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Sometimes I wonder what Charles Darwin might say about the current culture of wildlife rehabilitation. A recent episode in Portland, Oregon made national news and sparked some local debate surrounding human interventions when wild animals seem to be imperiled.
On the morning of 3 March 2014, two adult Bald Eagles were found entangled in the branches of tree in a southeast Portland neighborhood. They seemed to be locked together by the talons and unable to free themselves from either the tree, or one another. Frantic onlookers made phone calls the local Audubon Society rehabilitation center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Many of those onsite believed that the eagles were gravely injured and that they would need to be captured and rehabbed. Eventually a bucket truck with a "cherry-picker" arrived on the scene. Lacy Campbell of the Audubon Society of Portland rehab center and another wildlife veterinarian loaded into the bucket and were raised up to help the eagles free themselves. As the rescuers drew near, the eagles became increasingly agitated and broke free on their own. They flew off over the housetops, apparently no worse for the wear.
In the aftermath, various television stations and news outlets reported that the eagles were "fighting" (KOIN) and that one of the eagles had apparently lodged a talon in the thigh of the other. Otherwise, there were no outward signs of injury. It is well known that courting pairs of adult eagles clasp talons and do "death spiral" drop, plummeting hundreds of feet before releasing. This courtship ritual has resulted in injury and death when eagles failed to break their grasp before hitting the ground. Some who viewed video clips of the entangled eagles believe that these birds may have been a mated pair that ended up stuck in the tree at the end of courtship spiral, rather than two adult males fighting over territory. Studies of Bald Eagle territorial disputes suggest that actual physical contact is rare. (http://bna.birds.cornell.edu)
My question is this, if these eagles found themselves in this predicament as a result of typical behavior–there is no reason to think otherwise–was human intervention appropriate and did it ultimately benefit the species? I believe that Darwin's answer would have been no!
Let's reconstruct this scenario. What would have happened had these birds become stuck in a tree far from human habitation in the nearby Coast Range or the Mt. Hood National Forest? There would have been no intervention. Perhaps these birds would have never become quite frightened or panicked enough to extricate themselves. Perhaps they would have succumbed to starvation and removed themselves from the gene pool. We have no way to know how this episode would have played out sans the human intervention. Could it be that one or both of these eagles was afflicted with eyesight or depth perception issues that contributed to their entrapment? If so, could it be that human efforts saved these eagles from their own deficiencies? If they reproduce, could these deficiencies be passed forward rather than being naturally selected out of the population by their death? In theory, this rescue effort may have weakened the local Bald Eagle population by contributing to the survival and reproduction of less-fit individuals.
I believe that the evolving culture of 'wildlife rehabilitation,' a comparatively recent addition to the human experience, may be reinforcing one negative aspect in the way many humans view wildlife. We find baby birds and animals to be cute and endearing and we project onto them those qualities of helplessness and need for tender care that we see in our own offspring. Unfortunately, we are in no position to know or understand what is best for the offspring of other species. Rather than observing and attempting to better understand the natural interactions of wild animals, the first inclination for some is to believe that they have a role to play when these interactions result in peril to individuals. The knee-jerk response seems to be, "I need to do something" or, "I need to help." In most instances, the best course of action may be to do nothing and to avoid trying to provide help or rescue.
Prior to about the 1960's, the notion of a wildlife rehabilitation center was a foreign concept. Then in the late 1960's and early 1970's high-profile offshore oil spills resulted in thousands of beached oiled seabirds (http://www.angelfire.com/nj/woundedknee/rehabhist.html). What had been truly a cottage industry conducted by individual nature lovers in their own homes–mostly raising baby birds or adopting injured squirrels–now required a coordinated response of considerable scale. Protocols and facilities with paid staff cropped up to deal with this 2oth century threat to wildlife and in 1982 the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association was formed to bring professional standards to this work (http://www.nwrawildlife.org/content/history-nwra). Most would rightly argue that in cases of anthropogenic impacts on wildlife a human response is not only appropriate, but morally obligated, thus for this purpose the existence of wildlife rehabilitation/treatment centers is warranted.
Thankfully, catastrophic environmental disasters aren't everyday events, but they still occur with enough frequency that there is a need to maintain these facilities for those occasions when they are most needed. Generally speaking, wildlife rehab centers are independent non-profit entities, or part of a larger non-profit organization (i.e. the Audubon Society of Portland's Wildlife Care Center). Underwriting a facility, care materials and a modest trained staff carries a significant cost, all of which must come from donations and grants. How then do these care centers recruit volunteers/supporters and raise money?
One element to any successful fund-raising effort is tugging at the heartstrings of potential donors. From the smiling Girl Scout selling cookies in front of the local grocery store, to informercials about starving kids in the Third World, we are shown a need and asked to respond to it. For wildlife rehabilitation centers, this connection is made by offering a place to take the baby bird that you find in your backyard. If you had to pay $100 to drop off a fledgling Song Sparrow, you probably wouldn't, but the experience of being able to do so at no cost may inspire you to make a tax-deductible $100 donation once a year for several years. Ironically, care centers discourage the activity that probably connects them with most of their future donors. The fine print on their websites generally advises against doing what many people will do when they encounter wildlife in apparent distress. The instructions below appear on the Audubon Society of Portland's Wildlife Care Center website.
Many species of birds such as robins, scrub jays, crows and owls leave the nest and spend as many as 2-5 days on the ground before they can fly. This is a normal and vital part of the young birds' development. While they are on the ground, the birds are cared for and protected by their parents and are taught vital life skills (finding food, identifying predators, flying). Taking these birds into captivity denies them the opportunity to learn skills they will need to survive in the wild. Unless a bird is injured, it is essential to leave them outside to learn from their parents. (Sourced online at http://audubonportland.org/wcc/urban/babybirds)
As it is, hatch-year mortality in birds is extremely high, even when everything goes right. Once a fledgling is 'rescued' and removed from the natural world for a even a brief period, it's hard to imagine that its prospects can be good once it's returned to the wild. As suggested above, the one-time opportunity to acquire requisite survival skills is lost and vital lessons can never be learned. When humans see a baby bird on the ground they typically make one of two faulty presumptions...that it has either fallen from a nest before actually fledgling, or that it has been abandoned. Typically, hatclings are on the ground because they've fledged but can't yet fly and their parents are either off gathering food, or sitting patiently in a nearby bush waiting for the potential threat (us) to leave the area.
Ultimately, most all of wildlife behavior that we observe is what the birds and animals are supposed to be doing and part of their natural history. It may be stressful and unpleasant to watch and there may be an urge to respond to apparent suffering. However, unless that suffering has been brought about by some human action, nature should be left to take its own course. There are hard-wired biological and survival mechanisms at play that we don't recognize, or fully understand. Trying to help is more likely to hinder.
It's not easy to set aside our human emotions and avoid applying our own value systems and judgments to natural events. I don't have ready answers to some of the questions that I've raise about wildlife rehab/care centers. On occasion, they provide a necessary response to problems that we humans have created for wildlife. They are also instrumental in helping humans appreciate and better understand the natural world. That said, I have to wonder if their very presence reinforce predictable human emotional responses that may be detrimental on a broader scale. What are the effects of 'rescuing' a baby bird that has neither fallen out of a nest, nor been abandoned, or allowing adults that may be less fit to survive and reproduce?