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Wildlife rehabilitation is the treatment and care of injured, orphaned, or sick wild animals so that they can be released back to the wild.
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, provided safe temporary housing, and medically 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 surrogate parent for orphaned or injured young wildlife.
The field of wildlife rehabilitation varies from small scale operations of individuals working from their homes, usually working with a veterinarian; to professionally staffed wildlife hospitals. Some organizations are teaching wildlife hospitals: Tristate Bird Rescue, Paws Wildlife Center, the Wildlife Center of Virginia, and The Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife provide training to veterinary students from around the world, and offer one-year postdoctoral internships in clinical wildlife medicine.
Another type of wildlife rehabilitator 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 humans and the environment. Wildlife rehabilitation clinics can also often offer advice and guidance on humane solutions for "nuisance" wildlife concerns.
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 the state wildlife agency and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The only birds rehabilitators can admit without a federal permit are common birds considered to be introduced invasive species: Rock Doves, European starlings, and House sparrows; although some licensed rehabilitation facilities cannot accept introduced species species as a condition of their licensing.