At a wildlife rehabilitation centre in eastern New Brunswick, a young bald eagle is learning to fly, a black bear cub is recuperating from kneecap surgery, and six tiny red foxes are training to catch their own food.
Most animals at the Atlantic Wildlife Institute are injured, sick or orphaned and in need of tending so they can one day return to the wild. But not all wildlife brought to the non-profit centre should be. Rehabilitator Barry Rothfuss estimates nearly a third are needlessly displaced, a vexing situation facing wildlife handlers throughout the country.
“In a lot of cases, people will interfere in the natural selection process,” said Mr. Rothfuss, who co-founded the Atlantic Wildlife Institute near Sackville. “You can’t take away the rabbit from the fox. You have to understand how nature is behaving.”
Mr. Rothfuss hopes a new wildlife-response network will address this challenge while also bringing aid to more animals that need it. Designed by the Atlantic Wildlife Institute, the model is unique: An extensive pool of volunteers will be trained to serve as first responders, dispatched to distress calls to assess injured or abandoned wildlife, report hazards and transport animals for treatment when needed.
Training sessions for about 100 people begin next month in New Brunswick’s three largest cities: Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton. The goal is to eventually have volunteers in all pockets of the province, eliminating gaps in wildlife care.
Mr. Rothfuss believes the wildlife network, which is patterned on disaster emergency response models, can serve as a prototype for other provinces. As some Torontonians discovered this past summer, finding help for wounded wildlife can be extremely difficult. With no veterinarian available on an August weekend to tend to a deer struck by a car, a Toronto police officer had to shoot the animal dead within earshot of concerned residents.
Finding qualified people to respond to wildlife calls is a challenge in the United States, too, said Sandy Woltman, president of the Minnesota-based National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. Governments on both sides of the border have limited resources for dealing with wild animals in distress and the responsibility often falls to non-profit groups that largely rely on donations to finance their work.
Ms. Woltman sees merit in establishing a wildlife-response network that is driven by volunteers.
“To have people who are already trained and able to go at a moment’s notice, that would be wonderful,” she said. “Most rehabilitation facilities … really count on the general public who finds that animal to bring it to them.”
Proper training, however, will be key to ensure the right animals are helped, said Nova Scotia wildlife pathologist Pierre-Yves Daoust, a regional director with the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre.
Increasing urbanization is changing how Canadians relate to wildlife, Dr. Daoust noted. Public outcries demanding help for wounded deer or a seagull stuck in a lake of mud, as was the case in Moncton a few weeks ago, are often misplaced. And some abandoned animals are better off left in the wild.
“Much of the public, especially in urban areas … has lost this understanding of what wildlife, nature is about, and wishes that every single orphan should be rehabilitated,” Dr. Daoust said. “In the long run, it may be detrimental to the animal that we are actually trying to protect.”
To build its network of first responders, the Atlantic Wildlife Institute is initially turning to people who work with animals, such as veterinarians and animal-welfare groups. Nanette Pearl, executive director of the Greater Moncton SPCA, expects all 18 workers at the SPCA will participate. The new network is backed by $400,000 in contributions from foundations.
Mr. Rothfuss has another goal for the program: To help examine the underlying causes of wildlife injuries and displacement. To accomplish this, the circumstances behind each distress call will be tracked in a database with an eye on detecting emerging diseases, environmental hazards and development pressures.
“These animals are telling us a story about what’s going on in our environment,” Mr. Rothfuss said. “If we’re not monitoring, we miss those corridors of opportunities where we can best respond.”