We are asking for your support in ending Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) restrictions preventing wildlife rehabilitators from helping certain species of animals, such as badgers, bats and mink.
“Under current emergency restrictions, the DNR is tying wildlife rehabilitators’ hands, preventing them from using their expertise to help sick, injured and orphaned wildlife,” Evan Hafenbreadl, DCHS Public Relations Coordinator said. “The DNR says the restrictions are intended to prevent the spread of COVID, yet wildlife rehabilitators are trained specifically to help prevent the spread of disease among wild animals and between humans and animals in their care.”
While some species within the ban aren't threatened, there is wildlife that will be severely impacted. For example, cave bats are already under significant threat due to the spread of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), and bat populations are declining. With all four species of Wisconsin cave bats included on the state threatened species list, preventing wildlife rehabilitators from caring for these animals only increases fear for their survival. Additionally, there is significant concern that well-meaning members of the public may attempt to help these animals if they have nowhere else to turn. A licensed wildlife rehabilitator is better equipped to provide proper care for these animals, including housing patients in isolation, wearing specialized equipment, and following strict quarantine protocols.
Hafenbreadl continued, “We’re asking for the public to contact the Wisconsin DNR to request that they remove these restrictions. Please let the DNR know that you have full faith in our professional wildlife rehabilitators’ ability to prevent the spread of disease. It’s time we get back to work helping badgers in the badger state.”
Anyone interested in contacting the DNR regarding their restrictions can email Tami Ryan, Wildlife Health Section Chief Bureau of Wildlife Management, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about DCHS’s ability to mitigate the spread of disease, along with the unintended consequences of the DNR’s restrictions below.
Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR) has temporarily halted the rehabilitation of several types of animals that may be susceptible to infection by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This policy currently includes Felids (bobcat, lynx), Mustelids (otter, mink, weasel, etc.), and bats.
Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center (DCHS’s Wildlife Center) has evaluated the current policy and believes that the DNR should reverse its decision, as the policy creates more risks than it solves. In addition, and for the same reasons, we believe that the WI DNR should work to remove NR 1.18 (3)(c) which prohibits the rehabilitation of skunks in Wisconsin.
DCHS’s Wildlife Center believes that Mustelid and Felid rehabilitation should be reinstated for the following reasons:
- Wildlife rehabilitators are trained in zoonotic disease prevention. They work daily with animals that have the potential to be infected with serious diseases such as rabies, and policies are in place to monitor for possible exposure or for clinical signs of disease in their patients.
- Wildlife rehabilitators are invested in the individual and population health of a species. They are willing and able to establish protocols to protect Felid and Mustelid patients from exposure, including wearing face coverings, ensuring adequate facility sanitation methods, and self-monitoring for illness.
- Rehabilitators are educated in the natural history of species that they are licensed to care for and are able to monitor for respiratory and other clinical signs of illness in their patients. They are able to take non-invasive samples as requested to broaden the scientific understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 impacts wildlife.
- Members of the public are likely to attempt caring for a wild animal themselves when there are no options for professional rehabilitators to care for an animal in distress. This increases transmission risk for SARS-CoV-2 as there will be no measures in place to stop the spread if the good Samaritan is infected. It also increases the risk of rabies virus exposure, zoonotic parasite transmission, as well as transmission of diseases to domestic animals.
- There are significant animal welfare concerns to be considered when untrained individuals attempt to rehabilitate wildlife. Animals suffer from poor nutrition and emaciation from being offered inappropriate diets, and are more likely to become habituated to humans without professional care. They are also unlikely to receive appropriate veterinary care, which can mean incorrect diagnosis and treatment of the animal’s problem, inappropriate pain management of wounds or fractures, untreated infections leading to sepsis, and once again increased risk of zoonotic disease transmission.
- The risk of mustelid and felid species transmitting the virus to others is low, given their solitary lifestyles and especially if they are monitored for signs of SARS-CoV-2 before release from rehabilitation.
Bats represent a somewhat different case, as they do tend to live in large social groupings which may increase the chances of virus transmission between bats if SARS-CoV-2 is introduced into the population, and due to the suspected origin of the virus in Horseshoe Bats of China. Wisconsin’s cave bats are already under significant threat due to the spread of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), an infection caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. All of Wisconsin’s four cave bat species are on the state threatened species list, and the Northern Long-eared bat is also a federally threatened species. Based on the natural history of bats entering rehabilitation and the precautions already in place to prevent the spread of WNS in rehabilitation facilities, only small adjustments would be necessary in current policies to safely care for bats. DCHS’s Wildlife Center believes that bat rehabilitation should be reinstated considering the following:
- Wisconsin rehabilitators already wear dedicated clothing when working with bats, as well as gloves that are changed between patients. All disinfection protocols that are in place for preventing the spread of WNS should be effective against SARS-CoV-2. Adding face coverings to the required PPE for bats would significantly reduce the likelihood of transmission. Rehabilitators should follow the IUCN SSC Bat Specialist Group recommendations for rehabilitators and the recommendations in the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association position statement regarding the rehabilitation of North American Bats during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
- Current WNS regulations provide strict rules on which bats can be housed together, so bats in rehabilitation are unlikely to be able to pass SARS-CoV-2 to other bats. Regulations could be updated to reflect the IUCN SSC Bat Specialist Group’s recommendations for bat housing, which are in the document linked above.
- Most bats admitted to Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center are healthy big brown bats admitted in the winter after being found attempting to hibernate in a house. The bats may be found during home remodeling projects, or they may be disturbed during hibernation and make their way to the living area of a house. It is likely that many more bats successfully hibernate in houses that are never discovered, meaning that they are breathing the same air as unmasked individuals and could potentially be exposed to SARS-CoV-2. These undiscovered bats will never be monitored for signs of illness and will rejoin groups of bats after hibernation is over. In addition, the WI DNR recommends that bats found hibernating in a house should be left in the house to finish their hibernation if it is safe to do so, again potentially exposing the bats to SARS-COV-2.
- Bats in rehabilitation can be monitored for clinical signs of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and non-invasive samples can be collected as requested from bats in rehabilitation in order to broaden our understanding of the virus in wildlife.
- At the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI, big brown bats were challenged with SARS-CoV-2 virus and no signs of infection, lesions, or morbidity were noted. Although this may not extend to other species of bats, big brown bats are the bulk of bats seen by wildlife rehabilitators due to their predilection for hibernating in small numbers in houses.
- Bats in rehabilitation are not handled often after initial admission and stabilization is complete. At DCHS’s Wildlife Center, bats in rehabilitation follow a 30-day WNS quarantine in which they are fed every-other-day and weighed weekly. After completion of the quarantine period, bats are moved into artificial hibernation and fed weekly and weighed every 3 weeks. Most bats will learn to eat from a dish within a week or two of admission, and therefore handling for feeding is not required.
- Finders that are concerned about the welfare of a bat are not going to simply release a healthy bat outside in the winter. In the absence of any legal means for rehabilitation, individuals are more likely to attempt to care for bats themselves. This brings the same concerns for disease transmission--especially rabies as the small size of bats makes them less intimidating to handle than larger mammals--animal welfare, and habituation as noted above in the section about Felid and Mustelid rehabilitation.
During the research for this project, it became apparent to DCHS’s Wildlife Center that the WI DNR should also work to remove administrative code NR 1.18 (3) (c) which prohibits the rehabilitation of skunks in Wisconsin. Although skunks used to be the primary vector of rabies in the state, other species are now more commonly infected. In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has not recorded a case of skunk rabies since prior to 2014. Rehabilitators have demonstrated through their successful work with bats and other rabies vector species that they take adequate precautions when working with potentially infected animals. Skunks eat insects and carrion, and are an important part of Wisconsin’s ecosystem. Stopping licensed rehabilitators from caring for a species only encourages caring citizens to take matters into their own hands, therefore increasing public health risks and producing animal welfare concerns as described above.