Wildlife rehabilitators dedicate much of their waking hours to care and treatment of orphaned and injured wildlife with a goal of short-term rehabilitation and subsequent release. Established individuals and clinics often receive animals retrieved by local humane officers, emergency responders, and other caring individuals. However, “rehabbers” (as they are commonly known) are frequently called to themselves rescue wildlife from dangerous predicaments in both public and private places. Rehabbers risk danger to themselves and others when attempting to rescue an orphaned or injured animal that may misperceive rescuers as a threat.
In order to carryout their rehabilitation activities in compliance with the law, rehabbers must also become familiar with their state (and sometimes county) regulations concerning rehabilitation of wildlife. Many states regulate the rehabilitation of wildlife by requiring that individuals become licensed or obtain a permit with the state Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Wildlife Division. The rules governing licensing vary from state to state. For this reason, although it is useful to gain a broad understanding of what is typically required to obtain a license or permit to rehabilitate wildlife, it is imperative that individuals and clinics engaging in wildlife rehabilitation activities have a clear understanding of the legal obligations within their specific jurisdiction.
In surveying the regulations of nine states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New York, Maine, North Dakota, Oregon, and Texas), several generalizations can be made of the regulation of wildlife rehabilitators. First, most of the nine states studied have sought to ensure that individuals engaging in wildlife rehabilitation activities have attained a minimum level of competency. Generally, the topics of animal biology, eating and nutrition needs, and habitat preferences are of particular importance. In evaluating competency, several of the nine states utilize a 100-question competency exam, which applicants must score at least an 80% as a prerequisite to obtaining a license or permit. Some of the nine states studied allow applicants to demonstrate competency in other ways, such as completion of a related college curriculum, or an apprenticeship with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Second, given that no required formal training is typically required of wildlife rehabilitator applicants, several of the nine states studied now require letters of support from veterinarians who have pledged to be an available resource for rehabilitators who may encounter complications that require heightened expertise and ability. The relationship between the rehabber and veterinarian is crucial; often veterinarians will treat wildlife in a rehabber’s care at reduced or no cost. Moreover, rehabbers are not authorized to prescribe antibiotics or other needed medications, so even when a rehabilitator is competent to render the necessary care, a veterinarian plays a crucial role in the course of treatment.
Third, regulating bodies seek to ensure that in addition to competency, rehabilitators have an adequate facility to carryout their rehabilitation activities. While some of the nine states simply require rehabbers to describe their facility and list the equipment used for rehabilitation on the permit application, other states are expressly requiring cages of a particular size, type, and quality as a prerequisite to approval of a permit. Many of the nine states will also conduct a facility inspection to further ensure that the rehabilitator is adequately prepared to carry out their activities in a safe environment for the animals and humans alike.
Fourth, many of the nine states have set forth minimum standards of care. In doing so, several states point to the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association Standards of Care Manual as authority for permitted/licensed wildlife rehabilitators. By relying on the expertise of non-governmental entities whose primary focus is on wildlife rehabilitation, department officials who may or may not be trained in rehabilitation of wildlife can ensure that a set of comprehensive minimum standards are followed. These standards are developed by experts in the field and are updated periodically as needed.
Fifth, regulating bodies are imposing restrictions on the types and the number of wildlife rehabilitators may care for. Many restrictions are based on concerns for disease control. For example, rehabilitation of species that are more likely to be infected with rabies or chronic wasting disease may be entirely prohibited or restricted in the number cared for. Some of the nine states will allow rehabilitators to care for these at-risk species, but only with a heightened certification and/or proof of rabies inoculation. Similarly, agencies may adopt restrictions based on public safety or perceived need (in terms of population controls or preventing extinction). Additionally, in keeping with a primary goal of wildlife rehabilitation (temporary care and subsequent release), agencies have restricted the time within which rehabbers may care for orphaned or injured wildlife. While some states allow rehabilitation to continue as long as what is deemed reasonably necessary, other states require that animals that have not recovered within 180 days be euthanized. Some of the states studied provide exceptions in special circumstances for the promotion of education or other legitimate rehabilitation purposes.
Lastly, a few of the nine states studied have developed unique requirements which break from the common practices of the other states. For example, only a few of the states impose a duty of wildlife rehabilitators to notify the appropriate authority if they believe an animal has been subjected to criminal activity. Another state allows one-time rehabilitation permits in emergencies so that animal-Samaritans who are not able to surrender an animal to the appropriate person will not face civil fine or criminal penalty if found to possess a wild animal.
In addition to rehabilitation permit or licensing considerations, legal obligations may arise at various stages of rehabilitation or even situations ancillary to rehabilitation activities. For instance, legal liability may arise in using unlicensed volunteers or allowing assistants to handle wildlife in the care of a licensed rehabilitator. Since wildlife rehabilitators receive no compensation and operate solely on donations, business incorporation and achieving tax-exempt status are particularly important. Individuals and clinics must be cognizant of local zoning ordinances as well as many other property law concepts such as trespass and ensuring permission or use of land as a release site.
In sum, the regulation of wildlife rehabilitation involves many areas of the law; some of which are not immediately obvious. There is no legal “right” to rehabilitate wildlife and existing regulations exist as an exception to the legal norm (that possession of wildlife for any purpose is unlawful). Even when a permit to rehabilitate wildlife is granted, a permit holder still faces several restrictions in terms of which species and how many animals it may rehabilitate. Because regulations have emerged only in the last thirty to forty years, they will likely continue to evolve in response to societal needs. In this regard, the administrative laws and regulations governing wildlife rehabilitation are in flux, which makes this area of law particularly challenging.