Practicing Wildlife Rehabilitation Within Legal Restrictions

BIO  Dr Elizabeth Mullineaux BVM&S, DVM&S, CertSHP, MRCVS

Liz is director at Capital Veterinary Services, science advisor at Secret World Wildlife Rescue, and a veterinary surgeon with Vets Now. She is also an active member of the British Veterinary Association and editor of numerous BSAVA Manuals, including Wildlife Casualties.
This post is a revised version of the paper Liz presented at the 2014 BWRC Symposium.

Legislation affecting the care of wildlife can be a minefield for both vets and rehabilitators, risking prosecution for both if not followed correctly. Legal responsibilities are not always clearly outlined in all countries, so it is important to familiarize yourself with the relevant legislation that might apply. For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), the main pieces of legislation to be most concerned about are the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (as amended 2002) (VSA), Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2014, and the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Remember, that there are many others affecting both animals and people associated with wildlife centres and this should be considered when writing centre policies and guidelines. Here are a few key areas to consider for those caring for British wildlife, although they are applicable in most places around the world:

Veterinary surgeons

You need to have good veterinary involvement with the wild animals you care for. In most countries only vets can legally diagnose medical conditions, prescribe drugs, carry out surgery and have animals legally under their medical care. It is important to have a good relationship with your vet and best to have one main veterinary practice that is responsible for the animals at your centre. You may occasionally involve other vets, but you still need a main veterinary practice. If you don’t have a vet on site, then your main practice vets need to visit on a regular basis, ideally at least once a week. These visits also allow them to understand how you work, know what animals are on site and provide general advice. If you chose to employ a vet, then remember you will need adequate facilities in which they can work and you will still need to provide 24/7 veterinary care for your centre, which may mean employing a second vet or making use of an additional local practice. Have a written policy (formally agreed upon with your vet) for triage and first aid treatment of admitted animals that don’t immediately see a vet. If your vet allows you to make any decisions about treatments, these need to be written down clearly in a policy. Ensure that anything written follows the law, and remember only vets can ‘diagnose’ and ‘prescribe’ so avoid using these terms. Make use of the telephone (or email) to get veterinary advice, and document all correspondence. This advice is usually free and helps ensure that you (and your vet) cover yourself legally when making decisions and that the best treatment is provided.

Veterinary nurses

In the UK a Veterinary Nurse is a professional person with appropriate qualifications and training that is registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). Relevant qualifications from overseas may allow RCVS registration (e.g. some North American ‘tech’ qualifications). Veterinary nurses may be employed by vets, volunteer at wildlife centres, or be employed by centres. In all instances, even if you employ them, a Veterinary Nurse’s work must be under the direction and supervision of the centre’s vet. Veterinary nurses in the UK receive little formal training on British wildlife (these species are not in the RCVS occupational standards). Legally this means that they are not suitably trained to carry out ‘Schedule 3’ procedures under the VSA on wildlife species and must receive this training first from the vet who is responsible for them. The British Small Animal Veterinary Association Nursing Merit Award in British wildlife was the first attempt to formally fill this knowledge gap for veterinary nurses. Vet nurses are not ‘mini vets’. Specifically, they are not legally able to make a diagnosis (e.g. based on an examination, x-ray, or laboratory report), prescribe medication, induce anesthesia using gaseous anesthesia, or perform surgery that enters body cavities. They are allowed to take blood, administer intravenous fluids, give medication and suture minor wounds, however all these must be ‘under the direction’ of a veterinary surgeon. Wildlife centres should have an agreed and written policy for veterinary nursing activities. If they employ a veterinary nurse, they should ensure that both job descriptions and employment contracts make it clear where duties start and end. RVNs are legally liable for the work they do and should have professional indemnity insurance.

Wildlife centre policy

In general, it is important for you to have written policies regarding all the activities at your centre. It is useful to have an admissions policy that allows animals to be signed over to you, which can protect you legally in terms of ‘ownership’ and at least helps finders to appreciate that the animal is now your responsibility. It is important to agree which of your staff can do which tasks (e.g. give medication) and keep records of this. Ensure that adequate training has been provided for any tasks performed, record this training and ensure that it is kept up to date. Ensure that there is a policy for any storage of drugs left on site and who has access to these. Drugs should always be in a locked cabinet with restricted access. Records of drug use should be kept. Agree on a written policy with your vet regarding euthanasia of animals, including: which cases, under what circumstances, and how euthanasia is to be performed. Any phone conversations or emails regarding euthanasia of individual animals should be carefully recorded. Keep good records of each animal, the treatment they receive and their progress.

Records help to protect you legally, allow the progress of individual animals to be monitored, and allow for reflection on the success (or not) of treatments. Lastly, have good written policies for people (staff, volunteers and members of the public) and for the maintenance of the site itself. Common areas of litigation against centres relate to health and safety and waste disposal.

While these are some important guidelines, it is vital to research and understand the current, relevant legislation to wildlife rehabilitation in your country and ensure that your operation is always acting within the law.

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