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Research Document - 2004/122

Marine mammals and “wildlife rehabilitation” programs

By L.N. Measures


Wildlife rehabilitation involves the rescue or capture, care and treatment of abandoned, orphaned, injured or sick wild animals with the ultimate goal of returning the animal to the wild if it is healthy, able to survive and does not pose a risk to wild populations, domestic animals or public safety. Rehabilitation of marine mammals is controversial and there is no national policy or regulation by Fisheries and Oceans Canada despite some interest and support of rehabilitation in different regions of Canada. This document reviews legislation to protect wildlife and marine mammals in Canada. There is a brief comparative overview of marine mammal legislation and protection in the United States as well as international agreements pertaining to translocation (=rehabilitation) of wildlife and disease control. A short historical review of rehabilitation of marine mammals is provided with a discussion of the pros and cons. While animal welfare is usually the predominant reason to rehabilitate wildlife there are benefits in terms of new knowledge of their diseases and ailments and veterinary therapies, identification of new threats to wild populations including species at risk and opportunities for public education in conservation. On the other hand, released rehabilitated wildlife make no significant contribution to wild populations and released animals may be disease carriers threatening wild populations especially species at risk. Introduction of novel or exotic pathogens, development of antibiotic resistance, interference in natural selection by changing gene frequencies or perpetuation of deleterious genes or creation of highly virulent pathogens are significant risks to wild populations from wildlife rehabilitation programs. Costs of rehabilitation and regulation are problems for government agencies and non-governmental groups to consider. Should marine mammal rehabilitation be permitted in Canada, recommendations with suggested regulations to reduce risks to wild populations are provided.

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