Protocol or Empathy for Ontario’s Starving Waterfowl?

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Photo credit Lisa Peterson

As Wildlife rehabilitaors we have all been educated in the reasons why feeding wildlife can cause negative consequences, such as creating a fishbowl of contagious diseases and attracting large predators. But Ontario’s unusually harsh winter creates a conflict between what can be viewed as a cruel act of nature, that should be accepted and not interfered with, and empathy, that as compassionate humans we have the choice to not follow the same cruel path.

This winter has been difficult for wildlife, especially waterfowl.  With 80% or more of the great lakes covered in ice, compared to an average norm of 50%, we are seeing high mortality rates of  birds caused by starvation and hypothermia.

Is it ethical to watch wildlife die, when next to you is life-saving food?  To people who spend every hour of their day fighting to save wildlife, doing nothing just isn’t an option you can easily choose.  In a recent rescue attempt to save starving swans by a collaboration of rehabilitators , they counted 15 dead swans in one small area, and many others at the point of starvation.  Birds they could help were brought to rehabilitation facilities, the remaining birds are being supported with food in shifts by a caring community.  That’s only a small area of five great lakes that have birds suffering from a slow agonizing death. The consequences of compassion has also proven to be costly.  Rehabbers and concerned citizens that have stepped up to help these birds are subject to fines because they are going against municipal by-laws that prohibit feeding waterfowl. Wildlife rehabbers, who depend on public funding to provide a valuable resource,  can’t afford these fines.  Members of the community are also scraping their pockets to pay fine after fine, because the alternative is watching these birds die.

Even as experts, we don’t have the answers to what is right and wrong here, only what is ethical and morally correct.  I don’t personally support feeding wildlife, but I am finding myself pulled to both sides.   I know all to well that kind hearted people who want to help wildlife can unknowingly also hurt them.  Large mammals and birds of prey are also looking for food, and realistically we are creating a buffet for large hungry predators, many already pregnant, void of the energy it takes to travel long distance looking for food.  The chance of taking advantage of an easy meal will not be passed up. Still the question remains.  As compassionate humans can we sit back and not come to the aid of our starving wildlife?   Is it fair to limit support to waterfowl, while mammals are suffering as well?  So much harm can be caused simply by trying to help, so much harm is done by not helping.

We haven’t experienced a winter this harsh in many years and we hope we don’t see it again for many more.  Winter, show us some mercy and be gone. We have buried enough of your casualties!

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Photo credit Dee Newbery.

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“Feb. 19, 2014. 80.3% of the five lakes are covered in ice. Typically at its peak, the average ice cover is just over 50%.” Photo courtesy of NASA

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