Wildlife rehabilitation centers taking additional COVID-19 precautions as animal research continues

Published: Jul. 7, 2021 at 7:12 PM CDT
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RHINELANDER, Wis. (WSAW) - As many people begin to return to more pre-pandemic normalcy, others are having to continue or even increase COVID-19 precautions. That is the case for wildlife rehabilitation centers, like Wild Instincts in Rhinelander.

The center takes in injured or orphaned wildlife. It can care for any species legally allowed to be cared for in Wisconsin. However, over the last year wildlife centers have not been allowed to take in most bat, weasel, or feline species. That is due to expanding research that has found COVID-19 can easily be transmitted to and from these animals and to humans, with a concern that the disease will mutate along the way.

“One of the best ways to protect those individuals, the populations, the health of everybody is to temporarily suspend any activities that may involve a close interaction with people and those animals,” Amanda Kamps, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife health conservation specialist said.

“The unfortunate side is when somebody calls, we have to tell them that it’s a species that we’re not able to accept, we’re not able to give them any help, so we have two options. One is to let nature take its course and let it suffer and die if it is and the other one would be to contact the DNR to see if they would come out to euthanize it.” Matt Naniot, the rehabilitation director at Wild Instincts said.

He added that most people do not feel they can take either of those options and try to care for it on their own, but Naniot said most of the time people actually do more harm to the animal because it is not cared for properly. The animal also could care disease and harm the health of the people caring for it, or vice versa.

Most of the research around COVID-19 has centered around its impact on humans. For animals, some is known about species that are domesticated, a little less is known about captive animals, and even less is know about how it interacts with species in the wild. Kamps said the DNR is not doing research related to COVID-19′s impact on various species, but that they are closely monitoring the research that is being done around the world. Naniot urged wildlife rehabilitation centers are a missed opportunity to be able to expand research and testing related to COVID-19 and its impacts on wild animals.

“When we’re talking about free-ranging wildlife populations, to try and control disease that’s in a population like that is extremely difficult to almost impossible to do,” Kamps explained.

“Look at what it was with people,” Naniot said. “And of course, wild animals aren’t going to wear masks, they’re just going to do their thing so it can spread from an animal to a different animal and it’s going to be extremely hard to do. How are you going to vaccinate all of these different animals that are out in the wild? You’re not. So, you might have a situation where you might have an epidemic with a species and you could lose an entire species or have it greatly diminished in population.”

In spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued general guidance regarding care for wild big brown bat and deer populations. The DNR tailored that to fit with existing regulations for those populations, ultimately allowing those species to be cared for at rehabilitation centers, but with extra bio-safety protocols.

“In a normal year for fawns we just go in and feed the fawns, but of course now, we had to make our special quarantine hut here where we’ve got gowns and things that we hang in here, we’ve got booties that we’ve got to put on a mask. We have to put on gloves. We have to put on goggles, so you look like a hazmat team,” Naniot listed.

Centers had to submit paperwork to prove they were implementing these protocols before they could take in any more deer and big brown bats, but Naniot said that was challenging because the mandates were issued about two weeks before most fawns were born. There are around 10 centers that care for deer and the same number for brown bats. As of Wednesday, there were only three centers that applied to take in deer and two to care for bats.

Naniot said in their 11-year history, they had never reached capacity in their fawn pen. They reached capacity within 10 days because they were taking deer from around the state and some of the other centers that applied to take in deer only take deer from specific areas. He said they also had to euthanize some of the fawns early in the spring because they did not have their protocols in place yet, and others that homeowners tried to care for were not cared for properly.

In addition to COVID-19 protocols, Naniot said they have also seen the labor and economic impacts other businesses have seen over the last year. The 24/7 operation requires a lot of volunteer hours. They also were unable to do the education and fundraising events they rely on to stay open. Naniot said rehabilitation centers, while considered an essential business, have not been eligible for pandemic federal or state aid and county and local governments also do not fund their operations.

To get help with an injured or orphaned animal, volunteer, or support Wild Instincts, click here.

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