Wildlife rehabilitators care for orphaned and/or injured wildlife with the goal of returning animals back into their native habitat. Although a rehabilitator’s focus is on the care of wildlife, rehabilitators necessarily spend time complying with local, state, and federal laws, fundraising activities, coordinating volunteers, and educating the public about wildlife.
Many states regulate the rehabilitation of wildlife by requiring individuals who conduct rehabilitation activities to be licensed with their state Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Wildlife Department. The licensing requirements of each state vary, but many states require applicants to demonstrate a minimum level of competency and preparedness to rehabilitate wildlife. Most permits are valid for two to three years, after which a permit holder must apply for a renewal. Some states require existing permit holders to again demonstrate their competency and preparedness when seeking to renew their permit.
A wildlife rehabilitator is typically not a veterinarian, although some states automatically allow veterinarians to rehabilitate wildlife. Even non-veterinarian wildlife rehabilitators have specialized knowledge. Many states expressly require that rehabilitators be familiar with the species they care for, including the eating, habitat, and lifestyle preferences of each type of animal. Most rehabilitators began their careers as apprentices or volunteers for other more experienced rehabilitators, but most states do not require any particular course of study. Many rehabilitators have established veterinarians whom they call to provide more extensive care for rehabilitated wildlife at a greatly reduced or no cost. Some states even require wildlife rehabilitators to provide a letter of support, written by a veterinarian who has expressed willingness to assist rehabilitators as needed.
In most states, it is unlawful to possess a wild animal. However, the states that regulate wildlife rehabilitators have provided legal exceptions for those who are qualified to provide care for wildlife. Interestingly, wildlife rehabilitation predated most of these laws; meaning that early rehabilitators were rescuing and caring for wildlife in secret for fear of civil and even criminal penalties.
In addition to remaining in compliance with state licensing regulations, wildlife rehabilitator activities implicate many other laws, which may not appear as obvious. For example, when wildlife rehabilitators respond to calls to rescue an orphaned or injured animal, they may find themselves entering private property; without express permission of the property owner, they may be trespassing. Similarly, wildlife rehabilitation “naturally” involves working with dangerous animals that may pose the additional risk of carrying diseases. Rehabilitators therefore must recognize the potential for liability if a volunteer or a member of the public were harmed by an animal in the rehabilitator’s care.
The regulation of wildlife rehabilitation activities is a relatively new phenomenon and the degree of oversight varies from state to state. Although there are many commonalities in the type of regulations rehabilitators must comply with, there are also many differences between jurisdictions. Therefore, it is particularly important that individual rehabilitators and clinics become aware of the regulations in their particular jurisdiction.