ADVICE TO VETERINARIANS REGARDING THE TREATMENT OF WILDLIFE

Veterinarians in WA are often called upon to provide treatment and care for wildlife. These cases can often present uncertainties for veterinarians in terms of making decisions in the best welfare interests of the animal. This article is intended to provide some guidance to veterinarians on the custodianship and management of wildlife cases in WA.

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) recognises and values the role that veterinarians play in the rehabilitation of wildlife. DBCA has a statutory responsibility for the conservation and protection of wildlife under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 and the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. Under these Acts it is an offence to ‘take’, ‘disturb’ or ‘possess’ wildlife without lawful authority. However, this does not prohibit ‘temporarily caring for and rehabilitating injured or abandoned wildlife’.

In deciding on veterinary management of a wildlife case, veterinarians should consider:
· the welfare of the individual, and
· the prospects of the animal returning to fitness and being able to be returned to the wild.

There may be circumstances when there is treatment available that may save the animal’s life, but will render the animal unlikely to survive in the wild. The Department does not generally support this approach as it is often in conflict with the ultimate welfare and quality of life of a wild animal. Such actions may also be at odds with the legislation, which only allows for ‘temporarily caring for injured fauna or abandoned fauna’, unless lawfully authorised.

Decisions about veterinary management of wildlife should also take into account their wild status and species-specific responses to disease and treatment, which are potentially very different from domestic animals. In electing to undertake medical and surgical intervention with wildlife, the veterinarian should consider the welfare impacts of confinement and human interaction, given the non-domestic status of the patient. Veterinarians should refer to veterinary knowledge of the species in question to determine what sort of veterinary intervention might be appropriate.
In some instances, there may be significant pressure brought to bear on veterinarians to “save the life” of an individual wild animal, regardless of its release prospects, because a client or rehabilitator is prepared to provide care to the animal in a captive situation for the rest of its life. These assurances may be at variance with the welfare prospects of the individual, its conservation value, or the resources available to ensure high quality lifelong care. The principle of rehabilitation is for the animal to remain in care for the minimum length of time necessary to achieve return to health, and to enable it to be released fully fit back into the wild. It is an offence for a wildlife rehabilitator (or any person) to possess native fauna if it cannot be released back into the wild, unless they have an appropriate authority. In some circumstances the Department will issue such authority for individuals to keep derelict animals, however, that is it not the preferred option and veterinarians are called on to support the general principle of euthanasing such cases rather than promoting derelict captive wild individuals.

In very few instances individual wild fauna of threatened species which are unfit for release may be suitable to contribute to a breeding program, or to achieve education and advocacy outcomes in captivity. This option is not appropriate for an animal that is unable to have an acceptable quality of life in captivity. It is also not the role of the veterinarian or the wildlife rehabilitator to make this decision without direct consultation with, and authority from, the Department.
Veterinarians seeking advice or input regarding the veterinary management of any wildlife case are invited to contact DBCA veterinarians at the Perth Zoo Veterinary Department. Veterinarians are in attendance 7 days a week from 8am-5pm and are happy to give advice directly to veterinary staff about case management. Contact details are below. These details are for veterinary professionals only and veterinarians are requested not to pass them on to others outside of their staff. Veterinarians will endeavour to respond to enquiries as soon as possible.

Veterinarians seeking advice regarding legalities, release or possible rehoming of wildlife, especially Threatened or Specially Protected Fauna, should contact the DBCA Duty Wildlife Officer if in the Perth metro area (phone 9219 9837; email nature.protection@dbca.wa.gov.au), or your local DBCA office.
Perth Zoo Veterinary Department contact details (for veterinary professionals only;please do not pass on these contacts to non-veterinary personnel or members of the public): Phone 0439 953 026; email labresults@perthzoo.wa.gov.au

Dr Manda Page
Principal Zoologist, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions

Dr Simone Vitali
Senior Veterinarian, Perth Zoo, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions

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