Apr 18, 2013

To rescue or not...

By Deanna Barth

I approached the goose slowly and as quietly as possible, my shoes making slight squishing sounds in the grass. I wanted the bird to feel just enough "pressure" for it to stand, but not so much that it would become alarmed and take flight.

As I got close, the bird started to stand and I saw it lift and swing its left leg out at an odd angle then down, hobbling awkwardly. Every step seemed to require great effort.

I continued to observe the lame goose from a distance while I approached another one.
This goose appeared bright and alert. It stood quickly on my approach, but, to my surprise, it was missing a foot! It hopped along smoothly, seemingly unaware of its missing appendage.

The sound of an approaching dog startled it, and it quickly took flight.

I asked myself, "If left alone, which bird would live and which would die?"

Sound harsh? It is. That's the reality of life in the wild  - survival of the fittest. It is also the reality of being a wildlife First Responder.

I have to say, when responding to reportedly injured wildlife, there's usually no question about whether or not an animal should be taken in for treatment, but, when I'm doing my rounds and encountering animals with older injuries, it's not so easy to decide which ones should be captured and which should be left alone.

When assessing an animal, I go through a series of questions in my mind, like "Can it fly?", "Will it be able to escape a predator?", "Does it appear to be in pain?", or, "Does it look like it's adapted to its injury?"


This goose on the LEFT is the one with the bad limp. The one on the RIGHT is one that had been left unattended for weeks, possibly months, because no one reported it. First of all, few people noticed it was injured - it was a goose sitting on grass, but, those who did, thought it was getting along okay since it could fly. It was not until we captured it and took it in for an evaluation did we find out how badly this animal had been suffering - the skin on its legs and feet was sloughing off. It was euthanized.

While I am not the one to have final say as to an animal's fate - that's a medical decision made by the wildlife hospital where it's admitted, I am responsible for the outcome, because I'm making that initial judgement call. 

For animals that are clearly suffering, the kindest thing we can do is to end their pain, so, in situations where an animal is obviously in distress, it’s an easy decision for me to make. Where it gets tough, is when I'm faced with an animal with an old injury, where the animal seems to be "making it", but if admitted to a hospital, it would likely be euthanized due to certain requirements by state and federal agencies that oversee wildlife rehabilitation.

For example, as a rule, heavy-bodied birds with leg injuries should always be taken in and evaluated and quite possibly euthanized because the uninjured leg will eventually become compromised.

I get that, but there are varying degrees of limps. Each leg injury I see is as unique as the individual bird.

I also believe some individual animals might be stronger than others and capable of adapting.

One-legged goose taking flight. Photo credit Ingrid Taylar.

I also think it's okay, in certain circumstances, to let some have a chance in the wild. I think about how many injured wild animals are out there that go unnoticed - they either adapt or they do not. Without human intervention, nature takes its courseBut that's just my take.

So, it seems that with questionable cases, it comes down to skills in evaluating the overall health of an animal, the extenuating circumstances, and, then, a great deal of personal opinion, which gets into one's belief system and philosophical perspectives.

Working in a veterinary hospital provides me with a set of science-based skills for evaluating animals in a clinical setting, but, in the field, it's different. There are so many  variables. If only the animals would give me a sign, like, “Need help!” or “Doing fine!”, that would be great.


Anonymous said...

You are a hero doing a super fine job, Deanna!

Lindsay said...

Thank you for the thoughtful perspective on this difficult issue.