Wildlife in Distress


The golden rule to the successful rehabilitation and release of an orphaned, injured or sick native animal is to keep it in a stress free environment.

Many people associate a "freaked out" animal with stress; however, stress responses can also be a good thing. For example, a stressor of pain can have the stress response of a limp, which helps the body part heal (Bryant, 2004).

The word to better describe an anxious or "freaked out" animal is distress. Distress is otherwise described as anguish, agony, grief and misery - all things we want to avoid at all costs.

Distress in a native animal can be fatal. An animal in a distressed state can lead to complications such as bacterial infections, cardio-myopathy (kind of like a heart attack), capture myopathy (rapid degeneration - or melt down- of muscle), thrush, dermatitis and in the very worst case scenario - death.

A baby kangaroo, possum or wombat is called a joey. Many people mistakenly believe that such animals make good pets. However, native animals are not toys for your children; they are not companions for your girlfriend / boyfriend; they are not domestic pets - they are wild animals. All the complications mentioned in the previous paragraph can also affect a joey and you may kill it if you allow it to enter a distressed state.

There are many things that can cause distress a joey, and unfortunately they are often things that normally occur in our day to day lives.

4Loud children, even if they're playing happily and aren't intentionally being frightening - the loud noises that children make can distress a joey.

4Over handling, especially by other people (including children), can cause major distress. A joey prefers one "human mum" (sometimes two, eg: a spouse or partner that can help raise the joey). A joey will bond quite strongly with its carer and too many people with "hands on" may cause deep distress.

4Incorrect sizes in makeshift pouches can be very distressing to a joey. The pouches should not be too small or too big or the joey will not feel secure. Aim to use a pouch that enables the joey to feel snug and secure but can still have movement in.

4A change in carers can also cause distress, as the bond a joey has with its carer is very strong. It is advisable, wherever possible, for a joey to be raised by one carer throughout its whole time in care.

4Dogs and cats are the natural predators of most native animals and the fear of these animals is usually instinct in native animals. Keeping a joey near a dog can frighten it so much that it can die instantly (cardio-myopathy) or over a prolonged period.

4Loud music and noises can cause significant distress to a joey. The deep booming of music and the slamming of doors, etc, can reverberate right through a joey which could lead to severe distress.

4Heat stress can lead to severe distress in a joey. Keeping a joey too warm can cause major illness as can keeping it too cool. There are specific temperature ranges for different types of native animals.

4Strong unnatural smells such as air fresheners, strong fabric softeners, cigarette smoke etc, can also cause significant distress. Native animals have a keen sense of smell, it is highly advanced and is the primary sense used in the wild.

4Enforced abnormal biological rhythms, for example, forcing a nocturnal animal into a diurnal lifestyle (Bryant, 2004). That means forcing a marsupial joey (possum, wombat, kangaroo) into daytime activity when its normal active time is in the night.

4Forcing the joey to "emerge" from the pouch too soon. A furless joey should not be forced to leave its pouch - its growth stage is similar to a premature human baby. Different species emerge from the pouch at different ages, forcing a joey out of its pouch before time will lead to detrimental distress.

4Overcrowding can cause distress and can also lead to aggressive / submissive behaviour. A carer needs to set limits on how many animals are in care at one time. Limits need to be placed on carer capability and area capacity.

Signs of a distressed animal include:

4Teeth grinding
4Hissing, or other loud vocalisations
4Shaking (or shivering)
4Unusual sleeping positions

Caring for native animals is not as easy as it may sound. There are many factors to be considered - distress is just one of them.

If you find an orphaned, injured or sick native animal then you should think long and hard before contemplating to care for it. If you are not trained in the care of native animals then you are likely to do more damage than good. Death of an animal is often the result if kept by an inexperienced or untrained carer.

If you want to do the right thing by the animal then either hand it over to an experienced carer or seek proper training yourself.

Wild animals are not toys. They are not pets. They are wild animals that need to be raised, rehabilitated and released back to the bush.

The bush is where they belong, not our backyards.

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