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Wildlife Rehabilitation is an inspiring profession that combines animal behavior and husbandry; veterinary medicine and natural history.  Rehabilitators are compassionate wildlife advocates who believe that saving even a single injured, ill, or orphaned wild animal is a worthy cause.  The ultimate goal is to return every patient to the wild, to allow them to carry out a free life, in nature.


A wildlife rehabilitator should be your first point of contact when dealing with wildlife in your community.  They have specialized knowledge about native and invasive wild animals and their behaviors, diets and natural histories.  They are also very familiar with the law where it pertains to wildlife in your area.  When you encounter a wild animal that is a nuisance, a danger, or in distress, please contact your local wildlife rehabilitator FIRST to get the best advice to deal with the situation.

In most of the United States and all of Canada, wildlife rehabilitators must be certified through education programs and standardized testing, licensed to house and care for wild animals, as well as permitted for the specific species and number of animals in their possession.  Rehabilitation facilities are inspected regularly and all changes to general operations must be approved by local and regional wildlife offices.

Wildlife intakes

The unfortunate truth with animals brought into wildlife rehabilitation facilities is that the cause most often results from humans.  Injuries stem from human infrastructure, collisions with windows and vehicles, entrapment in litter and attacks by domestic cats and dogs.  Illnesses are caused by accidental and intentional poisoning, poorly managed bird feeders and pet foods and reduction in appropriate habitats. Orphaned animals are frequently a result of inadvertent kidnappings or issues where nests or dens have been disturbed by human causes (such as pets, construction and fireworks, etc.), leaving babies without parents. Sometimes wildlife wants to share your home and removal services can cause injuries, split up families or animals get dumped in strange new places.  Climate change is disrupting migration patterns and behaviors, reducing suitable habitats and food sources and forcing more interaction with humans and livestock.

Wildlife intakes

When a member of the public encounters a wild animal in distress, your local wildlife rehabilitator will be able to help you assess the need for intervention.  Should the animal be injured, ill, or truly orphaned, they will be guided to determine if intervention is appropriate, the safest method to capture the animal (if advised) and how to reduce stress for the animal.  Transportation to the rehab is required, but can often be arranged through volunteers depending on available resources.

Once animals arrive at the rehabilitation center, they are given a quick initial exam to determine critical issues, such as wounds, broken bones, infections and nutritional deficiencies.  Dehydration is almost always a factor in wildlife intake.  This is because the animal is usually in pretty poor condition if it can be approached and captured by humans.  Any life-threatening issues will be addressed immediately and then the animal will be placed in an isolated enclosure to stabilize and adjust to being in captivity.


Once stable, the patient will be thoroughly examined to identify any further issues or underlying causes and a treatment plan will be established.  Wildlife rehabilitators often work closely with wildlife veterinarians to set and pin broken bones, perform surgeries, and complete radiographs and blood/fecal tests (amongst others).  In some cases, larger facilities will be able to complete these tasks in-house; in home-based rehabs, a vet may visit, or the animal will be transported to a vet for care.

Sick animals are diagnosed and provided with appropriate medications and support where possible.  Injured animals are cleaned, treated and bandaged to ensure healing while preventing infection.  Parasites are removed and any maintenance items performed (for example tooth extractions, feather repairs, beak coping, etc.)  Immense care is taken to prevent habituating the animal to humans during this intensive handling.


All animal enclosures, whether small indoor cages used during treatment periods, to large conditioning pens where the animal regains strength and prepares for release back to the wild, are created with the patient’s natural history and care needs in mind.  Every effort is made to mimic natural habitats to retain wild behaviors and to reduce stress on the animal.  Enclosures are frequently modified for each new patient and the specific requirements as well as recuperation status.  

When animals have injuries or are sick, they require smaller cages that will reduce their amount of activity so that their energy is used to heal.  Privacy is important, as having other distressed animals nearby can increase stress on a recovering animal.  They are frequently provided with supplemental heat, physical supports, or visual and auditory barriers from other humans or animals nearby.


Since wild animals are not toilet trained, enclosures need to be cleaned daily to reduce filth that attracts rodents, as well as to remove potential infection and disease transmission possibilities.  All surfaces are cleaned and disinfected, and then fresh bedding, food, and water are brought in, up to several times a day.  Water-based creatures will have access to appropriate ponds or pools, denning animals will be provided with makeshift dens, and digging animals will be given digging boxes.  Climbers and fliers are given large trees and flight pens to practice.  Enclosures are set up with foliage for grazing and habitat to provide a sense of safety and enrichment.

Security is a major concern, so all enclosures typically have redundant safety measures in place to avoid potential escapes.  They must also be made of safe and durable materials that provide refuge from the elements and that require regular maintenance.  Facility upkeep is a major task at any rehab center.


​Mature animals are fed species-appropriate diets, taking nutritional requirements as well as enrichment into account.  Items as close to natural food sources are prioritized though substitutions are often necessary and are tailored to each animal based on their species, age and health condition.  Produce items are the most common food items in a wildlife rehab fridge, followed by some protein items and a lot of seeds, nuts and bugs!  Where natural diets are not possible or extra nutrition is required, supplements and alternatives are added to meals.  Items are switched up regularly to prevent boredom.  Mature animals that normally forage are encouraged to search for their food within their enclosures or are challenged to acquire in ways similar to what they may experience in the wild.  Some babies are fed up to every fifteen minutes and modified diets of formula and other items are needed to provide complete nutrition to developing orphans.


​As you can imagine, a wildlife rehabber's day includes a lot of laundry, dishes and cleaning of enclosures and exam rooms.  Proper cleaning methods are incredibly important in a rehab setting to reduce the chance of disease transmission between animals and humans.  Dishes must be disinfected after being cleaned with water and soap to remove debris.  Laundry is also bleached and typically runs all day long.  All surfaces, including enclosure floors, cage doors, walls and ceilings as well as any other surfaces are scraped, scrubbed and rinsed every day.  Reception areas, exam rooms, storage areas, kitchen and prep areas and laundry rooms require daily sweeping, mopping and tidying.  Equipment and supplies are constantly replenished to ensure that everything needed is readily available.  Acquiring groceries and food preparation is another major task to ensure good quality nutrition for various species is always on hand.


Each patient brought to the facility must be documented on intake, including the finder's information, by law.  A patient file is created, and exam findings and treatment plans are recorded.  Daily logs are kept to detail health condition observations, weight enclosure cleaning, food and medical treatments provided.  

Great care is taken to avoid habituating wildlife to humans.  This means there is minimal physical contact between rehabbers and patients and in many cases, many efforts are made to reduce visible, auditory and physical interaction with the animal.  For example, masks resembling the same species may be worn when feeding baby birds as there is a serious risk of imprinting on humans.  This occurs when an animal begins to think of its human caretakers as parents or potential mates and will most certainly lead to future social problems for that animal.


Animals are closely monitored to ensure they are recovering and on the road to release.  As they heal from their illnesses or injuries, or mature enough to be on their own, wildlife rehabilitators present more challenging environments to simulate nature.  Rehabbers evaluate each animal on their ability to not only survive in the wild but to thrive and live a full, free life in the wild.  They must be able to move through their habitat, acquire food, evade predators, attract suitable mates and avoid human dangers.  Body condition must be at full health, meaning full repair of injuries, recovery of illness and maturation of babies.  The animal must have enough weight to maintain adequate body temperatures outdoors in the elements but be fit enough to run from or defend against predators.  Hunters must be swift, silent and accurate to capture prey efficiently.  Without all of these skills, the animal would likely suffer a cruel and painful death once released into the wild.


If a wild animal may not fully recover enough to be released into the wild.  In some cases, these animals will be kept and cared for, with different permitting required, as education ambassadors.  Dedicated enclosures, training programs and handling are required to bring these animals into contact with the public without tremendous stress to the animal or potential for injury. 

Typically, these individuals are habituated to humans and therefore are unsuitable for release.  They will develop close relationships with their caretakers and are specifically trained for transportation, public viewing and interaction and their ability to handle lots of stimulating noise and activity.  Animal ambassadors help to raise awareness and interest in the public for wildlife and the threats they face due to human impacts.  However, not every animal that can't be returned to the wild can handle this life.


Of course, the intent is to return wild animals to the wild.  Nothing is more bittersweet than watching an animal go from near death to free once again, after considerable effort to save their lives and prepare them for a life in the wild.  Many rehab facilities will work with research groups to band and track various released animals to monitor their progress, though this can be expensive and requires specific training and technology.

Suitable release sites are selected and evaluated for proper habitats and access to food and water sources.  Animals that may have missed migrations will typically stay with the rehabber until the following season.  Orphaned animals will usually be introduced to and released with members of their species for socialization and safety where appropriate for the species.


While wild animals are generally not cuddled or played with, most rehabbers develop deep attachments to their patients and hope only for the best. The reality of wildlife rehabilitation is that not all animals can be saved.  The global average is roughly 30% of wildlife rehab intakes are released back to the wild.  This is primarily due to three factors.  First, is that wild animals tend to hide sickness and injuries and intervention only occurs when the animal is already very close to death.  Secondly, wild animals do not respond well to being in captivity or handled by humans.  While every effort is made to minimize the stress the animal experiences during treatment, death is unfortunately a common and sad reality.  Third, if an animal's injuries are so severe, or treatment options would be unbearably painful or possibly ineffective, the humane choice is to euthanize the animal. These are difficult choices to make but are made together with a veterinarian and the animal's well-being in mind.


Almost all wildlife rehabilitation centers are funded by public donations, fundraising efforts and corporate sponsorships, if not solely out of the pocket of the rehabber.  There is no government or taxpayer funds to support this work. Some larger facilities may apply for and receive grants.  Home-based rehabbers are largely self-funded and do this in addition to day jobs to support it.  All rehabbers do this because of their love for wild animals, not money.  The backbone of any wildlife rehabilitation is a dedicated team of passionate and caring volunteers.  Physical roles can include food prep and enclosure cleaning, animal care, dishes and laundry, facility cleaning and maintenance, stocking equipment and supplies, and rescue and transportation of animals.  Other roles can help with paperwork, answering phones and emails, managing social media accounts, helping with fundraising efforts, writing grants and newsletters and assisting with public education and outreach.  If you think you can offer assistance, be assured it would be greatly appreciated.

Law enforcement

On a final note, please remember that it is illegal for members of the public to capture, keep, or care for wild animals without proper licensing and permits.  Wild animals do not make good pets and a lack of knowledge in proper care can lead to suffering and death.  Wildlife belongs in the wild and a wildlife rehabilitator is their best chance to get back to it when they find themselves in trouble.  Please help them get the care they need.

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