Animals in the Wild

Important terms and concepts

Disaster preparedness

Disasters can have serious repercussions for wild animals, and veterinarians are often called on to help with managing injured, burned, oiled or otherwise damaged wildlife. Climate change will probably increase the frequency of extreme weather events so that droughts, flood, snowstorms and bushfires will become more common (Hulme, 2014). In addition, disasters such as oil spills, earthquakes and tsunamis occur regularly. Management of the response to a disaster affecting animals will be the responsibility of specific local, state or national authorities. In the case of oil-spills, a national authority such as the Maritime Safety Authority in New Zealand will decide whether there will be a funded response. Specific veterinary response teams have been developed in New Zealand (e.g. The Massey University Veterinary Emergency Response Team) and Australia (AUSVETPLAN) to cope with animals in the aftermath of disasters such as the Christchurch earthquake.

Veterinarians' duties to wild animals

The most important responsibility of veterinarians to wild animals is to ensure that the animals’ welfare is protected. Beyond this general responsibility to minimize pain and suffering, veterinary responsibilities to wildlife are poorly defined and may be determined by the particular area of veterinary science they work in. Veterinarians involved in zoo medicine may have quite clearly defined responsibilities to the animals in their care and these may be similar to those for companion or farm animals. Veterinarians play a crucial role in conservation programs (Kelly et al., 2013) and may be involved in wildlife health (Reading et al., 2013), population management (Wikler et al., 2014), immobilization, capture, translocation (Ewen et al., 2015), and pest control (Naugle and Grams, 2013). Even though a veterinarian might consider himself or herself to have a duty towards an injured or diseased wild animal, it is often the case that the protection of the environment (e.g. particular flora or fauna) outweighs the value of an individual. This creates an ethical dilemma (Beausoleil, 2014). The ‘Respect for nature’ view within animal ethics finds that we have duties to species, rather than simply to individual animals (Sandoe and Christensen 2008) which highlights the complexity of the decision making. 

Moral pluralism as advocated by Norton et al. (1995) suggests that there may be a shift in emphasis from environmentalism to concern for the individual animal depending on the situation. At the two extremes of this interaction, wild animals may be considered very valuable as individuals because they are endemic and endangered or they may be classified as pests to be destroyed wherever possible. As an example, in Australia, the Brushtailed Possum (Trichosurus Vulpecula) is a valued species while in New Zealand it is considered by many to be a pest to be euthanased where possible (Montague, 2000). The recognition that infectious diseases can spread from wildlife to humans has made veterinary interactions and management of some wild species an ethical issue with different sets of responsibilities (Pal, 2014; Murata, 2014). Management of flying foxes in Australia has become a contentious issue because of their capacity to carry Lyssaviruses (Allworth et al 1996). Should we eliminate species that harbor infectious agents dangerous to humans? This is becoming a veterinary responsibility and underpins Aguirre’s (2009) concerns about inadequate undergraduate preparation for wildlife medicine and management (Cattet, 2013).

Methods and justification for their uses (e.g. harvesting/hunting, wildlife parks)

Humans use wild animals in a wide range of ways. They may be a source of food, skins and potential wealth through different types of activity such as ecotourism, hunting, and fishing. The keeping of wild animals in zoos is an old and popular use of wildlife. Wild animals, particularly large mammals, are valued aesthetically and some are used as iconic species by the conservation industry. Their conservation and existence is a source of great interest, education and entertainment for many people. In zoos managing wild animals, particularly large mammals, may be problematic as individuals (most commonly males) may be surplus to needs and killing them can create public controversy. This double-edged sword results in an ethical dilemma as demonstrated by the killing of a giraffe in a Danish zoo some years ago. It was surplus to the zoo’s breeding requirement, hence unwanted and euthanased (Bekoff & Ram, 2014). While for the giraffe in question, this may not have been a welfare issue in itself, as the animal was killed and welfare is an issue of quality of life, it created a public storm of disgust, mainly outside of Denmark. Hunting is a significant way in which people use wildlife. Most wild animals are hunted for meat (e.g. deer hunting in New Zealand) but some are killed for sport (e.g. driven pheasant shooting in England), for trophies (e.g. lion hunting in Zimbabwe) or as pests (e.g. fox hunting in Australia). The justification for hunting will depend on the reason animals are hunted and the efficacy of the techniques used. Thus the hunting of a common deer species for meat by trained marksmen using high powered accurate rifles which kill rapidly is easier to justify than trophy hunting of endangered species using the same techniques. However, trophy hunting of common species may be justified if it supports conservation efforts and if the animals are killed quickly. Click on this link to a BBC article for a discussion of the ethical issues around hunting in the UK.

In 2011, a giant penguin washed ashore in New Zealand and was nursed back to health at some expense, and with apparently great public approval. Eventually it was released and disappeared, probably dying or being killed soon after release Perry N. Stranded penguin moved to zoo, set for surgery. Associated Press; 2011. This begs the question: Was it ethically correct to spend the money and enjoy the apparent return to health of this bird, which probably had a poor prognosis from the start and minimal chance of returning to the Antarctic? It could have been euthanased on capture when sick and dying. The welfare interests of individual members of wild, charismatic species, can easily be subsumed by public support for ‘rescue’, which may in itself be a response to the shame engendered by the damaging way we treat the planet and its occupants.

Tensions between animal welfare concerns and environmental concerns

In circumstances where the conservation of particular plants or animals are endangered by wild animals, populations of the latter may have to be controlled. A plethora of species are categorized as pests (Stafford, 2014) and controlled as a consequence. Predators of endemic and valued wildlife species include feral cats (McDonald et al., 2015), wild dogs, dingoes and foxes in Australia and cats, stoats, ferrets, possums and rats in New Zealand (King, 2005). Animals which damage protected flora include a range of feral animals in Australia (including wild horses, camels, donkeys, goats and pigs) and possums in New Zealand.

These pest species are controlled in a wide variety of ways. These include killing by trapping, poisoning or shooting. Such approaches can lead to tension between government agencies and sectors within the general public (Beausoleil, 2014). Classic examples are attempts to control (i.e. kill) brushtail possums in New Zealand to preserve the endemic trees in that country (Montague, 2000) and the control of foxes and cats in Australia to conserve endangered endemic mammals (Short et al,  2002) and the control of dingoes and wild dogs to protect livestock (Fleming, 2001).

The techniques used to control these mammals by trapping, poisoning or shooting, as listed above, always compromise the welfare of the target species. Some would argue that this is unacceptable and that no plant is more valuable than the welfare of a mammal, nor is one mammal more valuable than another to the extent that it is permissible to kill an animal. Veterinarians need to appreciate this conflict and tension, and gain experience in ethical decision making as they may be expected to have a role in leading the different societal opinions to reach a compromise. These welfare tensions directly interplay with a veterinarian’s duties to each of the wild species involved.

The nature and status of semi-owned animals

The nature and status of semi-owned animals is controversial. Semi-owned animals include feral (stray) cats managed in colonies (Petersen et al., 2012) and wild animals living on private properties. These are not owned per se but are often fed and maintained by humans and may involve veterinary support in population control and health maintenance. The veterinary involvement with trap-neuter-release cat programs is a classic AWE issue (Barrows, 2004). This is particularly important in countries, such as Australia, where it is an offence to release (in this case return after capture) non-native species into the wild.


Veterinarians are trained in the techniques of euthanasia for a wide range of species. When presented with seriously injured wild animals, euthanasia may be the best option and a wide range of acceptable techniques are available (AVMA, 2013). The legal right to euthanase injured animals, owned or wild, that are unlikely to recover following normal treatment is mandated in the Animal Welfare Acts in New Zealand (Anon, 2015) and the relevant sets of state and territory legislation in Australia (e.g. NSW Parliament, 1979). This legislation enables a veterinarian to make a clinical decision to euthanase any animal if it is unlikely to recover with treatment. In the context of wild animals, recovery might include successful return to the wild.

References cited above   

Aguirre, A.A. 2009. Essential veterinary education in zoological and wildlife medicine: a global perspective. Revue Scientifique et Technique – Office Interational des Epizooties 28, 606-10.

Allworth A, Murray K, Morgan J. 1996. A human case of encephalitis due to a lyssavirus recently identified in fruit bats. Communicable diseases intelligence  20, 504-04.

Anon. AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition. American veterinary Medical Association.  USA.

Anon. 2015. The Animal Welfare Act. Ministry of Primary Industries. New Zealand Government, Wellington, New Zealand.

Barrows, P.L. 2004. Professional, ethical and legal dilemmas of trap-neuter-release. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 225, 1365-9.

Beausoleil, N.J. 2014. Balancing the need for conservation and the welfare of individual animals. IN Dilemmas in Animal Welfare. Eds M.c. Appleby, D.M. Weary and P. Sandoe. CABI, UK. Pp124-47.

Bekoff, Marc and Daniel Ram; 'Cruel to be kind?' New Scientist 2014: 26-27.

Beausoleil, N.J. 2014. Balancing the need for conservation and the welfare of individual animals. IN Dilemmas in Animal Welfare. Eds M.c. Appleby, D.M. Weary and P. Sandoe. CABI, UK. 124-47.

Cattet, M.R. 2013. Falling through the Cracks: Shortocmings in the Collaboration between Biologists and Veterinarians and Their Consequences for Wildlife. ILAR Journal 54, 33-40.

Ewen, J.G., Sainsbury, A.W., Jackson, B. and Canessa, S. 2015. Disease risk management in reintroduction. INAdvances in Reintroduction Biology of Australian and New Zealand Fauna. Eds D.P Armstrong, M.W. Hayward, D. Moro and P.J. Seddon. CSIRO Publsihing, Victorial, Australia. 43-57.

Fleming, P.J.S., Corbett, L., Harden, R.H. & Thomson, P.C. (2001) Managing the Impacts of Dingoes and Other Wild Dogs. Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.

Hulme, M. 2015. Attributing weather extremes to ‘climate change’: A review. Progress in Physical Geography 38, 499-511.

Kelly, P., Stack, D. and Harley, J. 2013. A review of the proposed reintroduction program for the far eastern Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) and the role of conservation organisations, veterinarians and zoos. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine 28, 163-6.

King, C.M. 2005. The handbook of New Zealand Mammals. Oxfor University Press, England.

McDonald, J.L., Maclean, M., Evans, M.R. and Hodgson, D.J. 2015. Reconciling actual and perceived rates of predation by domestic cats. Ecology and Evolution. 5(14), 2745-2753.

Montague, T.L. 2000. The brushtail possum. Manaaki Whenua Publishing, Lincoln, New Zealand.

Murata, K. 2014. Wildlife infectious diseases and the early warning system using zoo networks of the world. Japanese Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 19, 131-5.

Naugle R. and Grams, K. 2013. Long-term methods and effects of remotely treating wildlife with imunocontraception. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 44, S138-40.

Norton, B.G., Hutchins, M., Stevens, E.F. and Maple, T. 1995. Ethics on the ark:  Zoos, animals welfare and wildlife conservation. Washington, Smithsonian Institute Press.

Pal, M. 2014. The roles of veterinary, medical and environmental professionals to achieve ONE HEALTH. Journal of Advanced Veterinary and Animal Research 1, 148-55.

Peterson, M.N., Hartis, B., Rodriguez, S., Green, M. and Lepczyk, C.A. 2012. Opinions from the front lines of cat colony management conflict. PLOS one, 7 (9).

Reading, R.P., Kenny, D.E. and Fitzgerald, K.T. 2013. The crucial contribution of veterinarians to conservation biology. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine 28, 131-4.

Sandøe, P., and S. B. Christiansen. 2008. Ethics of Animal Use. Blackwell Publishing Professional, Ames, Iowa.

Short, Jeff Bruce Turner and Danielle Risbey 2002  Control of feral cats for nature conservation. III.Trapping.WildlifeResearch29(5). 475-487.

Stafford, K.J. Animal Welfare in New Zealand. New Zealand Society of Animal Production, Palmerston North 2013.

Wikler, M., Pearson, L.K., Campbell, A.J. and Tibary, A. 2014. Non-surgical methods of contraception and sterilization in select domestic and wildlife species. Clinical Theriogenology 6, 93-104.