A Philosophy Of Animal Care And Handling

What is the highest objective in the area of wildlife handling?

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

Bear shaking at bait station used to gather hair DNA from barb wire. USGS – Greater Glacier Bear DNA Project

With our highest goal in mind, we will first seek hands-off alternatives, such as remote cameras, field observations, 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 if often requires 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.

With the animal in hand, what is our highest goal in wildlife handling?

When we have to handle wildlife, then our priority is to look after the well-being of each animal we handle. 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, we should recognice that the well-being of each anima is highest priority (after human safety).  It is about choices. The well-being of the animal is MORE important than our work and if there is risk to the animal it is more important than radio-collaring or collecting blood, for example.

Mark holding drugged captive lynx in Montana.

Too often, we get so focused and so pressured, that we forget we have choices. Wildlife chemical immobilization does not have to be a salvage operation. It is not enough to manage knocking the animal down and radio-collaring it. We need to be confident enough, so that frequently we can stop reassess our situation and guide the field operation rather than reacting to it. So stop at appropriate moments, assess the capture and handling and regroup logistically and energetically (relax).

To do this, pay attention to when there are natural breaks during the chemical immobilizaiton, for example.  Stop for a moment and ask yourself:

– How are we doing?  (addressing things like hypothermia)

– How is the animal doing? (evaluating vital signs – temperature/pulse/respiration

– What is left to do?  (looking at the field form)

– What do we do next? (staying organizing and completing the tasks so you can reduce handling time)

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.

Grizzly Bear, Kalispell, Montana

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, sometimes crudely, sometimes with great finesse. But how awesome is it, for us to be standing over an animal like a grizzly bear, still alive and breathing.

To honor and address this profound opportunity, we prepare thoroughly, work efficently to reduce time, monitor the animals 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 animal handling can indeed teach us about ourselves.

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 energy of conflict. ~

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 concious 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 whiel 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.

Student lab with fox, Starkeville, MS

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 veterinary complications and demonstrates professionalism.

True respect is not selective and it is essential that we show care, honor, and respect for every colleague and organization as well.

Read more in an interview with the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society 2004

Feral Dog Capture and the Energy of Conflict

ABC INDIA Capture Team

ABC INDIA Capture Team

55,000 people die of rabies each year.  That is 150 people per day.  95% of those people are in Asia and Africa.  And 97% of the rabies cases are caused by dog bites.  The most effective means for rabies control are humane dog management and vaccination programs.   And capture and handling of feral dogs is an integral part of these programs.Feral dog capture and handling is challenging and often intimidating. CNVR (Capture/Neuter/Vaccinate/Release) programs around the world struggle with this. A vast number of these programs dedicated to animal welfare, with good intentions, actually create more suffering from their capture, handling, and transport methods.

Global Wildlife Resources has developed extensive, progressive-yet-practical, training courses and materials and we are determined to make these training courses available to rabies control and dog management programs around the world.  We are continuously looking for government and non-government organizations to work with to make this training available.

The Energy of Conflict

Student scruffing street dog, Faridabad, India

Student scruffing street dog, Faridabad, India

While sometimes the struggle with the dogs is unintentional, some animal control cultures revel in antagonistic relationships with the dogs they catch. In the United States I have often heard animal control officers talking about the S.O.B. who got away and their stories are like war stories of who was winning or loosing. (Many ACOs without this attitude are some of my best teachers.)

When catching a street dog, look very closely at the potential conflict or struggle you are having.  See that the conflict is almost always created by the dog catcher. Except for the rare alpha male or female, the dogs are simply trying to escape or protect themselves.  I repeat:  Most “aggressive” dogs during our capture are simply trying vigorously to protect themselves. For many animal control officers the intention of the dog does not matter and they will be glad to battle with the animal. For conscientious dog handlers, truly understanding the dog and the source of conflict allows us to handle dogs more humanely and safely and in a caring and respectful manner more consistent with our heart-felt purpose.

When working in Buddhist communities in Ladakh, India, I did not have to stress this very much. Compassion and minimizing conflict is their conscious way of life and a natural way for them to relate to the animals and each other. As we were working dogs we noticed when our determination got too strong and our energy too intense. We would stop, reflect and create a better strategy for catching the dog.

Some of the first steps towards removing the energy of conflict include:

1) Truly recognize, understand, and utilize the dog behavior

2) Make a choice not to fight with the dogs. There will still be struggles as the dog rebels with your efforts, but guide your thoughts and intentions and where is your heart.   Even when the dog is excited your heart and mind can be calm.

3) When you can, give it time. With good techniques and attitudes, a dog will soften with time.

I believe that the energy of conflict is a form of violence. Another source of violence is judgment and negative words about others and negative thoughts about ourselves. And when we generate this, it gathers with the poison from others surrounding and impacting us and the planet like a smog from polluting cars. I believe that to truly generate peace and health in the world, it is our responsibility to create a kind and respectful interaction – without the energy of conflict- with each person and animal.  And in this way we can make the world a better place with each interaction with animals or people.

There is a need to change how we approach dog handling. If we work more compassionately, without the energy of conflict:

1) We will improve our success.

2) We will be more accepted by the public.

3) We will invigorate the ACOS and their programs and make them healthier.

4) We will be more in sync with the animal welfare goals of the program.

5) We will improve our health and make the world a better place.

“This is a hands-on course with heart and muscle. And breath. Dr. Mark Johnson delivers everything he promises and even more in the way of inspiration. I attended as a non-professional with a biology background and appreciated every lecture/discussion and lab. Mark leads with creativity and enthusiasm but also knows when to let attendees experience the uncertainties inherent in learning curves. He’s great with all animals, four-legged and two.” - Kris Ellingsen, January 2012.

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