Wildlife rehabilitation crisis in Ontario

Frustrated Ontarians Desperately Seek Help for Wildlife in Distress:

People across the province want to see humane help for wildlife. Many go to extraordinary lengths to find help for animals in distress. They expect the Ontario government to provide a legislative framework that supports compassionate and progressive community-based programs. The demand for such services is growing. It is based on the need brought about by extensive development and loss of habitat and the resulting increase in human-wildlife encounters and conflicts.

The majority of Ontario residents view wildlife differently than past generations. A recent national study in the United States examined human-wildlife interface and found that the majority of the interaction between residents and wild animals centered on non-consumptive recreation such as viewing wildlife, finding humane solutions for human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife rehabilitation for orphaned and injured wildlife.

The study found that wildlife rehabilitators are the frontline when it comes to these concerns in their communities. This is not surprising given that these wildlife issues are beyond the scope of natural resource departments which are focused on game animals and regulating consumptive use of wildlife resources. Studies found that the majority of people were unable to identify their government wildlife agency, while others indicated that a distrust of natural resource agencies has been on the rise for at least a decade.

The concern for the environment and biodiversity has also prompted very different attitudes and expectations within the community. Young people, in particular, will be increasingly influenced by changing values as Ontario's education system introduces a comprehensive approach to sustainability and biodiversity within the curriculum.

As a result, people recognize that there are humane and cost-effective solutions to such concerns and are demanding them from the Ontario government.

Wildlife rehabilitation crisis in Ontario

Wildlife rehabilitators represent a valuable resource in Ontario. They serve as dedicated volunteers and, together with the corporate and community financial support they attract, are able to offer a wide array of positive wildlife services in education, conflict resolution, environmental collaboration and rehabilitation for orphaned and injured wildlife.

This is a resource that is being lost due to the actions of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the inaction of the McGuinty government in providing the necessary leadership to correct this situation.

Today there are less than half the number of Wildlife Rehabilitators than existed previously. And, most of these custodians care for only a small number of animals each; others can no longer care for animals that they specialized in, i.e. deer because of unwarranted release restrictions imposed by the MNR.

The fact that so many former rehabilitators, including long-established centres across the province, can no longer operate under these restrictions clearly demonstrates a problem. But it is the increasing number of Ontarians who are complaining to animal welfare organizations about the lack of help for wildlife that will require politicians to finally fix the problem.

The Problem:

The Ministry has created a problem with respect to wildlife rehabilitation where none existed before. It has introduced unwarranted regulations that too often require the release of orphaned wildlife into areas where they would have little chance of survival. The regulations also often mean single animals would have to be raised alone, completely contrary to humane standards, and they eliminate the critical role provided by volunteers with suitable property who agree to provide the transitional care required for young animals as part of their release.

In previous campaigns we have fought for a Ministerís advisory committee. We thought that this committee would provide independent and knowledgeable advice to the Minister about human/wildlife conflicts and the best way to help orphaned and injured animals. Unfortunately and despite our best efforts, the Minister failed to appoint a committee that would provide an open and transparent process to Ontarians seeking help for wildlife. Instead agreed upon terms of reference by the former Minister have been ignored, the composition of the committee does not reflect the balanced membership needed to affect change and committee members have been muzzled by ordering that all discussion would be confidential.

We strongly suspect that MNR staff has taken control of the committee. This should come as no surprise to anyone in that this Ministry is not interested in those that care for wildlife but rather those that hunt, fish and trap, with the majority of the Fish and Wildlife Departmentís money coming from these groups.

Sadly, the Minister has allowed the destruction of the significant volunteer contribution offered by wildlife rehabilitators in Ontario. These people responded to the substantial demand from the public by providing education, advising on human-wildlife conflicts and caring for orphaned and injured wild animals. An important community service that was entirely funded by volunteers and private donations has been lost with the result that there is now more burden on taxpayers for a purely reactive and negative response by agencies for which the public is very dissatisfied.

Specific problems that need to be addressed immediately:

  1. Unwarranted 15-kilometer release restriction:

    The major point of contention for all rehabilitators who have discontinued their service is the purely arbitrary 15-kilometer release restriction for rehabilitated orphans. The lack of commonsense that is inherent in the 15-kilometer release restriction is found in MNR Condition #36 "wildlife that was immature when originally captured shall be released as close as possible to the site of original capture up to a maximum of fifteen kilometres away, and in similar habitat when possible". First, baby wild animals are not "captured" they are rescued, generally having crawled out of a tree nest, starving to death. Others, like baby raccoons are found orphaned and hanging around a shopping centre dumpster. Several have been found in vats of fat outside restaurants. Should they be put back in similar locations, within the 15-kilometers radius?

    The majority of orphans are found in our cities and result from the adult mother having been trapped and relocated, killed on a busy road or otherwise compromised because of extensive development. The typical city has a boundary that extends to 90 kilometers or more, with a very busy inner core that makes up 30-40 kilometers. Putting young animals, after months of rehabilitative care, back into these busy core areas would be irresponsible and inhumane, giving them limited chance of survival. It would also be rightfully criticized by residents because of the impossible situation faced by the animals and the predictable human/wildlife conflicts it would produce.

    Wildlife rehabilitation and responsible release is a hugely challenging task. It is impossible enough without having to jump through artificial hoops, taking into account the age and health of the animals, in having to find suitable release sites using a compass! When you factor in that there are few people willing or able to provide transitional foster care that have a suitable release site for wildlife, the logistical nightmare of the 15-kilometer release restriction becomes apparent. How many foster families are going to live in an area that falls within the 15-kilometer radius from where the animal was found?

    The Ontario Wildlife Coalition has been clear from the outset as to what should occur: "that orphaned wild animals be raised with others of their own species to learn proper conspecific social behaviours and that these animals be released in appropriate natural areas, with transitional care for those species who require it, generally within the city or county-of-origin". This reflects the practice of what occurred in Ontario, without any negative consequences it should be added, until the MNR decided to intentionally limit wildlife rehabilitation by imposing unworkable release restrictions.

  2. Discretionary authority:

    The discretionary authority given to regional Ministry staff in the application of these unworkable regulations means an unfair and inconsistent set of standards is being imposed across the province.

  3. Right of Appeal:

    Further, wildlife rehabilitators are denied any right of appeal over decisions, often not even being told the reason for those decisions. This perpetuates a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of Ministry staff.

The Solution:

The Government of Ontario:

  1. amend the administrative regulations so that assistance is again available for Ontarians when they find orphaned and injured wildlife, including the removal of the 15-kilometre release restriction for rehabilitated orphaned animals; establish a centralized and transparent custodial authorization process that ensures equitable treatment of wildlife rehabilitators and consistent application of standards across the province; and ensure an appeal process so that wildlife rehabilitators have the same redress as others governed by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act;

  2. enhance programmes that encourage wildlife rehabilitators to seek authorization in Ontario;

  3. promote wildlife rehabilitation as a valuable voluntary resource in Ontario.

Prepared by the Ontario Wildlife Coalition July 2011

The Ontario Wildlife Coalition is made up of organizations and individuals drawn from wildlife rehabilitation, animal welfare and environmental interests from across Ontario. Members represent a cross-section of people, including journalists, veterinarians, educators, lawyers, scientists and administrators. The Coalition was formed to urge the return of a progressive wildlife rehabilitation service in Ontario, to advocate on behalf of wildlife and to seek long-term, humane solutions for human/wildlife conflicts through remedial action, public education and habitat protection.


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