A man I work with told me he had once rescued a gray fox somewhere in Pennsylvania. It had been hit by a car and he found a rehab place that would do surgery to mend its broken leg. After a while he called back to see how the fox was doing and they told him they’d had to put it down because the injury was not healing properly. The man was really upset by this; he felt like it had all been for nothing and that he should have either found somewhere else to take it, or should have left it where he found it. People tend to get the wrong idea about what wildlife rehabilitation is, and they often treat wild animals as if they were pets. The thing is, if a pet dog’s broken leg doesn’t heal properly, we can make a sort of wheelchair for him, we can perform more surgeries, we, as the pet’s owner, can give it the added care an attention it’s going to need to live a long and happy life. This isn’t possible with a wild animal. That fox, if released, would likely have been in pain every single day, with every single step. It wouldn’t have been able to hunt effectively and it would have starved to death.
The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is not to simply get the animal to live. It’s to get the animal back to a point where it can survive and thrive as it would have pre-injury or illness. If that can’t happen, we’re left with no other option. It’s not a desirable option, it’s not a decision that we take lightly. We must consider the animal’s quality of life after it’s released from our care. Sometimes when an animal is not releasable and they won’t be in pain, we are able to place them with educational facilities like zoos or wildlife sanctuaries. With non-releasables this is the best outcome, but sadly it’s not the most common. However, even the deaths of animals that must be euthanized are not in vain. There are many places that will preserve the body and use them for education in nature centers, labs, and zoological facilities.
Last week I was there when a hawk came in with a shattered shoulder. The severity and location of the injury meant the bird would never fly again and would live a life of pain, so the decision was made to humanely end its life. It’s so hard to do this; I just sat with the bird, gently stroking the non-injured wing, hoping that this would comfort him as he fell asleep forever. Knowing that it was the best option for this particular bird did not make it any easier.
We respect all life that comes through our doors and always do whatever we can to make their lives healthy and happy. Sometimes the damage humans inflict on nature is too severe, though, and we just can’t fix it.