary medicine, wildlife biology, and animal behaviour. Furthermore, it underscores our inherent responsibility towards biodiversity and conservation, a responsibility that is both moral and ecological.
Contrary to popular belief, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is no fairy tale. While a layperson is easily enamoured by the stories of heroic rescue acts or videos displaying close bonds between humans and wild animals. However, a closer examination of instances involving such interactions or acts often reveals dangerous endeavours undertaken for both, wildlife and humans.
Embracing a blueprint of ethics: a personal and professional commitment
The history of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is rooted in an empathetic response to the plight of distressed wild animals, possibly due to consciousness that arose when human footprints increased closer to natural wildlife habitats. However, as the field has now evolved, it has become evident that good intentions alone are not good enough. The need for professional guidelines and ethical norms was increasingly felt to ensure that wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts were not only well-intentioned but also effective, humane, and sustainable.
I refer to these norms as the blueprint of ethics which acts as a moral compass for wildlife rescuers, rehabilitators, and veterinarians which guides them to their true north when dealing with wildlife. It informs us to respect the dignity of each animal, both in life and death. Moreover, the blueprint of ethics expands our duty beyond the individual animal. It makes us accountable to ourselves, the people who entrust the animal's care to us, our colleagues, and society at large. It drives us to be accountable, diligent, and dedicated, constantly striving to improve the quality of care given to the animals under our supervision.
It is important to note that ethics, being dynamic rather than static, progress along with individuals and society, leading to shifts in professional standards over time. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, which is primarily focused on individual animals as opposed to entire populations, has amplified its attention on the welfare of each animal. The focus has evolved from merely rehabilitating animals for their return to the wild to guaranteeing their needs are also fulfilled while in captivity. Factors such as stress reduction, pain alleviation, comfort and nutrition improvement, promotion of natural behaviours, and enrichment of captive habitats are increasingly becoming focal points and becoming ethical norms.
The voluntary adoption of the blueprint of ethics is crucial for wildlife rescuers, rehabilitators and veterinarians who passionate are about their profession and committed to the animals in their care. The process of wildlife-related decision-making is often a mix of facts and ethics. Critical situations often arise where decisions have to be made under circumstances that are not fully under our control. By amassing knowledge and establishing strong ethical foundations beforehand, it becomes easier to make informed decisions rather than reactionary choices driven by a crisis or emotions. The blueprints act as a beacon while working in the field, guiding individuals towards humane, scientifically informed, and ethically sound decisions anchored in integrity and responsibility. The blueprint of ethics encompasses several crucial tenets:
- Respect for Life and Animal Welfare
- All life, regardless of species, should be valued and treated with respect and dignity. This includes providing professional handling and humane care throughout all stages of wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, and treatment.
- Extended housing beyond the required captive time should be avoided and conditions mimicking the animal's natural habitat should be maintained to reduce captivity stress.
- Wildlife handling that causes unnecessary physical or psychological distress to the animal should be avoided.
- Wild animals should not be made accustomed or bonded to humans, unless they require handling for lifetime captive care.
- Personal gain must never be prioritized over optimal care and benefit for the animal. If another facility can provide better chances of survival, the animal should be transferred accordingly.
- Euthanasia, when necessary, should be carried out humanely and ethically, according to accepted veterinary practices.
- Professional Competence and Development
- Dedication to wildlife care calls for an in-depth understanding of this evolving field, encompassing animal physiology, behaviour, and emerging threats. Continuous professional development, learning, and collaboration with experts should be undertaken to improve treatment efficiency and wildlife welfare management.
- Safe work habits and conditions must be maintained, adhering to up-to-date health and safety practices at all times. A safe working environment and equipment should be maintained—for humans and animals.
- Collaboration and Cooperation
- One should acknowledge their limitations and seek expert help when needed.
- Networking and sharing information with fellow wildlife rehabilitators is invaluable and should be promoted. Comprehensive knowledge about suitable housing, feeding, disease management, and medication responses for many species, particularly those targeted for reintroduction, is still fairly limited. One should reach out to experienced biologists, pathologists, and naturalists who can provide crucial insights into the development of effective rescue and rehabilitation protocols.
- Community participation should be encouraged. Public education and fostering responsible concern for living beings and wildlife welfare can greatly contribute to wildlife protection and conservation.
- Accountability and Responsibility
- Operations should be based on sound ecological principles to prevent the spread of disease among wildlife populations, mitigate the emergence of problematic or conflict wildlife situations, and uphold wildlife laws and their underlying principles.
- In public communication, professionalism, integrity, dedication, and compassion must be maintained. Visual media from wildlife rescues and rehabilitation should spread a positive and professional portrayal, and illustrate commendable activities whilst ensuring that it represents situations necessitating intervention where handlers are displaying appropriate use of safety equipment and PPE.
- Unnecessary handling, staged photos and any visual content displaying human-wildlife bonding should be avoided to not promote imitation.
- Rehabilitation Practice
- Wildlife rehabilitation must be carried out in the best interest of the animal, with the ultimate goal of release into its native habitat.
- Every effort should be made to minimize stress and maintain the natural behaviours of the wildlife under care. The needs of an animal should be evaluated based on its natural history whilst providing for housing arrangements that should prevent potential injuries.
- Use of the most current, accepted, and humane practices in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is imperative.
- All measures to operate on sound ecological principles should be undertaken to prevent disease transmission among animals and from patients back into wild populations.
- Wildlife Release
- Animals should be released in appropriate locations that provide the necessary resources for their survival.
- Non-indigenous animals or animals suspected to be carrying or shedding any infection should not be released under any circumstances.
- Record Keeping
- Detailed and accurate records should be kept regarding the intake, care, rehabilitation, and final outcome of all animals.
- These records should be used to enhance rehabilitation practices and improve the survival rates of released animals.
- Respect for Laws and Regulations
- Adherence to all applicable local, state, and national laws and regulations governing wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is imperative. Failure to adhere to laws reflects negatively on wildlife personnel, both on a personal and professional level, indicating an absence of ethical awareness.
- Health and safety standards, including the appropriate handling and disposal of bio-medical waste, animal waste, and carcasses, must be followed.
As the world grapples with the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, the role of ethical wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is more vital than ever. The blueprint of ethics for wildlife rescuers, rehabilitators, and veterinarians is a testament to our shared commitment to the well-being of wildlife. It acts as a moral compass, helping us navigate complex decisions and reinforcing our responsibility towards wildlife, people and the places we call home. These principles ground us in the reality of our mission, remind us of our duties, and inspire us to strive for the highest standards of professionalism. By pledging to this code, we are not just rescuing or rehabilitating individual animals; we are participating in mitigating challenges for wildlife conservation, to maintain the intricate web of life that sustains us all.