One of the common challenges in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is to be frequently confronted with the suffering of sentient beings. Rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals does also regularly generate the question of what is an acceptable quality of life. When trying to find an answer to this particular question, one will automatically discover more questions and potential problems. What can be done when the desired level of quality of life is not achievable at all, or at least not within an acceptable time frame? Or, just to name a few of those questions, can the achieved treatment and rehabilitation result be maintained for the rest of the potentially natural life of the animal concerned?
Whilst trying to find all these answers, it quickly becomes obvious that there are quite a number of factors to consider. Typical factors to assess in these circumstances are extent and nature of the disease or injury, available treatment options, the prognosis and potential quality of life after treatment, the availability and likelihood of success of treatment, the animal’s age and co-morbidities. Unfortunately, another major and often rather limiting factor for all of these considerations is the ability of the animal’s guardian to pay for any of the desirable and available treatment options. Also, the worse case scenario has to be explored as well. What will the animal guardian do with or for an animal, which cannot be safely released back into the wild? And at this particular point euthanasia could potentially become a possible and serious consideration.
The Paradise of Nature
People often think of animals in the wild as happy animals, who are enjoying themselves without any human interference causing them harm. However, life is not easy for animals out there. The factors from which almost all wild animals will suffer at some point in their lives are very diverse, and sadly many of them are directly or indirectly inflicted by humans. Others may be due to natural circumstances. Among the factors that can be partly or completely natural are hostile weather conditions, hunger, thirst and malnutrition, but also diseases, accidents, injuries, conflicts with other animals, parasitism and psychological stress.
Considering these risk factors means that a thorough pre-release assessment is crucial. Prior to any release attempt animals should be considered fully fit and able to fend for themselves in the wild. Fitness assessment should consider clinical, behavioural and physical assessments. A release should not be carried out if an animal is deemed significantly less likely to thrive in the wild than a conspecific. However, what are the options, if an animal is not deemed to be releasable? In essence, there are only two. Option one would require the need of finding a home for life, assuming that the animal is suitable for a life in captivity. Option two would involve euthanasia.
Euthanasia is the act or practice of humanely ending a life of a living being suffering of a terminal illness or a medical condition that causes a kind of suffering, which is perceived as incompatible with an acceptable quality of life. At the first glance, euthanasia seems a logical and straight forward option. However, the first contentious problem we encounter in this context is an acceptable definition of ‘humanely ending a life’. According to leading welfare institutions and veterinary associations, humane euthanasia may be achieved by concussion of the brain by striking the cranium with a blunt object, exposure to carbon dioxide gas in rising concentration, dislocation of the neck by brute force, or by an overdose of an anaesthetic using a route and anaesthetic agent appropriate for the size, stage of development and species of animal. From our point of view, only the latter seems ethically justifiable, and only if done in an appropriate setting and in a professional manor.
It is also important to note that euthanasia is not, in law, an act of veterinary surgery, and in most circumstances may be carried out by anyone, provided that it is carried out humanely. Veterinary surgeons do, however, have the sole privilege of being able to relieve an animal’s suffering in the desired way described above, as the drugs required are not available to wildlife rescuers and rehabilitators.
The answer to the question of whether euthanasia or being alive is in an animal’s interest is not necessarily black and white. We do challenge the outdated view of most veterinary surgeons that non-human animals ‘live only in the now’, meaning that quality of life is more important for them than quantity of life. This wrongly implies that non-human animals lack the capacity to worry about their future, let alone about their life or existence. It seems difficult for anthropocentric orientated human beings to accept the scientifically proven fact that non-human animals are sentient beings like us humans. There is no plausible reason why sentient non-human animals are any different from us human animals. This is why would expect at the very least that non-human sentient beings are being given the benefit of the doubt. In our view, euthanasia should not be justified when there is at least one better option available.
Species Specific and Individual Considerations
As a sanctuary, we treat and care for patients that require long-term treatment, rehabilitation and a varying degree of support, which also naturally means that these animals are in need of a home for life. This approach is obviously very dependent on long term funding and capacity, but does also depend on the species and individual concerned. There are species, which are not suitable for a life in captivity. One of these species are for example swifts. Keeping migratory swifts in captivity, who normally spend most of their lives exclusively airborne and who almost never self feed when in captivity, could cause these birds to suffer in many ways, and would therefore be in our view not justifiable, at least not in a long-term sanctuary type of setting. However, one should always bear in mind that the assessment of the suitability for a life in captivity is not only a species specific consideration. It also requires an in depth assessment of the personality of the individual animal concerned. This kind of assessment needs to be repeated regularly throughout the whole life of the animal concerned, as the situation and the assessment outcome can potentially change when an animal becomes for example mature or grows old.
Impact of Impairments and Disabilities
On the other hand, there are bird species who cope very well with a semi or fully captive environment. For example waterbirds such as swans and ducks can live a very happy life in a semi sheltered environment of a private property or a park with ponds and lakes, and would for example tolerate a wing amputation well, if that would be unavoidable. However, a leg amputation would be a more problematic decision, and would probably require a fully captive, especially adapted and closely monitored for ever home, simply due to the weight of the bird and the potential bumble foot infection risk of the remaining healthy foot. Corvids cope generally well with disabilities, but will require especially modified and enriched aviary settings to thrive. Older birds, for example, commonly suffer of an impaired vision, but are usually over time able to adapt and cope eventually very well in a well organised aviary setup. It is fascinating to watch the way captive corvids deal with their own kind, who suffer of some sort of impairment. There is a big difference in the way these birds behave towards disabled companions of their own kind in the wild, opposed to when being kept in captivity. It seems that in captivity, when the psychological survival pressure is not present anymore, impairments are better tolerated and even support is being given to each other, whilst in the wild disabled or poorly birds are often driven away as there impediment might attract predators.
The main criteria for euthanasia should be whether the animal concerned is suffering, and whether the suffering can be eliminated, or at the very least positively influenced. Pain is an important factor in this context, as the animal should be able to life in a mostly pain free environment. Stress is a further consideration, as some bird species and individuals will perceive life in captivity as very stressful, and would not life a happy life at all, when kept in captivity. The required detailed assessment needs to also include other elements such as whether the animal concerned can do all or at the very least most things this animal would normally do by himself or herself, for example eating, drinking, preening and socialising. Natural instincts should be taken in account, as for example migratory birds may not cope well in captivity as they are unable to follow those instincts. Another important factor is the availability of companion animals of the same kind, or at least of a similar species, as no animal should life by its own. The animal’s personality and psyche needs to be taken in consideration as well, as animals may become depressed in captivity, without company, sufficient stimulation and enrichment. This kind of assessment will take some time, cannot be done on the spot and will require to be repeated frequently during the life of an animal.
The Hidden Truth
It is also important to understand that not all bird rescues and rehabbers are equally experienced with all native bird species, for example corvids, and might therefore not be able to provide long-term care facilities suitable for the specific needs of corvids. Prior to the hand over of any rescue animal to a veterinary surgeon, wildlife rescue or rehabber, we strongly recommended to check the respective euthanasia policies. Euthanasia policies vary extensively and may range from species specific ‘kill’ to very general ‘no kill policies’. Certain rescues or institutions may kill or euthanise healthy or potentially releasable animals belonging to certain species or families, such as feral pigeons, so called ‘game birds’ or corvids. Similarly, non-native species are also usually to find on their kill list, regardless of the health situation of the individual concerned. The other end of the spectrum are rescues and rehabbers with so called ‘no kill policies’. Whilst ‘no kill policies’ seem somewhat more desirable, there is of course the inherent risk of animal suffering, when applied as a blanket approach. None of those two ‘extremes’ are ethically acceptable in our view.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide in humans have been at the centre of very heated debates for many years and are surrounded by religious, ethical and practical considerations. One of the concerns commonly raised in this context is whether human beings should have the right to decide on issues of life and death. Interestingly, this questions is rather rarely being asked when it comes to euthanasia or the killing of non-human sentient beings, which shows the deeply rooted schizophrenia of human main stream ethics and believes. As assisted suicide is not possible for non-human animals, euthanasia should be the tool, which is being used based on a thorough assessment of the individual sentient being concerned. When properly used and in the right hands, euthanasia is a valuable tool to eliminate unavoidable suffering and to provide a dignified pain and stress free death. However, in our view, it is never acceptable that euthanasia is being used to devalue the life of sentient beings, to save money and resources as well as for personal gain and public recognition.