Looking up from the Saturday paper on May 7, I saw her. She had assessed the many options, meticulously selected building materials and chosen our house. She now diligently guards and defends her cradle of life, her nest strategically tucked underneath the eavestrough.
This robin’s multifaceted labour epitomizes spring in Canada. Our animal neighbours are especially busy working to raise their young and navigate both long-standing and emerging dangers. Normally, wildlife rehabilitators are just as busy providing care for birds who fall victim to our windows, vehicles and our house cats allowed outdoors. But this year, the landscape is even more perilous.
A “highly pathogenic avian influenza,” H5N1 (or avian flu for short), is spreading through many countries, including Canada. It is primarily affecting farmed chickens who are kept in cramped conditions where diseases spread like wildfire. Nearly two million of these birds have already been killed — that is, before their scheduled premature deaths. The avian flu is also a zoonotic disease that can transfer to humans. The federal government says the risk to most Canadians is “extremely low” since infection primarily occurs through direct contact.
Yet because of the risks to other birds, as well as staff and volunteers who may be handling infected animals, some animal care organizations have decided not to admit any bird patients at all this spring. The decision is understandable but also upsetting. The usual threats to wild birds remain, so many will suffer and slowly die from various ailments in places where care has been paused.
How serious this outbreak will be and just how many birds will be lost is still unknown. What is clear is there are serious gaps in our approach to animal care that not only harm animals but also put human health at risk.
As is true of so much in the domain of animal protection, wild animal health care is an uneven patchwork with varying levels of service, depending on where you are and the type of animal in need. Most municipalities have publicly funded animal services of some kind, but few provide therapeutic veterinary care. Non-profits and individual wildlife rehabilitators do the lioness’ share of the work, and Canada is home to dedicated and internationally recognized organizations, including specialists in turtles and raccoons.
These organizations are often licensed by provincial governments but rarely receive any public funding, nor are they legally required to provide care. The majority of wild animal care is delivered because people have chosen to become educated and to provide services in their communities funded by donations and frequently their own money. Rehabilitators are supported by compassionate people inspired by the hope of care who can donate their time and who even volunteer to transport animal patients.
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It is laudable, but it is not enough at the best of times, and certainly not now in what Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic, has called the “pandemicene,” an era plagued by heightened multi-species health dangers resulting from the destructive ways humans treat other animals and the planet.
We owe wild animals more, especially since so many of their injuries are caused by our decisions and infrastructure. Plus, people unaware of the risks or unwilling to watch birds suffer in their yards and neighbourhoods may take matters into their own hands when care is not available, increasing the risk of H5N1 human transmission. The public health risks compound the need for public leadership and investment. Protecting animals also benefits people.
Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Nova Scotia is fundraising to build a quarantine facility given the avian flu risk, but this work should not fall entirely to charities that are already subsidizing the public sector by providing care services and helping to protect public health.
Wildlife rehabilitators are among those on the front lines of pandemic prevention and should be far better supported. At minimum, a public fund should be created to provide urgent grants to wildlife care organizations to hire more staff, create appropriate quarantine facilities and cover the additional costs of protecting people and other birds on site.
Sadly, we can expect more birds than usual will die and be killed this spring. But could we actually learn from animals’ suffering and make the changes needed to better protect other species and our own in the future?
There are practical preventive steps to take, like legally mandating bird-protecting window design, genuinely conserving more wild animal habitats and fostering cultures of coexistence. Responsive strategies, including the delivery of urgent care, will remain crucial and should not simply be a loosely knit non-profit patchwork without stable public funding.
These animals who share these lands with us deserve better. The word share is paramount.
Kendra Coulter is Chancellor's Chair for Research Excellence at Brock University, a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and a member of the Royal Society of Canada's College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. An expert on animal protection, her next book, Defending Animals, will be published by MIT Press in 2023.