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Is wildlife rehab worth the effort?

I often get asked ‘is it worth it?’ to which I always answer ‘for that particular bird, yes’

It’s a complicated equation though, and a legitimate concern. Is there value in the lengthy process of rescue, rehabilitation and hopefully release, given the uncertainty of the outcome and the resources and monetary costs involved?

Rehabbers are driven by a love for the species we work with. An intoxicating cocktail of a need to nurture, a little bit of God complex, and the joy of recovery and release gets us out of bed, very early, every single day of the year. The down-side is the soul-wrenching wounds of failure after trying so hard to save a life. This well-documented compassion fatigue brings down many a rehabber, vet or animal welfare worker. Thankfully for me, the balance still tips in favour of joy, and I guess the day it doesn’t will be the day I won’t be able to get out of bed anymore.

Rescue, Rehab & Release (RRR) in itself is not an important part of species conservation. It rarely has a direct effect on wild population numbers. Some even argue that the entire process is detrimental, giving unnatural benefit to less-than perfect animals or artificially maintaining inferior genes. Science-bias conservationists believe that the resources would be better applied to research, field work and in-situ conservation projects and I certainly can’t argue with the logic. RRR is expensive, resource-hungry, and the ecological return is minimal compared to certain other initiatives.

What is really important though, is public perception. Imagine, as a caring member of public you came across wildlife in distress. Perhaps a bird that fell from a nest, or was injured, sick or trapped. You would want to help in a meaningful way and a rehab centre provides that help. You can reach out to a professional who will respond to your call, provide the best possible care for that individual and hopefully return them to the wild. You will have done a “good thing”, and from a PR standpoint that’s phenomenal at both organisational and government level, especially in a small country like Belize where a single Facebook post can be national news. Everyone loves a happy ending and for the most part, RRR in Belize gives us exactly that.

Personally, one of my core drives is to redress an imbalance. Whatever misfortune befell this creature is usually our fault. Wildlife has an extremely rough time in our modern world. We have modified, distorted and broken Mother Nature so much, she is barely recognisable. Habitat destruction, predator/prey imbalance, invasive species, domestic predation, intensive agriculture, over-hunting, illegal wildlife trade, disease, window strikes, light pollution, wind farms, solar farms, trash ingestion and entanglement, wildfires, poisons, environmental pollution, not to mention our rapidly changing climate. The list of crimes against our natural world is endless. The fact that there’s any wildlife left at all is testament to their adaptability and resourcefulness and sheer determination to survive. The vast majority of our avian cases have underlying anthropogenic causes and I believe that we are obligated to give that animal the second chance they definitely deserve, whatever the cost. Our frustrations are endless. Humans are supposed to be the smarter species, and yet the proven knowledge that window strikes contribute to the death of literally millions upon millions of birds every year does nothing to curb our selfish vanity as we continue building glass structures. Plastic is killing our planet one animal at a time and yet governments and corporations refuse to take the radical steps necessary to impact change. Nobody is going to argue economics with me when I am faced with a bird unwittingly damaged by our greed and vanity. (Look at that, I swore I wouldn’t rant in these blogs. It was a noble intent but destined to fail)

Ethical practices are an integral part of wildlife rehab. If the entire process isn't done perfectly with all consideration for the best possible outcome for your patient, you risk the reputation of the profession and give weight to claims that rehab is an ineffectual waste of resources and an ego trip for the rehabber.

For transparency and honesty, wildlife rehabbers and rehab centres are encouraged, if not obligated to abide by a code of ethics and minimum standards of operation. Most organisation have their own Code, or they follow those of the IWRC (International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council) and/or NWRA (USA National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association). Belizean organisations are no exceptions.

All of Belize’s rehab centres, and the vast majority of those throughout the world are funded by grants and donations. Without doubt, BBR owes our donors everything, and with that comes a responsibility for us to be transparent and honest and to deliver a return on the donor investment that includes their sense of gratification for “helping us to help them to fly free”.

It's easy to compromise our best practices to deliver that gratification. Even something as simple as a Facebook post can be a minefield as we open ourselves up to criticism of the perceived condition of the patient, or the food, the enclosure, even something unrelated to the post that is captured in the background that can be misinterpreted in the snapshot of the moment. So we fuss and we stage and we handle unnecessarily to get that perfect social media shot, to get that one donation, to meet the budget that month.

When it’s time to release, we are pressured to capture that Media Moment. The perfect ‘wow’ release as a bird is flung from open hands in front of an enraptured crowd. BBR does not stage public releases for several reasons. For a start, no bird wants to be flung (unless it’s a species that needs a lift like a frigate bird), and no bird wants a crowd around as it happens. They need time to relax after the journey to the release site. They need to scope out their flight path and their landing spot, to check for predators or hazards. If that takes 5 minutes or 20 minutes or longer before they venture from the security of the crate, then we owe them that time. We try to capture it all on video, but not at the expense of the bird’s sensitivities. Oftentimes rehabbers are coerced by administrators into rushing or delaying a release date, or releasing in inappropriate locations or at inappropriate times of the day just to accommodate spectators. I see little point in spending precious resources on rescue and rehab if you’re setting them up to fail on release, whatever the potential to raise funds.

And after all that, sometime we fail anyway. Even with the best of intentions, the rapid rescue, the finest medical care, the most passionate rehab. Sometimes we can’t save them and the only humane thing to do is to put them to sleep. So should we even try? The nay-sayers argue we should let nature take its course. The truth is we usually can’t determine viability at the rescue site, and we often don’t have a choice when a rescuer has already removed the bird to safer location. Unless you’re truly comfortable telling a young family that “the bird is going to die anyway, how about we leave it there so a hawk can get an easy lunch” then your options are limited. (I can guarantee that the family will try to rescue it anyway in spite of your harsh but practical words)

So yes, in the grand scheme of things rehab doesn’t give a big bang for your buck. Our impact is tiny. We can rescue a couple of migrant songbirds as they land exhausted in Belize, then read about a thousand more found dead below New York’s glass skyscrapers. We can fix a barn owl’s wing after he was hit by a car, and yet rodenticide is used indiscriminately throughout the country killing many more birds of prey than cars ever will. It’s demoralising in the extreme as well as frustrating, infuriating and depressing. The impact on the species and the population may be insignificant, but the impact on the rehabbed and released bird is quite literally everything. And as long as that holds true, we will continue to fundraise, to rescue, rehab and release, and to get out of bed every single day, and to hopefully to make the world of difference for that one particular bird.

Belize Bird Rescue provides free of cost wildlife rehabilitation services for the Government of Belize under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Belize Forest Department.

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