Euthanasia of injured wildlife
Ratification Date: 14 Jun 2019
- Euthanasia is often the most humane course of action to address the welfare of sick and injured wildlife.
- Triage of injured or diseased wild animals, and their subsequent euthanasia, should be performed by a veterinarian or, in the absence of a veterinarian, by a non-veterinarian with appropriate training and experience.
- The method of euthanasia must be humane, resulting in immediate loss of consciousness followed by death, with a minimum of pain, discomfort or stress.1
- Recommended methods or codes of practice should be adhered to wherever possible.
- Adequate resourcing, training and support for personnel and organisations involved in the care and euthanasia of wildlife should be made available by government.
For the purposes of this policy, wildlife is defined as either native or introduced free-ranging mammal, bird or reptile species.
The increasing human population is significantly impacting the environment and its wild animal inhabitants. Reduction and fragmentation of native habitat places wild animals at increased risk of disease and trauma.
Management of diseased and injured wildlife
When wildlife become injured or diseased, management options include non-intervention, euthanasia or rescue and rehabilitation. Rehabilitation requires licenced wildlife carers to be available with appropriate experience and facilities. Most jurisdictional codes of practice for the care of wildlife stipulate conditions under which animals can be released following rehabilitation. There is inconsistency in rules between jurisdictions and generally there are very limited places for permanently disabled wild animals to be kept in captivity.
Disabilities can be physical and/or behavioural. Animals that are unsuitable for rehabilitation and release, or legislatively sanctioned permanent captive care, must be euthanased. Animals for which suffering cannot be appropriately mitigated must be also euthanased. Any euthanasia decision must be defensible, based on welfare and legislative grounds.
Decision to euthanase
The euthanasia of wildlife, and in particular native animals, can be a sensitive, emotional and controversial topic, at times attracting significant public and media attention. At all times however, the welfare of the animals must be the primary consideration. The decision to euthanase should be based on a range of practical and ethical considerations, including:
- the immediate relief of suffering which can be both physical (i.e. pain) or mental (stress associated with captivity)
- lack of resources available to provide appropriate care in the short to long term
- safety of personnel
- feasibility of capture and transportation
- suitability of environment to ensure long-term survival of animal
- poor potential for rehabilitation and release
- status of animal (i.e. protected, pest, feral)
- the presence of nursing young and potential for care of orphaned animals.
The decision to euthanase requires assessment by a veterinarian. However, there may be situations in which non-veterinary personnel are involved in these decisions, as well as the act of euthanasia. The legality of this varies according to jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions may permit certain non-veterinary individuals to have access to barbiturate euthanasia solutions. Irrespective of who performs euthanasia, it must be done in a way that minimises suffering and achieves rapid loss of consciousness with minimal stress, and death while unconscious.
Methods of euthanasia
Methods may vary according to availability of drugs and equipment as well as the location, species, size, age and mobility of the animal requiring euthanasia. The method of handling and degree of restraint required needs to be taken into consideration when evaluating the choice of euthanasia.
In the field, struggle during capture or restraint may result in pain and injury as well as posing a safety risk to the handler. Chemical immobilisation delivered remotely may be appropriate but requires trained individuals. Animals may need to be trapped before euthanasia can be performed. Where it is not appropriate to catch and transport animals, use of firearms may be appropriate for free-ranging wildlife.
Use of a captive bolt may be an alternative option to using firearms or drugs, but this requires training and close access to the animal. In the event that other options are not available in the field, and as a last resort, blunt trauma if properly applied, can result in rapid death but is dependent on the knowledge and experience of the operator.
Exsanguination should not be performed unless the animal is anesthetised or first rendered unconscious, but can be used as a method to ensure death subsequently. Use of barbiturate euthanasia solutions may not be appropriate where the carcase will pose a threat to scavenger animals.
In clinical practice, the method of euthanasia will most likely involve sedation and/or anaesthesia to render the animal unconscious and then the administration of a chemical terminal agent. There are differing ways to accomplish this, but each must be minimally aversive and rapidly acting.
The safety of the people involved in euthanasia must also be considered, as some native animals can be dangerous or carry zoonotic disease2.
Research and development
The development and implementation of new methods and technology for euthanasing wildlife should be encouraged. For example, large marine mammals in field conditions are problematic because of the lack of standardised equipment and techniques. Reptiles can be refractory to conventional anaesthetic agents.
Procedures such as cervical dislocation or decapitation are problematic and there are inadequate guidelines for their suitability in some species. More research is needed to establish and evaluate more suitable methods of euthanasia for wildlife.
Impact on veterinarians and carers
There is an expectation from the public that veterinarians or volunteer organisations should be compassionate and willing to donate time, effort and money to save wildlife. However, the resourcing required to care for and manage injured wildlife is considerable (human resources, training, drugs and equipment, transport and disposal of carcases). Wildlife workers and veterinary staff can experience distress, anxiety and grief associated with the care and euthanasia of wildlife and may require support3.
- Research to improve methods of euthanasia should be encouraged and supported.
- National policies and standards for euthanasia of wildlife should be developed by government.
- Preventative action to reduce disease and trauma experienced by wildlife should be implemented by both government and community groups.
- Hanger J, Tribe A. Management of critically ill wildlife: the reality and practice of wildlife euthanasia. In: Proceedings of the National Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference, Gold Coast, Australia, September 2005. https://www.awrc.org.au/uploads/5/8/6/6/5866843/awrc_jon_hanger.pdf Accessed 15 June 2019
- Rouco C, Richardson KS, Tompkins DM. Improving animal welfare standards while reducing disease exposure risk during euthanasia of trapped brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula). Animal Welfare 2015;24:235–239.
- Von Dietze E, Gardner D. Euthanizing wildlife: experiences and coping strategies among people who conduct euthanasia. Pacific Conservation Biology 2014;20:28–36.
Barnes E. To what extent are veterinary practices prepared to treat wildlife patients? A cross-sectional study of perceptions of responsibility and capability of treating wildlife in UK veterinary practices. The Plymouth Student Scientist 2017;10:1–21.
Englefield B, Starling M, McGreevy P. A review of roadkill rescue: who cares for the mental, physical and financial welfare of Australian wildlife carers? Wildlife Research 2018;45:103–118.
Leary S, Underwood W, Anthony R et al. AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 edition. https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Documents/euthanasia.pdf Accessed 15 June 2019
Mullineaux E. Veterinary treatment and rehabilitation of indigenous wildlife. Journal of Small Animal Practice 2014;55:293–300.
Pyke GH, Szabo JK. Conservation and the 4 Rs, which are rescue, rehabilitation, release, and research. Conservation Biology 2018;32:50–59.
Warren K. Reptile euthanasia: no easy solution? Pacific Conservation Biology 2014;20:25–27.
http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/wildlifelicences/RehabFaunaPolicy.htm Accessed February 2018.
https://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/caring-for-wildlife/pdfs/cp-wl-rehab.pdf. Accessed February 2018.
http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive-species/feral-animals-australia Accessed 15 June 2019
To inform veterinarians of best practice techniques, and advocate for appropriate resourcing of veterinarians and other wildlife carers.
Date of ratification by AVA Board 14 June 2019