The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to provide professional care to sick, injured, and orphaned wild animals so ultimately they can be returned to their natural habitat. Wild animals that sustain injuries or illnesses preventing them from living successfully in the wild usually are euthanized (have their suffering ended in a humane fashion). Occasionally, individual animals that have recovered from their injuries but are not able to survive in the wild are placed in educational facilities.
Wildlife rehabilitation is not an attempt to turn wild animals into pets. Patients are held in captivity only until able to live independently in the wild. Fear of humans is a necessary survival trait for wild animals and every effort is made to minimize human contact and prevent the taming of rehabilitation patients. Often wildlife rehabilitation is an elaborate and time-consuming process.
Wildlife rehabilitators work with veterinarians to assess injuries and diagnose a variety of illnesses. Due to the important differences between wild animals and domestic animals, rehabilitators need extensive knowledge about the species in care, including natural history, nutritional requirements, behavioral issues, and caging considerations. They also need to understand any dangers the animals may present to rehabilitators. Rehabilitators must also be able to administer basic first aid and physical therapy, and understand any dangers the animals may present to rehabilitators.
Almost all birds are protected by federal law; state laws protect most other kinds of wildlife. To work with mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, wildlife rehabilitators must be issued special permits from their state wildlife agencies. Before receiving these permits, individuals must meet various requirements such as specialized training, participation in mentorship programs, facility inspections, and written or oral exams. Rehabilitators who wish to care for birds also must get permits from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Once they receive the permits, conscientious rehabilitators continue their education by attending conferences, seminars, and workshops, keeping up with published literature, and networking with others in the field.
Because of their training, wildlife rehabilitators can help concerned people decide whether an animal truly needs help. Young birds and mammals should be returned to their families if at all possible; even well trained rehabilitators are not equivalent replacements for biological parents. Rehabilitators can provide instructions on how to reunite wildlife families, keeping the safety of the animals and the rescuers in mind, and they can suggest humane, long-term solutions when conflicts arise between humans and their wild neighbors.