Review of Rehab Decisions: When to Rescue!!

Hancock here:   a Review of our policy of the difficulty of rescuing raptors into rehab and then to "euthanize or not to euthanize."

The last element to  "euthanize or not to euthanize" captures all the gut wrenching emotions facing a person who just exercised their 'right motivations' and 'feel good' elements of considering to help out a critter in need.  Now the more terrible decisions come forward.  But lets start with the previous question that they faced moments earlier: when to bring a wild eaglet into captivity?    Is this the right moment to intervene? Or can we leave this creature in the wild for another few hours or days or is this the last and best chance to capture?  Animals have great recuperative powers and our judgements are not always right.  What is best for the animal?  Difficult questions to answer but we feel obligated to evaluate and act -- we are humans!

Rehabers offer great service but not without investing great commitment and often gut wrenching efforts.  So here is my perspective on some of these gut-wrenching  issues -- from a committed animal lover, a conservationist, a breeder of many birds, a biologist and one of British Columbia's pioneer rehabers.   And one thing is clear from my 64 years of dealing with these issues: the commitment inevitably leads to a lot of  gut-wrenching aftermath and none of the decisions ever gets easier. 

While much of the following can apply to most species I am specifically addressing eagles that are more frequently getting into difficulties and need our help.

Why do I even attempt to answer this emotion-charged field:  The big answer is simple -- I care about the animals and have been directly involved in these decision from my early years. So here it is again. At age 11 we moved to a farm and I started to raise pigeons, pheasants and the family chickens.  The first year I caught a hawk, met one of the world's most experienced falconers  and he became my mentor into understanding ecology.  Because of my mentor, Frank Beebe's position working at the Provincial Museum and his connections with the biologist community,  I was soon the only person on southern Vancouver Island who the Fish & Wildlife Gamewardens or biologists could bring an injured bird or mammal to for care. The SPCA was not equipped to look after hawks, seabirds or cougar kittens. Hancock became the easy way out!  And this was  a long time before there were 'rehab permits' -- there was just the need to have someone look after orphaned or incapacitated wildlife.  Time and circumstances simply dictated that I was given anything rescue
d from the Island or from the mainland if Stanley Park Zoo didn't want to deal with it!

The menagerie soon extended from raptors to seabirds and seals, bears, cougars and deer.  The house and farm soon took on the trappings of the first rehabilitation center for the British Columbia area. I would commandeer the local vets into helping, but that is expensive and pretty soon the unpaid vets were encouraging me to learn to handle most challenges on my own.  The biggest challenge then was if you could not release a critter, was to find it a home or euthanize the poor beast.  Then we had more options:  at least there were possibilities of giving the animal to a zoo, private breeder or an educator.

Today, few animal are wanted by or acceptable to zoos. Giving wildlife to private people or educators is almost a no-no.  So the options for today's rehabers are basically 'wild release'  or 'euthanasia'.  These are tough calls by people who care.

 In BC if the bird is not likely fixable for release the bird is/must be put down. The real troubling area becomes those birds that look treatable, are treated for some time,  but in the end are evaluated as  'possibly not being able to cut the wild mustard'. Now a lot of time, money, personal attachment, commitment and emotion have come into the equation for this one bird.  Challenging for all.

Root Decision:  At the roots of the first few decisions are: (a)  can the bird ........

 possibly be left safely -- perhaps a few more hours or a day or two -- in the wild to overcome its 'apparent momentary difficulties'. Or are the difficulties not momentary?  Sometimes this is as simple as giving the bird quietness, getting it up a tree out of harms way or away from dangerous roads etc. or (b) should it immediately be brought into rehab and more extensive evaluation?  Then if in rehab what becomes of the bird on the (i) short term at evaluation (treatment or euthanasia)  or  (ii)  long-term care and does the bird finally make it to freedom or again face euthanasia?  The decisions don't get easier -- they get more emotionally charged as time and familiarity with this individual animal breeds more compassion.

My personal position is that if at all reasonable, I favor option (a), leaving the bird in the wild until the last minute (usually meaning just before dark and still seeing that the creature is not finding safe shelter),  but I am so pleased and optimistic with (b) and passing that final decision of (i) or (ii) onto OWL (or another rehaber)  --  that this is a great relief. 

The Real Dilemma for a Found & Wild Distressed Raptor:   The question often becomes who makes these decisions and what criteria are used to determine "treatment vs euthanasia"?  If there are no placement options for healthy but unreleasable birds then "even questionably releasable birds" have to be put down.  Or the facility has to end up holding dozens or hundreds of crippled animals -- and increasingly this applies to eagles.   Beyond using what few individual animals can be utilized in education, this "long-term holding option" is not going to do the education or conservation of eagles any good.

Most government wildlife agencies have very limited allowance-tolerance-permitting for people to hold eagles for education etc. -- and almost none for breeding.  So the first decision is the big and possibly re-occurring decision.  If the animal can likely be rehabed and released it gets a second chance.  If the prospects of surviving in the wild due to some impairment is not great -- or becomes less great -- then the creature is usually euthanized.

A Couple of Specific Local Challenges:

(a)   The Recent Sardis Rehab Challenge:    The big issue here is why is the Sardis Group losing their treatment / rehab eagle holding permits?  I can only guess it is over the personal issue surrounding euthanasia vs. long-term holding -- and who does the "keeping of the birds"!!  

All these issues become either political or personal -- the issues are not generally about "conservation" or keeping a bird alive for the individual bird's sake or the species concerns!!  Perhaps Karen Wheatley and OWL can assist in holding the US birds while this "holding permit issue" is being resolved.  The US has a way around transferring the eagles to Canada (and back) if this is necessary.  If the government agencies come up with the standard "It is not legal to 'export' an eagle!" call me as this is not the issue.  The US government has wonderful, proven and legal ways of redefining words.  They have a very legal and straightforward way to transfer the eagles in and out of the US but they generally prefer not to use it -- and some of their wildlife people simply do not understand their laws -- or don't want to -- so they take the 'other' law that says, "You cannot import or export an eagle."-- but their laws, while stating that, also allow for the transfer of eagles from one country to another.  This is another example of "double talk" -- but let's not go there!

(b)   Our  Recent Eaglet Rescue from the High Tension Power Tower -- or really from below it -- is another good case in point.  On the 3rd day that I noticed one of the siblings was either "still hiding in the nest cup or gone" (but not thought to have been quite old enough to fledge) I decided to
check under the tower.  

Boundary Bay Nest

 Surely enough there was the eaglet hiding in the long grass.  It seemed fine.  I forced it to fly but the response was a short 120 foot flight.  When approached a second time it only went 20 feet, then 10.  Not the desired response from a fully fledged grown eaglet. 

At this time a farmer came up on his 4-wheeler and told me the bird had been on the ground 5 days and nights, running and taking short 10 - 20 foot flights during the day. That was a surprise and wonderful that no coyote had gotten the eaglet.  

I decided to catch the eaglet, check its wings and feathers etc. and all proved in good shape.  The bird was thin but it needed to be thin to easily navigate the 1000 miles to Alaska via soaring.  I decided to double check the bird again that evening and try and get it up on a higher cross-bar on the tower. 



















The next morning I re-checked the bird again, we banded it and left it to hopefully continue its maturation and exercising and flying practice. It flew even more poorly on release.  At mid-day the bird seemed even less inclined to fly. 

Decisions, decisions, decisions.  Christian and I caught it and took it to OWL.   


I, of course, well know that OWL has the finest rehab facilities probably in North America and in the safety of their huge flight pen this eaglet has a good chance of getting good flight exercise and being gone within 7 - 10 days.  And a "second chance at OWL" is better than being eaten by a coyote or run over by a car.  It can then be released within the normal northern migration period so it can get to the northern BC or Alaskan Rivers -- where the dead salmon are already lining the shores.

A note on the eaglets condition:  While this bird was thin it was not emaciated. The wing feathers were all hard-pinned, meaning that the growth was complete and the blood was withdrawn from the sheath. Most of the dead sheath materials had already sloughed off but it remained on one feather of each side.  This bird was about 7 - 10 days of fledging when it 'probably accidentally' fell or was blown or knocked by the sibling from the tower.  My field check of the bird's health was reconfirmed by a more careful examination of the bird on the OWL inspection table by Rob and his crew.

The prognosis was -- "the bird had no externally noticeable damage".  Time in the flight cage will tell if the wing has some incapacity.  The wing joint was a bit swollen and the bird did not seem to want to fly very hard but that could simply be due to it not yet having reached that critical time -- the 84th day of age +- one or two days -- or it got bruised on the fall-flight down.

So in talking with Karen Wheatley, the OWL president, the action plan was to feed and exercise the bird until it exhibits good flying skills in their great flight cage.  This could be 7 - 10 days and then hopefully it will be released at the site and join its sibling and neighbors on the migration north.  The OWL folks well understand the flight dynamics of young eagles. They are normally not fed for the 7 - 10 days, between the time of encouraging fledging to when abandoned by the parents, as a prelude to initiating the migration on their own.  Their abandonment is the real hard initiation ritual for living on your own!!  (I will let you extrapolate from that to what we do with our kids - I'm not going there!!).  With the loss of some body weight they can more readily and easily soar on the updrafts that brush the entire length of the coastal mountains. These soaring migrants literally fly--glide down-hill all the way to Alaska on the rising air -- and probably in 3 to 4 days.  We will post the shots when OWL releases the bird.

With a "second chance" in hand -- or that should be on the wing!! -- we may see this bird back in the fall, feasting along the rich habitat of Boundary Bay or the Harrison River salmon spawn.  Then maybe Christian with his big lens will get to photograph the leg-band on the beach this fall!!!  Or I may get to see it at the nearby landfill where so many eagles gather.  We wish him--her well.   At 7 "thin" pounds (maybe 2 pounds underweight!) this could be a large male or a small female.  The wingspan was 6 feet and 1 inch -- probably making it a large male.  (If you saw my first report on the eagle I did a typo of 7 feet 1 inch – bad David!!) 

The forever optimistic,

David Hancock


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