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Rethinking Wildlife Rehabiliation

John Braid is a Masters student doing an MSc in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law. He has previously studied the LLB and Diploma at the University of Aberdeen.

Tens of thousands of sick and injured wild animals are admitted to rehabilitation centres every year in the UK. Rehabilitation stories are often picked up by the media and portrayed to the public as successful. This article challenges popular views about the benefits of wildlife rehabilitation, and suggests that the existing legislation does not do enough to ensure that the welfare of the individual animal is always the primary concern.

Wildlife rehabilitation has been described as temporarily treating and caring for injured, diseased, or displaced animals, before releasing those animals into appropriate wild habitats. This practice is prominent in the United Kingdom, where there are hundreds of rehabilitation centres[1] dealing with an estimated 60,000-80,000 animals every year[2]. It is therefore appropriate that there is legislation governing the area. Attitudes towards whether humans should intervene with wildlife are driven by a number of factors: the extent to which man is responsible for the issue, the conservation status and popularity of the animal, and the extent of the welfare problem are all influences on attitudes[3]. Zoologist Pat Morris once questioned whether wildlife rehabilitation is more about making people feel good than it is about animal welfare, which remains a pertinent question to ask. This article challenges popular views about the benefits of wildlife rehabilitation, and suggests that the existing legislation does not do enough to ensure that the welfare of the individual animal is always the primary concern.


Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981[4], which is the main legislation governing wildlife rehabilitation, aims to protect animals; interference with wild animals is only permitted if the human intention is to help that animal, either by nursing it back to health[5], or by euthanising the animal if there is ‘no reasonable chance of its recovering[6]. This applies to all wild birds[7], and a significant number of other wild animals[8], which are listed in the act[9]. Licenses are required before releasing specific animals into the wild; for example, potentially invasive species such as the grey squirrel[10]. Some wild animals are given their own specific legislation: for example, the Protection of Badgers Act 1992[11] provides that interference with badgers is also permitted for rehabilitation purposes, and euthanasia is allowed in the case of serious injury. Some species are not specifically protected such as weasels, hedgehogs and many invertebrates. However, all mammals must be taken, handled and/or killed humanely under the Wild Mammals Protection Act 1996[12]. UK legislation also ensures that animals captured for the purposes of rehabilitation are subject to a duty of care: the Animal Welfare Act 2006[13] provides that any animal under the control of man, on a permanent or temporary basis, must have their needs met[14]. This includes inter alia the provision of a suitable diet and environment[15]. There are also both international and domestic organisations which offer guidelines on wildlife rehabilitation.


The British Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (BRWC) are a charity who bring together wildlife rehabilitators around the country, although they have no legal authority. They state that the main concern during any rehabilitation effort must always be the welfare of the individual animal.[16] Others may identify conservation as the ultimate goal, but the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management point out that this goal is rarely served by wildlife rehabilitation, with the exception of endangered species[17]. The UK legislation provides a framework which protects animals up to a point, but it does not specify that the welfare of the individual animal is the most important factor. It reflects the common mistaken view that rehabilitation is the best thing for the animal in most cases, and that euthanasia is a last resort for only the most extreme cases. Current legislation makes it likely that people (however well-intentioned they are) may be guided by their anthropomorphic[18] views and embark upon rehabilitation efforts which do more harm than good to an animal. For example, anthropocentric words such as ‘rescue’ or ‘rehabilitation’ are often used, despite the fact that a wild animal is not aware that its capture and subsequent treatment are for its own benefit.


Early euthanasia is arguably the most humane course of action for animals in many situations[19]. Whilst some have argued that death is a welfare issue (due to inter alia the loss of potential positive welfare states in the future), the view taken here is that death is not a harm if it is done to alleviate suffering. Intervention by euthanasia stops the animal from feeling the pain of its injury or illness, and will also prevent the stress and pain caused at several different stages of the lengthy rehabilitation process. Several different factors can contribute to stress including: capture, captivity, transport, veterinary examinations and reintroduction to the wild.[20] Whilst most species are able to cope with acute stress (for example due to their natural interactions with predators[21]) the cumulative effect of successive stressors can become problematic: stress can turn to distress in animals when resources are redirected from important biological functions to cope with the challenge.


As well as preventing suffering during rehabilitation, euthanasia prevents the possibility of suffering after rehabilitation. It is debatable what constitutes a successful rehabilitation, with animal welfarists and conservationists differing in their opinions[22]. For many people, a successful rehabilitation is a high release rate back into the wild[23], a view which is fuelled by media stories that put a positive spin on ‘happy endings’ when an animal is released. However, this is a false as it fails to account for the future suffering of the animal. In fact, where survival rates have been measured, there are often animal welfare concerns. A study tracking polecats after release[24] showed that 28% of animals were confirmed dead due to road traffic accidents, and the tracking signal was lost for the other animals: therefore their fate was unknown. There is clearly no animal welfare benefit in rehabilitating an animal back into a dangerous environment where they are likely to endure more suffering at the hands of human activity.


Apart from the suffering of the individual animal itself, there can be indirect welfare consequences. For example, rehabilitating injured animals could be facilitating survival of less well adapted individuals, which could have detrimental impacts on offspring. Alternatively, releasing an animal into an environment where resources are scarce could increase competition and have a detrimental impact on other animals. Without any intervention, injured wild animals will be left to die; this will usually involve pain and stress to varying degrees. Whilst this seems ethically problematic at first, it should be remembered that it is not possible for humans to intervene and prevent all suffering to wildlife. One approach is therefore to intervene in cases where animals have suffered because of the impact of humans.


It cannot be denied that human activity is the cause of many wildlife casualties. It is often argued that rehabilitating wildlife is an opportunity to balance out the negative impacts that humans have had on nature. The highest profile example is the aftermath of oil spills. However, the idea that it is possible to ‘balance out’ the damage of these events is a fallacy. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, only 197 sea otters were eventually released back into the wild; contrasted to 1000 carcasses that were recovered. Of those released, 22 of the 45 tracked by radio transmitters were either dead or lost by the following spring[25]. The vast rehabilitation efforts involved made a small contribution to limiting the considerable damage of the oil spill, but did not balance it out. This is not an isolated example. Closer to home, many animals are admitted to rescue centres due to pet injuries or collisions with road vehicles (e.g. 40% of hedgehogs[26]; 70% of sparrowhawks[27]). In the case of sparrowhawks, only 24% were fit for re-release, and the survival of this proportion was not tracked. The cost of rehabilitating wildlife is also expensive, particularly in the case of an oil spill[28]. Effort and money would be better directed at preventative measures such as habitat preservation, thus reducing the contact between wildlife and humans. Of course, it cannot be known if funders of rehabilitation work would give their money to other causes such as habitat preservation.


Wildlife rehabilitation is likely to continue, simply because the public are unlikely to stand by and do nothing in severe or high profile cases. The point of this article is not to suggest that all animals should be heartlessly disposed of, regardless of their state. Rather, it is suggested that it would benefit animal welfare if it was recognised that the whole process of rehabilitation can be a negative one for the individual animal. From there, on a case by case basis, informed decisions could be made to ensure that if rehabilitation occurs, the stress and pain suffered by the animal will be balanced out by other factors such as a high chance of survival post-release. Otherwise, euthanasia should be recognised as kind, rather than a cruel and heartless act. The concept of rehabilitation as an effective way to balance out human acts is not completely wrong, but in many cases the damage has been done; therefore preventative measures are more important and should attract more resources than rehabilitation. This paper has argued that the law regulating wildlife rehabilitation in the UK is inadequate and does not serve in the best interests of injured wild animals. Although current legislation is intended to be protective of animals, it is inadequate at doing so as it focuses on popular beliefs rather than scientific evidence about animal welfare. One of the main obstacles to achieving this is changing the views of the general public, who support wildlife rehabilitation without fully considering the consequences to animals.


[1] A Kelly, R Scrivens and A Grogan, ‘Post-release survival of orphaned wild-born polecats (Mustela putorius) reared in captivity at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in England’ (2010) Endangered Species Research 12: 107–115.

[2] A Grogan and A Kelly, ‘A review of RSPCA research into wildlife rehabilitation’ (2011) Veterinary Record 172: 211–211.

[3] JK Kirkwood, ‘Interventions for wildlife health, conservation and welfare’ (1993) Veterinary Record 132: 235-238.

[4] Wildlife and Countryside Act 1991ch. 69

[5]The 1991 Act, Part 1, s4(2)(a)

[6] The 1991 Act, Part 1, s4(2)(b)

[7] The 1991 Act, Part 1, s4(2)

[8] The 1991 Act,  Part 1, s10(2)

[9] ibid, Sch. 5

[10] ibid, Sch. 9

[11] Protection of Badgers Act 1992 ch. 51

[12] Wild Mammals Protection Act 1996 ch. 3

[13] Animal Welfare Act 2006 ch. 45 (In Scotland, the legislation is the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 asp. 11 which has the same provisions in this context)

[14] The 2006 Act s2(b)

[15] The 2006 Act s9(2)

[16] British Wildlife Rehabilitation Council Guidelines, accessible at

[17] It also raises the ethical dilemma of whether preserving a species for its own sake is more important than ensuring the welfare of the individual members of that species.

[18] Anthropomorphism is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as: ‘the showing or treating of animals, gods, and objects as if they are human in appearance, character, or behaviour

[19] J Cooper and ME Cooper, ’Ethical and legal implications of treating casualty wild animals’ (2006) In Practice 28: 2–6.

[20] C Teixeira, C Deazevedo, M Mendl, C Cipreste and R Young, ‘Revisiting translocation and reintroduction programmes: the importance of considering stress’ (2007) Animal Behaviour 73: 1–13.

[21] P Bateson and EL Bradshaw, ‘Physiological effects of hunting red deer (Cervus elaphus)’ (1997) Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 264: 1707-1714.

[22] S Dubois and D Fraser, ‘Rating harms to wildlife: a survey showing convergence between conservation and animal welfare views’ (2013) Animal Welfare 22: 49–55.

[23] S Dubois, ‘A survey of wildlife rehabilitation goals, impediments, issues, and success in British Columbia, Canada’ (2003) University of Victoria, Vancouver, Canada

[24] A Kelly, R Scrivens and A Grogan, ‘Post-release survival of orphaned wild-born polecats (Mustela putorius) reared in captivity at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in England’ (2010) Endangered Species Research 12: 107–115.

[25] JA Estes,Concerns about Rehabilitation of Oiled Wildlife’ (1998) Conservation Biology 12: 1156–1157.

[26] NJ Reeve and MP Huijser, ‘Mortality factors affecting wild hedgehogs: a study of records from wildlife rescue centres’ (1999) Lutra 42: 7-24.

[27] A Kelly and M Bland,Admissions, diagnoses, and outcomes for Eurasian Sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) brought to a wildlife rehabilitation centre’ (2006) Journal of Raptor Research 40: 231-235.

[28] For example, Estes (1998) reported that in the case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it cost $80,000 per animal released back into the wild


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