Ethical Perspectives

(See also Letters to the Animals)

What is Our Highest Objective in the Area of Wildlife Capture and Handling?

I propose that our ultimate goal as wildlife professionals is to not handle wildlife.  When we achieve this, research studies would be performed without us causing injury or loss to the very animals we are dedicating our lives to; we will not influence our data as much; and our approach to wildlife research would be much more palatable to the public and our fellow colleagues.

With our highest goal in mind, we will first seek hands-off alternatives, such as remote cameras, drones, and scat analysis for genetics, hormones and other data. Our highest goal will continuously motivate us to develop new hands-off technologies which minimize animal handling.

Research, though, is necessary for making management decisions and it often requires activities such as radio-telemetry which involves animal capture and handling. Therefore, not handling wildlife is often unrealistic. But if we keep our highest objective in mind, we will always remember that drugging and handling wildlife is our second best option and we will approach our field operations with even more conscientiousness and attention to detail.

What Is Our Highest Goal When The Animal Is In Hand?

When we have to handle wildlife, our priority is to look after the well-being of each animal. Human safety must be identified as the highest priority (and it is a core part of all GWR courses), but for the context of this discussion, the well-being of each animal is highest priority. The well-being of the animal is MORE important than our work. It is more important than radio-collaring, than collecting blood, or getting body measurements, for example.

Too often, we get so focused and so pressured, that we forget we have choices. Wildlife chemical immobilization should not be a salvage operation. It is not enough to simply knock the animal down and radio-collaring it. We need to provide care for the animal. And we need to be prepared and confident enough to guide the field operation rather than react to it.

Each Animal Handling is a Profound Experience

For me, animal capture and handling is far more than an activity for gathering data or managing wildlife. Each animal handling is a unique experience for us to savor. For me it is exhilarating, sacred, and sad; an opportunity to explore our connection with all things, and to explore who we are as a person. This is a profound opportunity.

It is remarkable that we can even get our hands on these animals in a safe way. For ages we have evolved and learned how to kill the animals, but how awesome is it for us to be standing over an animal like a grizzly bear or bighorn ram with them still alive and breathing.

To honor and address this profound opportunity, we should strongly justify the reason for capturing and handling the animal, prepare thoroughly, work efficiently to reduce time, provide the best animal care including monitoring the animal’s vital signs, and always use a headcover to reduce animal stress and increase human safety.

There is No Room for Ego When Leaning Over an Animal

The weakest link of any field operation capturing wildlife is the human factor. Too often there are stories about wildlife biologists, veterinarians, and zoo caretakers arguing during chemical immobilization of animals. Not only is this unprofessional, it compromises monitoring and care for the animal.

Instead we should be respectful of each person and create a clear chain of command, even if there is only two people. And we must leave our ego in the pickup truck. If you have any desire to improve yourself as you move through Life, you will see how the animals can indeed teach us how to be better human beings.

Learning from Every Animal

Principles the Animals Can Teach Us

  • There is no room for ego when handling animals.
  • The crazier it gets, the calmer you should be.
  • Practice physical restraint without the fight.

Do you have any desire to make yourself a better person each day? If not, no sweat. If you do, then use your animal handling events as an opportunity to build conscious and healthy skills. All of the principles above improve our success in the field and make us better people in our daily lives, but it takes practice and a conscious effort to improve with each animal handling. Each field operation can teach us to work without ego getting in the way. That short time while working with the animal is a great time to practice being fully present and not get caught up with feuds or bickering.

And wildlife or feral animal capture and handling is a great opportunity to learn how to stay relaxed and calm. Get good at that and you will find when a neighbor yells in your face and bills come in the mail you can still remain calm. A gift from the animals.

Let’s strive to learn from every animal, every colleague, and every field operation.

Care, Honor, and Respect for Every Animal

I have found there is a huge craving for most professionals to bring heart and compassion into their work, especially as it relates to our connection with animals. This relationship with animals and all of life is a part of our very Being. Yet the wildlife and veterinary professional cultures do not help us address or explore this deep and longstanding connection.

In the field there are many ways to practice and demonstrate care, honor, and respect for each animal by our words, actions, equipment, and techniques. It is imperative that we get away from the “good old boy” comedy and “yucking it up” behavior and work with focus and calm and quiet mannerisms. This not only demonstrates a clear choice to be respectful, it reduces stimulus which can lead to complications and demonstrates professionalism.

The culture of the wildlife profession is evolving and more professionals than ever have the desire and courage to talk about caring for each animal. And in their presentations you can see it in their attention to details, willingness to change equipment or protocols, and in their openness in asking their colleagues for feedback.

Letters Inviting Animals to Participate

One way I teach care, compassion, and respect for every animal we handle in wildlife research and management is to give students in my university courses the following homework assignment:

“Write a letter of invitation to an animal, population, or species asking them to participate in your wildlife research project. Recognize that if they do not accept, you will not have a project. So explain to them:

  • Why it will be in the animal’s best interest to participate
  • What risks the animal could be exposed to
  • What precautions you will take to minimize those risks.”

Here are some of these student letters…

I am writing you to with hopes that we might work together. I operate a team of individuals tasked with surveying shrew numbers within the Bitterroot Mountains. I would like to invite you to participate in this study in order to get an accurate count of your numbers. My objective in this letter is to relay our intentions and ensure the safety of each shrew that we might handle.

Firstly, by participating in this study you would be helping generations of shrews to come by allowing my team to fully understand the extent of your ranges as well as your densities. Also by getting this initial count we will have a base line to which we can compare future studies with, allowing us to recognize potential threats in the future.

My team and myself will be using various methods to gather information about shrews. We will be using several traps including havahart and various pitfall designs so that no serious harm comes to any shrew. The traps will be checked no less than two to three times a day to subvert ailments or any injuries sustained by the shrew. My team consists of professionals, all adequately trained to deal with any situation that might arise.

Captured shrews would be anesthetized prior to processing. My team would then collect blood and take a skin sample from the ear. Ideally A PIT tag would be used to identify shrews in the future. We will monitor temperature, pulse and respiratory rates regularly. Processing should take no more than twenty minutes and after processing the shrew will be gently brought out of anesthesia. Monitoring of captured individuals would take place on a daily basis for a week after release.

This and no more do my team and I intend to pursue. My goal in this letter was to be completely transparent about my motives and I hope that you will not hesitate to contact me with any questions of your own.

With regards,
Travis C.

I am a wildlife biologist conducting a research study to gain knowledge about how the nonnative vegetation in this area is affecting different species of wildlife. I would really appreciate your participation in this study. Your participation may benefit you as well as many other species in this area. We would gain knowledge about your species and how the nonnative plant species are affecting your health and well-being.

If you do participate, we would give you some medicine to make this an easy process for you. While medicated, we would conduct a few tests to gain the information we are searching for as well as check your general health.

The risks you may face are hyperthermia, shock, bloating, seizures, etc. To prevent these risks, we would constantly be checking your temperature, pulse, and respiration to ensure your safety during the entire process. To prevent hyperthermia, with your cooperation is easily avoided and we would have treatments such as cool water and shade ready if need be. To prevent shock, we would limit your senses to ease the process. To prevent bloating, we would position your body so that bodily gases are easily released. To prevent seizures, we would select the proper medicines before taking action and minimize stress throughout the process. The risks are all easily manageable with our experienced staff.

To ensure your safety, we would also continue to monitor as often as possible for a few weeks. We have already checked many other species successfully and we are missing yours.

Your participation would be greatly appreciated by us and may benefit you and yours immensely.

Eagerly awaiting your answer,
Kaitlyn G, Wildlife Biologist

My name is Neil M. and I am part of a research team comprised of the top big cat biologists from the US, Africa, and Asia. Our team is devoted to protecting big cat species. To do this, we collect data to learn about big cat movements and habits. With that information, we can implement protective measures like creating safe wildlife corridors. So far we have been successful at linking isolated populations of jaguars in Central American and tigers in India.

My team is requesting permission to collect data on your species in Botswana. We hope to learn enough about leopard movements to allow us to link South African and Namibian leopards with those in Botswana. Benefits for your species include increased access to food and increased access to mating partners for genetic diversity. Sadly, humans have caused Panthera pardus pardus to survive in isolated strongholds. Our team hopes change that by connecting populations and allowing your species to thrive.

We are confident that we can accomplish our goals but it will not be easy. Success would require your specie’s help and that would expose you to some risks. We are asking leopards in Botswana to allow us to anesthetize them. While unresponsive, we would like to measure and weigh all individuals as well as place a radio collar around their necks. This collar would allow us to track every movement the individuals make. The drugs themselves pose many risks. We understand you are a dangerous species so we would like to use 3mg/kg ketamine plus .07mg/kg dexmedetomidine to make sure we as researchers remain safe. This is an anesthetic/sedative combination that would create an unresponsive and relaxed leopard. Possible risks while under our care include excessive salivation, seizures, lack of thermoregulation, slow heart and respiratory rate, and death. Risks after our care are few, yet the drugs and collar can impose some. Leopards could awaken from our care groggy and slow to react. The collar may inhibit an individual’s camouflage, which could lead to unsuccessful hunts.

I am required to list many of the possible risks. While the list seems long, I promise to all of Botswana’s leopards that our team will take every step possible to minimize those risks. If you allow us to conduct research, I promise we would be prepared. Our methods would be peer-reviewed by scientists across the world. Before entering the field, we would practice and plan those methods so that nothing surprises us. I promise to bring all the required equipment and more for safety. Lastly, our team would have a chain of command that ensures a smooth and successful operation. Every participant would be aware of his or her role and would know what to do in any situation.

If we are allowed to anesthetize leopards in Botswana, the data collection process will be entirely centered on animal care and wellbeing. We would measure our drug doses before hand and have extra just in case. Under the drugs, we understand the survival of a leopard would be in our hands. Thus, we promise to monitor temperature, pulse, and respirations constantly, along with other vital signs. Should any changes in body condition occur, we would stop everything and treat the issue. Our goal is to do all painful parts of the procedure, like blood collection, during the peak of anesthesia. Luckily, dexmedetomidine is a strong analgesia. The ways we would minimize risks are too many to list here. What I can promise is that we would provide the best care possible from our first sighting of a leopard to the day his or her radio collar comes off. Animal welfare would always be our top priority.

If leopards decide that the benefits of this research are greater than the risks, please reply with a confirmation letter containing two paw-prints of dried mud. We certainly believe our research could have a positive effect on the survival of leopards. Also, South African and Namibian leopards would love to reproduce with those in Botswana.

We look forward to hearing your reply and wish you the most success on your next hunt!

Neil M.

Hello, my name is Trevor W., and I am writing this letter to inform you that you have been selected as potential participants in my wildlife study. As you may be aware, some years back your region saw a significant rise in the prevalence of feline leukemia. As such, I urge you to strongly consider participating in this study, so that we as researchers can help monitor your population for markers, such as population size/growth, that may serve as warning signs for the recurrence of this disease.

This study will likely receive its data from two main sources, trail cameras and satellite collars. There are very few risks associated with trail cameras; the worst you could expect would simply be the sudden appearance of said cameras along your expected travel routes. With the satellite collars, however, there are several risks that are associated with outfitting members of the population with collars. If you were to participate in this study, you could expect to possibly be collared through one of two methods; either box-trapping or being treed by hounds. Each technique has its own risks associated with it, but if you agree to participate, I will do my utmost to make each situation as positive an experience as possible. In the case of the box traps, you would expect to find a large green cage covered in several layers of fir boughs, in order to create a dark, comfortable environment for you. Inside the cage, you would find a fresh elk leg for your consumption. The most common risk associated with these box traps are that some of you may become uncomfortable in this enclosed space and attempt to head bash, claw, or chew your way out. This may lead to cut faces, and in extreme cases, broken teeth or claws. The side effects of the box trap depend heavily upon your own reactions. Each box trap would be equipped with a satellite transmitter that would alert me the moment that the cage door has closed, and I would also check these traps daily, to ensure that you would not spend an unnecessarily long amount of time in a trap. Once in the trap, you would be given a mixture of drugs to ensure a comfortable collaring session. This will be covered in more detail after I outline the risks associated with treeing. These risks include running from hounds for prolonged distances and injuries related to an accidental fall from the tree. I want to personally assure you that if this study is accepted, I would consider the safety of both you and the hounds to be paramount. Once you are treed, all hounds would be leashed a safe distance away. I would use Teledart darts to ensure minimum tissue damage to you (this dart would be used in box trapping as well). As soon as the drugs begin to take effect, safety nets would be set up all around your tree. Once you go under, you could expect to either fall safely into the net, or for myself or another researcher to climb up and gently lower you down.

As mentioned earlier, participation in this study would involve exposure to certain drugs. As always, your safety and comfort would always be my highest priority. The drugs you are given would be a mixture of Ketamine and Xylazine. Ketamine’s side effects often include seizures and muscle rigidity, which would be lessened by Xylazine’s sedative properties. A common side effect in Xylazine is vomiting. In order to lessen the occurrence of both drugs’ side effects, and to ensure a smoother drugging overall, I would add Butorphanol to the mixture, which has been shown to make the experience far more pleasant overall. For your comfort while you are under, you would be given a head cover and would be placed on a ground cloth. Your temperature, pulse, and respiration would be constantly monitored so that you would remain as safe as possible throughout this process. It is at this time that you would also be fitted with a satellite collar that would transmit our location periodically, so that we researchers would have a better understanding of your population’s distribution and movements. Blood or fur samples would likely be taken as well.

At every step in this process, I and my fellow researchers would take every possible step to make this process as painless as possible. I have spent many years working with members of your species in Washington State, so you should know that should you choose to participate in this study, you would be in professional, caring hands. I hope that you will consider not only the risks, but also the benefits of this study as you ponder participating. I hope to hear from you soon with your response.

Thank you for your consideration,

Trevor Weeks
Undergraduate in Wildlife Biology
University of Montana

My name is Marc V. and I am writing you to convince you to help me in my research project. I study Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana. I wanted to start a research project about a very interesting topic. Since you are by far my favorite animal I would love to conduct research about you.

You are the most fascinating animal I have ever come across and there is still so much we would like to learn about you. Although you live all across Africa and Asia in a wide variety of countries and ecosystems we still only know very little about you.

We would love to learn more and truly understand the way you live and function. For you this would be a great opportunity to introduce us into your life and help us protect you more. Think about this: the more we know the more we can help you.

During our research we would love to find out more about your habits, for example how much you travel each day or how social you are.

If you allow us to conduct this research we would trap some of you in Boxtraps, using a nice and tasty snack as bait. (I know you like snake, so this could be good bait) Then you would have to wait a little bit for us to arrive and we would sedate you. To do so I would use a mixture of Ketamine and Xylazine. If I would feel comfortable not using chemical immunization I would do so, but you are such a fearsome and impressive animal. Without the drugs I could not ensure the safety of both of us.

There are several risks we have to talk about: Although the risk of an overdose is very small I would constantly monitor your temperature, your pulse and respiration. To be absolutely sure I would also monitor your Capillary Refill Time in case something goes wrong. But don’t worry! The more dangerous drug, xylazine, has an antagonist.

This means if anything goes wrong I could reverse the effects of the drug. During the whole procedure I would cover your eyes so you can sleep as relaxed as possible.

In order to understand more about you I would take blood (not too much!) and hair samples. I would also attach an ear tag so we could see from a distance who you are and minimize the amount of you we have to sedate. Last I would like to attach a radio collar to find out where you are without bothering you all the time. I will make sure that the collar is not too tight or too heavy, since I want to disturb you as little as possible. By the time you wake up we would be waiting in a safe distance, making sure everything is all right and then let you return to your world.

Please consider this offer. I know it is never nice getting captured and sedated but both of us could learn so much. I want you to know that I am your friend and I only have the best of intentions for this project. If you accept I would have so much information to protect you and make your life and the life of your species ultimately better.

Hope you catch many snakes!
Marc V.