If you’re a former, present or future biology student this interests you. One of the most rewarding work experiences I ever had was working in a wildlife rescue center. Actually, I worked as a technical assistant veterinary, but allowed me to know how a center like this (led by a biologist) works and have direct contact with wildlife. These are just 5 experiences and lessons learned from that adventure.
WHAT IS A WILDLIFE RECOVERY CENTER?
It is a center where sick or injured wild animals are welcome where they have veterinary care and food until they are able to fend for themselves. Then they are released into the wild. This centers are of great importance for the conservation of the species, especially those that are endangered or vulnerable. The contact with animals should be the minimum to avoid humanizing them and not change their behavior so they can survive once reintroduced in nature.
Some centers also breed in captivity threatened species, such as the Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) to try to recover wild populations introducing the offspring in nature.
Unfortunately, some animals are unrecoverable due to his injuries or behavior, so in the center they lived some birds of prey such as the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) to be an example in environmental education and awareness.
If you find an injured animal, NEVER try to keep, treat or feed it: probably you’ll cause more injuries. Always call one of these centers or local authorities. They have the facilities and appropriate knowledge to treat these animals.
1. CLEAN, CLEAN AND… MORE CLEANING
The first information I got when I entered the center was: “80% of the time of this work is to clean the animal facilities. But the remaining 20% is worth rewarding. “
The director was right. It is a job where you’ll get dirty, and if you’re a little apprehensive, it is not for you or you’ll need to get used (and believe me, you get used to almost everything , cleaning was not the hardest thing I faced). But see how it goes ahead an animal that you have taken care, is priceless.
2. THE WONDER OF WORKING IN THE MIDDLE OF NATURE
The dream of many biologists is working in direct contact with nature. These centers are usually in it, which gives the opportunity to work outdoors, away from the stress and pollution of the city. Sometimes it rains, makes a blazing sun or cold temperatures will freeze your hands and cut your skin. But the good times are terribly comforting. Many of us prefer put up with occasionally adverse weather conditions rather than being locked in a windowless office for 8 or more hours
In my case we also had a pair of attached facilities outside the center and had to go every day strolling through the woods, with the added appeal and adrenaline (especially if you met a wild boar) to see animals and plants in their habitat.
The field work was completed by the laboratory and treatment room: analysis of feces, blood, muscle… to detect the presence of parasites in new animals, future reintroduced ones and dead ones: autopsies allow to have a record of possible diseases and epidemics of local fauna.
3. GIVE LIFE… BUT ALSO QUIT LIFE
In addition to maintain proper hygienic conditions, the main occupation that I had was to feed the animals. At that time there were mammals like hedgehogs, badgers or foxes which we fed with fodder and supplements such as worms.
For raptors, one of the most frequent tenants, the diet was based mainly in chicks and mice. The chicks were bought frozen, you just had to plan the thawing and leave them on their premises. In one case I had to hand feed one tawny owl (Otus scops) with a broken wing, so the contact with the animal was inevitable. And feeding a nocturnal bird of prey, althought it was a small one, is complicated task the first time!
The mice instead were kept alive. By ethics and risk the animal was injured, we had to kill them with the least possible suffering before serving them as food. To learn the technique and do it properly, creates a sense of contradiction, so it’s better to focus on the animal you’re trying to save as a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), a viper (Vipera Aspis), a tawny owl (Strix aluco), kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), a hawk (Accipiter gentilis)… For herbivores, such Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni), was much easier to prepare their food. And the nicest thing, to feed a baby squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).
The hardest moment is where you have to euthanize an animal. Unfortunately, some animals are seriously injured and you can not do anything to save them. In other cases, if it is not priority species (such as gulls, pigeons, invasive species…) lack of resources and/or legislation euthanasia is the only solution left. First the animal anesthetized to avoid unnecessary suffering, and then euthanized with a syringe directly into the heart to make it as fast as possible. Find the heart with a stethoscope and have to check it has stopped is one of the most harrowing experiences that I had to live there.
So death is also present in these centers. Causes frustration and sadness see dying an animal you are trying to get ahead, or having to euthanize it to avoid suffering, but it is one of the difficulties it has to be faced.
4. HUMANS, THE MAIN REASON OF INCOME OF WOUNDED ANIMALS
The animals arrived to the center through forest rangers, with which you have constant communication, associations or other institutions or individuals. On occasions we moved because it was impossible to move the animal: a huge wild boar (Sus scrofa) hit by a train. The collisions are a leading cause of death of wild animals. The situation could not be more daunting: rain, the animal on the roadside in a pool of his own blood and mud. Were difficult times as we had to apply higher euthanasia doses than normal because he clung to life, besides having to ensure our own security. Finally, for all of us the suffering ended. Dirty and sad, we get on the jeep back to the center.
The possession of wild animals as pets causes accidents by negligence or ignorance of their owners: was the case of an eagle which it had cut its primary feathers so he could not fly when it wasn’t a harmless chick anymore. He had to undergo surgery and expect to grow new feathers and learn to fly again.
Pets themselves also causes serious injuries: for example tortoises, iguanas bitten by dogs…
The traps, poisoning and direct shots of hunters , even on protected species like raptors, is another cause of having animals in these centers. Birds also face hazards such as power lines, pylons, wind turbines, wired fences … death traps for many of them.
There were few cases where the causes of admission to the center were natural or impossible to determine. In fact, I do not remember any.
5. THAT FEELING WATCHING A RECOVERED ANIMAL FLYING TO FREEDOM
The most wonderful moment is that one in which the animal is ready to return to nature. Planning how and where, taking the journey to the place, checking the surroundings (and if lucky, with the sighting of other species) the moment you open the cage. .. and you see these two kestrels that you have been feeding for months, eager to rise into the sky, you with binoculars in your hand observing them away into the vastness to become tiny black dots… and disappear. I’ve never seen more clearly a metaphor of what freedom is. That feeling, like love, can not be explained.
Cover photo: Mireia Querol. Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) in flight over the Foz of Lumbier (Navarra, 2007).
* The photos of this post do not belong to the animal rescue center, they are used as an example of the species listed in the post