Wildlife rescuers say Ontario ministry is bullying them, not helping

Some wildlife rescuers in Ontario say they're being bullied and harassed by Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry enforcement officers who know little about wildlife and are too heavy-handed with the rules.

The operators of rescue centres say they are speaking out to shine a light on what they describe as poor treatment by conservation officers. They also say they speak for others who are reluctant to come forward for fear of losing their licence to operate.

"They know that they can lose their authorization in the blink of an eye, and their animals then are put at risk," said Donna DuBreuil, president of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre. "So people are extremely cowed by this ministry."

Wildlife rehabilitators, or "rehabbers," as they call themselves, take care of injured and abandoned animals until they can be released back into the wild. They don't get government funding, instead covering expenses on their own and through donations.

Some operate on their own properties, while others work out of standalone facilities. But they must have authorization from the ministry and adhere to regulations under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.

DuBreuil's centre stopped doing rehabilitation in 2002, because it felt ministry regulations prevented humane methods. It now focuses on public education programs.

A spokeswoman for the ministry addressed the accusations in an email.

"I can assure you that the work authorized wildlife custodians do is valued and appreciated by the ministry," wrote Jolanta Kowalski.

"Based on feedback heard from wildlife rehabilitators, we have reviewed our approach to make sure rehabilitation practices are consistent across the province," she said.

Wildlife caretakers say there used to be more than 200 authorized rehabilitators in Ontario, and now there are about 60.

"There will be more dropping out, because the ministry seems intent on targeting individuals and harassing them," said DuBreuil. "They essentially just do not want to see rehab done."

That means when someone hits an animal with their car and hurts it, or finds a baby raccoon in their attic, or their child walks in the door with an injured bird, rabbit or squirrel, there are fewer places to turn for help.

"It means that these animals now are probably being left to die out there or they are going to be handled by members of the public who are probably well-intentioned but not equipped to be able to feed them properly or care for them properly. So even a worse outcome," said DuBreuil.

It's also an illegal outcome. It's against the law for anyone to keep a wild animal unless authorized.

The authorized rehabilitators say there are plenty of "underground" rehabilitators operating to escape the scrutiny of the ministry.

The ministry spokeswoman said the department continues to work with communities to authorize those who are qualified and interested and that if anyone is aware of illegal activity they should call the ministry's tip line.

Right to appeal decisions

Laurel Beechey, known as "the Skunk Lady," has cared for skunks for 25 years on her property in Tillsonburg.

She said she used to get along well with the enforcement officers in her region and that there are good ones within the ministry, but lately the relationship has deteriorated.

Last year, she was ordered to euthanize a skunk, which she didn't think was necessary but went along with because she feared losing her authorization.

There is no mechanism for rehabilitators to appeal ministry decisions. They have been fighting for years for that right and say the lack of it leads to abuse of power.

"It gives them the power to do whatever they want" said Beechey. "It is easy to become intimidating, to become a bully, to harass people. We can't fight back because they can close us down."

Sandy Donald, head of the umbrella organization Ontario Wildlife Rescue, said a right of appeal would make officers more accountable for their decisions.

He and others have lobbied Ontario Natural Resources Minister Kathryn McGarry and her predecessors for an appeal process, and other rule changes, but haven't succeeded.

Donald said Premier Kathleen Wynne made a set of promises to wildlife rehabilitators in 2013, including the right of appeal, but hasn't followed through.

"There's got to be the political will there," he said. "The time for talk is well over."

'Huge public service'

The ministry does not appear poised to change the process. Kowalski wrote that wildlife custodians do have an opportunity to discuss a decision they are unhappy with regarding their authorization and that contentious concerns are reviewed by key staff and managers prior to decisions being made.

Carol Ricciuto runs Open Sky Raptor Foundation in Grimsby and has had multiple conflicts with ministry staff. She says some of them have "little to no knowledge about wildlife" and are working against rehabilitators rather than with them.

"They seem to be doing their best to shut us down, one way or the other," she said.

Ricciuto was fined $240 last year for not keeping her log book up to date.

"I have felt targeted for a long time," she said.

Some of the wildlife custodians say certain regulations are "archaic," overly restrictive and not based on sound science.

But complaints by Ricciuto and others are not shared by everyone in the community.

Monika Melichar, who runs Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary in Minden and cares for a range of wildlife, including bats, deer, porcupines and possums, said she hasn't had any negative experiences with conservation officers

Still, she would like to see some changes. More support from the ministry is needed given the heavy regulations they are under, she said, and funding would be ideal.

"It's a huge, huge public service. We dedicate our time, and energy and our money," said Melichar.

Voters urged to pressure politicians

Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of Toronto Wildlife Centre, said she gets along well with ministry staff but also raised the lack of funding issue.

She said she knows of rehabilitators closing down not because of conflicts with the ministry but because they can't afford to stay open.

Karvonen said when she makes an appeal to a politician she tells them wildlife rescue doesn't involve just "warm and fuzzy animal lovers." It's relevant to everyone, because one never knows when they might come across a wild animal and need help.

Her centre got a call recently from a man who hit a falcon with his car and its leg got stuck in the headlight. When people encounter an injured animal or one that appears abandoned they generally feel compelled to do something about it, she said.

"No one is going to just watch an animal suffer and not say anything about it," said Karvonen.

Karvonen said given that an Ontario election is set for June, now is a good time for voters to express their support for their province's rehabilitators.

"In an election year, tell your politicians that you care about wildlife issues," she said.