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The #1 Thing to Do if You Encounter a Wild Animal That Needs Help

Story at-a-glance -

  • In honor of World Wildlife Day, Dr. Becker interviews Kai Williams, the executive director of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC). Kai and Dr. Becker share a passion for wildlife, and both were involved in rehabilitation efforts at a young age.
  • Kai discusses the important role of the IWRC and the challenges of being a wildlife rehabilitator. The work requires an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge of subjects like triage, euthanasia, fluid therapy, and nutrition – and encompasses an astounding variety of animal species.
  • Kai also discusses the three major reasons the federal government requires wildlife rehabilitators to be licensed, and why the work is not for everyone.
  • She also talks about wildlife rehabilitation and conservation efforts around the globe.
  • And finally, Dr. Becker and Kai discuss what to do if you encounter a wild animal that seems to need help, as well as things you can do around your own home to help wildlife.

By Dr. Becker

Today, I'm very excited to be interviewing Kai Williams, who is the executive director of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC). We're chatting via Skype.

Kai became interested in wildlife rehabilitation when she was just a teenager. In college, she pursued environmental and anthropology studies, and she has worked for a number of non-profit organizations, as well as in environmental education jobs. Kai currently lives in Oregon with several pets she has rescued. She also has four heritage-breed chickens.

I'm celebrating my 26th year as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, so Kai and I share a similar passion. I asked her to talk a bit about how she got involved with wildlife rehab.

Kai Is Exposed to Wildlife Rehabilitation at a VERY Young Age!

Kai replied that she started at a very young age. Before she was six months old, her mother began volunteering at a nature center in Minnesota that had a wildlife rehab program. Kai would travel along in a backpack while her mom did environmental education with children. The nature center began referring to Kai as their youngest guide!

When the family moved to Wisconsin, Kai's mother pursued her own interest in wildlife rehabilitation, and as a result, Kai was drawn to it. She began volunteering a bit. By the time she was 12, Kai says she was concerned because her mom never got to leave the house. She had no volunteers helping her with her rehab duties, and she couldn't leave the animals she was caring for alone. Finally Kai said, "Mom, just tell me what to do. I'm sure I can do what you need me to do for an hour, and you can leave the house." And that, according to Kai, is how she became a songbird rehabilitator!

Her mother was also a member of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council while Kai was growing up. Admitting her "geek" tendencies, Kai remembers one of the most exciting things to arrive in the mail was the IWRC's Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation. It was her first introduction to the organization. She read the articles, the peer-reviewed studies – everything. So it's quite amazing to her now to know that she is working for the organization that taught her so much as a young person.

The Important Work of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (IWRC)

Kai explains that the Journal is a central feature of the IWRC. In it, the organization publishes peer-reviewed papers, articles, and editorials in the field of wildlife rehabilitation and related areas. The publication is really important to wildlife rehabilitators because many do not have associations with universities that provide access to libraries of peer-review studies, nor do they have the time to devote to research. A publication like the Journal, geared specifically to wildlife rehabilitators and available for a reasonable fee, is a huge benefit to those folks.

The peer-reviewed classes the organization offers are also important. Kai says the most well-known is the Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation course. It is now being taught in over a dozen countries. The IWRC is working to get a second non-North American instructor onboard and hopes to make their courses easily accessible all over the world.

I asked Kai to talk a little about where people can start if they're interested in wildlife rehab. What's the learning curve? She answered that a good first step is to find out if there's anyone in your local area doing wildlife rehabilitation, and if there is, reach out to them. Ask if they'd be willing to mentor you. Ask if they need volunteers and offer to help. Kai says she always recommends that people try to volunteer at several different wildlife centers to get a perspective on the different ways rehabilitation can work.

People who don't have local wildlife centers to visit can hopefully take day trips to spend time with a variety of rehabilitators. And of course there are the IWRC classes, which start with a basic wildlife rehabilitation course.

Kai says that currently the organization is working on a curriculum to build tiers of courses so it's easier for people to navigate from one course to another and understand how they all connect. These courses cover the core requirements for a wildlife rehabilitator – triage, euthanasia, fluid therapy, and nutrition. Euthanasia is one of the first things to be taught, because sadly, it is one of the first things every wildlife rehabilitator needs to know how to do.

Kai explains that nutrition is a huge subject for wildlife rehabilitators, because a large number of the animals taken in are either very young or older, with severe injuries. In both cases, an understanding of nutritional requirements is absolutely critical. And it is quite a bit more complicated than you would think. There are calcium-phosphorus ratios to worry about… the fat content of a baby mammal's formula … the amount of protein a baby hummingbird requires, and so on. And wildlife rehabilitators can't limit themselves to knowledge of just baby mammals or hummingbirds. There are potentially a huge number of species that could show up on your doorstep needing help.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020

Why Caring for Wildlife Requires a License

One of the biggest challenges I face when someone brings an animal to Covenant Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which is my own organization, is explaining that they can't care for the animal unless they are licensed. Someone will come in with, for example, a squirrel and say, "Hey Dr. Becker, I found a squirrel. I just want you to show me how to care for it, and then I'll take it home and care for it myself." I understand their heart is in the right place, but I have to break it to them that only certified wildlife rehabilitators can legally care for wildlife. I asked Kai to explain why the federal government requires that we be licensed.

She answered that there are three major reasons for licensing. The first is for the caregiver's own safety; the second is for the safety of the animal; and the third is for the safety of the environment. It's all safety-related.

Many wild animals, no matter how small or sick, can be quite dangerous. It's important to have some knowledge of how they might act or react, and what personal protective gear you should wear to prevent injury to you and the animal. And then there's the issue of zoonosis. There are many diseases that can be passed from animals to humans and/or humans to animals. Direct handling of a wild animal requires a level of knowledge so that everyone involved, as well as the environment, remains safe.

Another concern, as Kai mentioned earlier, is an animal's nutritional needs. Feeding wounded or sick wildlife appropriately is part of keeping them safe. If an animal doesn't receive the right nutrition, it won't survive in the wild. The same goes for an animal's environment and access to conspecifics (other animals of the same species).

Working as a Wildlife Rehabilitator Isn't for Everyone

I asked Kai how her organization advises people who are interested in taking wildlife rehab classes, and want to know how much they'll be paid once they're certified. Kai responded, "You get paid in your heart," which is so true. There's very little pay in wildlife rehabilitation, which is quite frustrating, especially to college students who are really interested in the field and potentially have a bright future in it. They find out there are very few people who actually get paid to do the work, and when there is pay involved, it's typically much less than they hoped.

Most wildlife rehabilitators do it as a second career (while still working in their first career), or they have people in their lives that financially support them. There are some wildlife organizations that have paid staff, but again, the pay is not huge. People who work as full-time wildlife rehabilitators are extremely dedicated. They have to be in constant learning mode, they're supporting themselves, and often the animals as well. It's quite a challenge.

What I tell people is that wildlife rehab is an expensive hobby. In fact, you may end up in debt. But the satisfaction you get from being able to put wildlife back into the environment is second to none. It is so rewarding to those of us who do it that we don't focus on the fact that we're not being paid for our services.

Kai made the point that if a rehabilitator can arrange to work with a rehab facility to offset some of the costs, it can really help. The individual can be involved, but without direct responsibility for finances.

Wildlife rehabilitators definitely need a support system, not just to help with the financial burden of the work, but to provide ongoing education and peer support. Kai used to work with a group in Wisconsin that had three licensees. They each had their own non-profit organization, but they also came together to balance the caseload, exchange information and ideas, and for emotional support. Compassion fatigue is a real issue for wildlife rehabilitators. Often they are out there on your own, spending their own money, making very tough calls, and dealing with some really awful situations.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Efforts Around the World

Next, I asked Kai to talk about the IWRC's goals, and about national and international wildlife rehab efforts.

Kai replied that her organization's mission is to provide science-based education and resources to wildlife rehabilitators and the public to promote wildlife conservation and welfare worldwide. There are many countries beyond the U.S. and Canada that have been involved in wildlife rehabilitation for a very long time.

The IWRC works closely with groups in South Africa, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Turkey, Poland, and Belgium. They are also starting to develop relationships with existing groups in Costa Rica, Belize and Brazil. One of the organization's board members is from Chile – she's a veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator there. Kai says there are significant, longstanding wildlife rehabilitation efforts all throughout South, Central and North America.

Another country where things are starting to happen is China. The IWRC hopes to help those efforts as well.

Also, the organization is having courses translated into an ever-growing number of languages. And one of their members was recently in Nepal and was able to visit a wildlife rehabilitation center that deals with vultures, where she learned quite a lot. So wildlife rehabilitation is definitely occurring all over the world.

In some places, there are very few resources. Other locations are doing amazing things. Kai mentioned an organization in South Africa that has collected an incredible database of information on post-release penguins. Science-based wildlife rehab isn't just about taking care of animals and releasing them back into the wild – it's making sure it's done right. Are they surviving after release? If we don't know what happens after an animal leaves our care, how do we know if we're doing a good job?

Fortunately, Kai is involved in some really great research projects to help validate what we're doing as wildlife rehabilitators, so we can make changes as necessary to become more effective.

What to Do if You Encounter a Wild Animal That Needs Help

In honor of today – World Wildlife Day – I asked Kai to discuss what people should do if they find an injured, ill or orphaned wild animal, and also how people can get more involved locally or even internationally if they want to learn more about wildlife rehabilitation efforts.

Kai responded that when people find a wild animal, if possible, the first thing they should do is call a wildlife rehabilitator. Often people come upon animals that look like they need help, but they're actually fine. The reverse is also true. So talking to an expert before you do anything is always helpful, if not always possible.

If you must handle an animal before talking to an expert, the first thing you should do is think of your own personal safety. For example, if you see an animal in the roadway, or one that is severely injured or stressed, you want to think of your own safety first, and then the animal's. (As evidence of her dedication to wildlife, from a young age, Kai developed the habit of removing roadkill from streets and highways so that an owl or vulture or other predator wouldn't try to eat it and wind up suffering the same fate.)

Kai points out that it can be challenging to get hold of a wildlife rehabilitator. As for finding one to call, there are several websites that provide lists. Often, simply calling a local vet or local wildlife office or humane society can be very helpful. Those places often keep lists of local wildlife rehabilitators, especially in North America. It can be trickier in other countries, of course. But in North America, there is usually at least one wildlife rehabilitator within driving distance of almost everybody.

How You Can Help Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Efforts Around Your Home

Next, I asked Kai to give some tips on what we can do as individuals to be more wildlife-friendly or wildlife-conscious around our homes and communities.

She responded that one thing we can do to is to plant an edible landscape or create homes for, say, lizards that love a good pile of rocks to hide in. Not only will you get to watch visiting wildlife, but they really keep the insects down – especially mosquitoes – so building habitats on your property helps them and you. Kai says there are plenty of great resources available to people interested in creating wildlife habitats.

Another thing we can do is eliminate dangers, for example, free-roaming pet cats. Kitties can cause problems for wildlife, and cat-caught wildlife doesn't usually survive, even with rehab efforts. If possible, keep cats indoors, fit them with a bib that prevents pouncing on prey, or build an outdoor cat enclosure that keeps kitty in, and wildlife out.

I asked Kai about the dangers of pesticide use. She replied that whenever possible, avoid use of toxic chemicals like pesticides. If you must use them, be very careful to abide by all regulations and follow all instructions. Kai described a problem that occurred last spring in Oregon. A pesticide was sprayed on trees while they were blooming. If the people who applied the chemicals had more training and read package instructions, they would have discovered they shouldn't use it. The trees that were sprayed were a particular favorite of honeybees. The ground below the trees ended up covered with dead honeybees. It was a devastating loss.

Companies that use pesticides should know what they're doing around wildlife. And according to Kai, wildlife removal companies are another issue. Many claim their procedures are humane – sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't – so you need to really question them. If you have need of these types of companies, do some research to determine how committed they are to protecting wildlife.

Kai points out that the Humane Society has wonderful resources for homeowners to resolve problems with wildlife short of evicting them. Or if eviction is necessary (they're in your attic, for example), there are ways to move them out that don't leave babies behind or cause more problems than they solve. It's important, when wildlife must be removed, to also remove the reason they were there in the first place. Otherwise, another critter will take their place eventually.

Certainly, if you don't want wildlife around, skip Kai's earlier idea of creating edible landscapes and habitats in your yard. Don't feed your pets outside, and eliminate outdoor water sources to avoid attracting wildlife.

Kai points out that we also can't pick and choose what wildlife we attract. If you have a birdfeeder, for example, not only will you attract songbirds to your feeder, but also the hawks that feed on the songbirds. So it's important to understand what you do and don't want to attract to your property in terms of wildlife.

Thank You, Kai Williams!

I want to express my sincere thanks to Kai for taking time to join me today to talk about the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, and also for the great advice and suggestions she offered us. I look forward to seeing the IWRC evolve both on a national and international level!