Uncomfortable facts

Some of the native species we are fighting for: Fledgling screech owls

Do you remember when you had that talk with your kids or parents?  The facts of life can be a difficult and uncomfortable discussion.  It is with immense trepidation that I initiate that conversation with you, my faithful followers.

The mission of the Peace River Wildlife Center is to contribute to the survival of native Florida wildlife through rescue, rehabilitation, and education.  The principal threat to our native species is habitat loss and fragmentation.  As more people move into Florida, development encroaches on prime animal habitats.  We all prefer to live in the same types of places—high and dry, but with access to water.

For those of you who are afraid I will now go off on a tirade about birth control as a method to solve the human overpopulation on the planet, fear not.  That is a much longer discussion for a much different venue.

Secondarily to the biggest invasive species (humans,) the next largest threat to native wildlife is invasive animal species.  Not all non-native animals present a threat to those that occur here naturally, but some have become invasive by causing harm to native species, posing a threat to human health and safety, or causing economic damage.

Some of the animals that get admitted to PRWC as patients started life as exotic pets, like parrots and sulcata tortoises, and were released by or escaped from their owners.  If no other rescue organization is available, PRWC will take in these displaced pets and treat when necessary.  We then find them appropriate homes with responsible caretakers.

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Neonate squirrels

Other species of non-native animals have become invasive by establishing breeding populations that endanger native wildlife species.  Muscovy ducks are a good example.  These waterbirds, which are native to Mexico and South America, can transmit disease to and interbreed with native ducks.  In the wild, in an average clutch of 8-16 eggs, usually only one or two chicks will survive to adulthood.

When these large clutches are admitted to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, most of those babies survive and flourish.  At the same time, the parents will rebreed year-round as soon as the original clutch is removed.  By releasing these ducks back into the wild, an irresponsible wildlife facility adds exponentially to the overpopulation of this invasive species, and increases the likelihood that Florida’s native ducks will be extinct within a few generations.

European starlings are serious competitors with native songbirds for tree cavity nesting spaces and can be very aggressive towards the birds they are displacing.  Over the past few years, the numbers of starlings being admitted to PRWC has increased dramatically as their local population has exploded.

Red-eared slider turtles are illegal to release due to their propensity to interbreed with native turtle species.  They are also serious competitors for food and breeding resources.

Spiny-tailed iguanas are carnivorous reptiles that prey on native bird eggs and baby mammals.  As a non-native species here, they have virtually no predators to keep their numbers down.

All of these animals, and many other exotic species, occasionally find themselves at a wildlife rescue facility.  What should staff at such a facility do with them?

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Hatchling northern mockingbirds

PRWC holds numerous permits and licenses to rehabilitate and exhibit wildlife through Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA.)  All these governing bodies have strict guidelines for the handling of both native and non-native wildlife.  While we do have some leeway on certain issues, some policies are not debatable.  We are required to obey the laws to maintain our permits and licenses.

We are asking for the public’s help in dealing with this sensitive issue.  Many baby birds and mammals brought to wildlife facilities are not really in need of human intervention.  Juvenile animals may not always be in direct contact with parents but rely on them to learn life lessons that are instrumental in a long, productive life in the wild.  If they are “kidnapped” by well-meaning people who assume the baby has been orphaned because mom is out searching for food, they miss out on important training.

This issue is especially important for invasive species animals.  It is not our intent to rid the entire state of every invasive animal, but we are not able to add to the problem by rehabbing and releasing them.  We implore the community to refrain from bring healthy invasives to us unless they want them to be euthanized, since this is our only recourse.

The facts of life indeed make for an uncomfortable conversation.  No one at PRWC or any reputable wildlife rehabilitation facility wants to euthanize animals.  We got into this gig to help animals!  But there are times when it is necessary.  Humane euthanasia is used to ease the suffering of a gravely injured animal.  It is also used to help ensure the long-term health of the populations of native animals that are in danger of extinction if invasive species are not controlled.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

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