The Ethical Wildlife Rehabilitator
From the Desk of Heidi Bucknam, Executive Director
Any facility that works with live wildlife is obligated to treat that wildlife responsibly and ethically. Only if we demand appropriate behavior from ourselves and our colleagues will humane and principled treatment of wildlife become the norm.
Many wildlife rehabilitation facilities struggle to raise enough money to stay in operation. Very generous and caring people get into the field only to find out that raising funds for their work can be difficult or sometimes, almost impossible. And this can be compounded by personnel issues: Many rehabilitators burn out quickly from long hours, little time off, and the emotional toll exacted by working with sick and suffering animals. In desperation people can slowly lose their resolve. The lines between what’s right and wrong can blur, perpetuating the negative image of the eccentric rehabilitator. These issues can also result in ignorant behavior at other facilities and among the public.
To avoid these pitfalls, the Birds of Prey Foundation (BPF) has developed a permanent and unchangeable set of protocols governing our public presence and our use of raptors for education.
• BPF uses our live educational raptors only to educate the public. We won’t bring a raptor just to “have a presence” for our organization. If we won’t be able to speak about natural history and conservation, we won’t bring a live bird. For this reason, we don’t do short television appearances, photo shoots, or any other kind of short appearances.
• Anyone handling a bird in public is not allowed to touch or “pet” the bird. During training, we do want a raptor to trust us and can always adjust jesses to be more comfortable. We can also touch feet and other parts of the birds. But we don’t do this in public. These are not pets and we must be careful with how the public might interpret our relationships with these birds. The public looks to us, as raptor experts, to learn about these birds.
• BFP only does educational presentations. We never do free flight programs, and we don’t call what we do a “show.”
• Although we do take opportunities to photograph our patients, we do so only if it won’t cause any excessive stress. Making birds alter natural behavior to, for example, get attention on social media is abhorrent.
• Only birds with characters that have proven to be naturally calm are kept as educational birds. At BPF, all birds that we apply to transfer from our rehabilitation permit to our educational permit have gone through the complete rehabilitation process and have been deemed unreleasable. Very few birds fit our criteria for becoming an educational ambassador.
• Media attention must be executed thoughtfully. Sound bites are often taken out of context and stories can get away from the original intent.
• Amazing stories can often be told about birds that are transferred between facilities to ensure the best possible care for individual patients. Ethically, the facility that shoulders the expense and time of rehabilitation should be given the credit if articles or stories are published about specific birds.
• During releases, the best of intentions can go awry, so BPF doesn’t do public releases. We try to make the rehab process as low stress as possible for our patients. On the day of release we must catch the bird and transport it to the release site, which already stresses out the bird. Add a crowd of people, or even a few, standing and talking at the release site and you can end up with a recipe for disaster. We release all birds at appropriate times for them, not us, after taking many things into consideration.
To be treated as professionals, we, as wildlife rehabilitators, must take our jobs seriously and act like professionals. Our ethics must be clearly outlined and followed to the letter. Everything we do must be based on what’s best for the birds. We must be educated. We must continue learning. We must make decisions that are scientifically sound. In doing so, we’ll find new respect and form a more cohesive unit of professionals.