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Wildlife rehabilitation is the process of removing from the wild and caring for injured, orphaned, or sick wild animals. The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to provide the food, housing and medical care of these animals, returning them to the wild after treatment.
Rehabilitation begins when an animal is found and reported to a wildlife rehabilitator, or seized from the illegal wildlife trade or a poacher. The rehabilitator will examine the animal to determine the extent of the injury and the probability of successful rehabilitation. If it appears that the animal can make a sufficient recovery to be able to return to the wild, the animal will be fed, nurtured, reconditioned, medicated, operated on, or otherwise treated as necessary.
Animals that cannot be rehabilitated are usually euthanized humanely, although animals are occasionally placed at facilities appropriately licensed for educational exhibit or brought into appropriate lifetime care in a wildlife rescue center.
A non-releasable animal may sometimes be kept by the rehabilitator (under separate permit) as a foster parent for orphaned or injured young wildlife.
In many countries, including the United States and Australia, wildlife rehabilitation requires a license and/or permit. Without permits it is against the law to rehabilitate (or in some cases possess) a wild animal. In the United States, rehabilitation permits, requirements, and procedures for all animals other than birds vary from state to state. Rehabilitation of birds in the U.S. requires, per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, that a permit be obtained from both state and federal (United States Fish and Wildlife Service) wildlife agencies.
(NB: The only birds rehabilitators can admit without a federal permit are common NON-native/"invasive" birds: Rock Doves (aka rock pigeons), European starlings, and House sparrows; however, some licensed rehabilitation facilities cannot accept non-natives (even if they wished to) as a condition of their licensing.
The field of wildlife rehabilitation is generally composed of individuals who operate from their homes, usually as unpaid volunteers or as part of volunteer organizations. With the increased availability of training and continuing education often being added as a condition of permit renewal, many of these wildlife rehabilitators are able to provide very sophisticated care to injured and orphaned wildlife. Most home-based wildlife rehabilitators are required to have a relationship with a cooperating licensed veterinarian.
Around the world there is an increasing number of professionally staffed wildlife hospitals that are taking the field of wildlife rehabilitation to a level that puts it on par with companion animal medicine...and even human medicine in some cases. For example,Tristate Bird Rescue, Paws Wildlife Center, the Wildlife Center of Virginia, and The Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife, are teaching wildlife hospitals that provide training to veterinary students from around the world and offer one-year postdoctoral internships in clinical wildlife medicine. Another example, is the Senkwekwe Centre, in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo which cares for the only two orphan baby mountain gorillas in captivity. Their rescue and subsequent survival is considered an important contribution to the conservation of a critically endangered species.
Many wildlife rehabilitators and centers are also committed to improving the well-being of wildlife though public education; focusing on how humans can safely and peacefully coexist with native wildlife, and on wildlife’s importance to man and the environment. Wildlife rehabilitation clinics can also often offer advice and guidance on humane solutions for "nuisance" wildlife (e.g., see Wild Things Sanctuary: Living with Wildlife).