“Every Living Thing”

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The Story

“Every Living Thing”
by Emily Sohn
Aeon, August 31, 2015

The Pitch

Dear Pam,

I am a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in Nature, the Los Angeles Times, Discovery News, U.S. News & World Report, Science News, Smithsonian, and Health, among other publications. I have a story idea I thought might work for Aeon. I’m not sure if you are the right editor there to pitch this one to, as it’s about animals and the environment, not health, but I saw your blurb [redacted] and wondered if you might field this one – or let me know if there is someone else I should contact instead. Here’s the idea:

Last month, strong winds sent a rufous hummingbird way off course during its annual fall migration from the Pacific Northwest. Instead of cruising into sunny Mexico, the bird landed in St. Paul, Minnesota, where it was lucky enough to stop in a birder’s backyard on a frigid Saturday in November. The predicted high temperature that day was an unusually low 23 degrees Fahrenheit. The homeowner recognized the small orange creature as a rare foreigner and posted about it on a local listserv for bird-enthusiasts. That e-mail set off a chain reaction involving a rescue cage and a flight on a private jet to Texas. The trip required permission from the state of Texas and cooperation from a licensed rehab specialist there who agreed to meet the bird when it arrived and then let it go.

It’s hard to know whether this is a happy ending – for the bird or for conservation efforts as a whole. Besides concerns about whether this particular bird will survive after enduring so much stress, the incident raises questions about whether it’s worth spending so much time and money on a single animal. Dramatic wildlife rescue stories make people feel good. But do they actually help the animals? I propose a feature story that will look at individual animal tales like this one as a window into controversial questions about the role that wildlife rehab plays in the conservation of species and what studies show about which strategies actually work.

There are plenty of examples of extraordinary efforts taken to save animals, including some that have received major media attention. In 1988, more than $5 million went into attempts to free three gray whales that were trapped in the ice off the coast of Alaska — an against-the-odds tale that involved so many people and so many obstacles that it became the focus of the 2012
movie “Big Miracle.” (Gray whales, as a species, are not threatened or endangered). And every time there is an oil spill, companies responsible for the disasters fund the cleaning of soiled animals, even though evidence remains murky about whether oiled sea birds actually benefit from getting washed. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, which rehabbed the wayward hummingbird last fall, admits more than 9,000 animals each year and drives or flies about 20 of them elsewhere for release.

Supporters argue that wildlife rehab advances education and conservation, much like zoos and aquariums do, and the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association lists dozens of centers around the country that rescue and treat injured wildlife. “Rehabilitators have made a difference to millions of individual animals,” writes Louise Shimmel, executive director of the Cascades Raptor Center, on her organization’s website. From West Nile virus to rabies outbreaks, she adds, these front-line workers are often the first to catch emerging epidemics and potential pollution concerns.

But efforts to evaluate outcomes of treating sick and injured animals began just 15 years ago, making the field too new to be definitive. Most rehab facilities still fail to follow up on the animals they treat and release. And even as some studies are finally starting to refine techniques for treating cases like oiled birds, plenty of research suggests that the rehab, in many cases, does no good at all.

Because rehabbed animals are weak or sick to begin with, they are often at risk of rapid death after they get back into the environment, says Jim Harvey, director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. In a 2010 study, he tracked California sea lions that were sickened by a naturally occurring neurotoxin and treated with thousands of dollars worth of anti-seizure medication, food and other care. After release, the animals did wacky things. Some were found in a river system swimming around in circles for days. One swam half-way to Hawaii before falling off the radar, even though California sea lions usually remain close to the coast. Animals taken into captivity can also catch illnesses from their caretakers that they then introduce into wild populations.

Millions of dollars go into the cash registers of wildlife rehab centers every year directly out of the pockets of ordinary citizens who think they’re helping big-eyed seals and other cute and charismatic creatures. But if growing evidence continues to suggest that these efforts are a waste of time and money, we might need to reconsider how best to fix the problems our species is causing for others. In Vermont, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has gone as far as banning rehab of orphaned fawns, citing evidence that most young deer don’t survive after getting sent back to the wild. Is it time for us to stop supporting efforts that make us feel like we’re helping in favor of ones that actually do help, like habitat restoration, even if they’re less sexy?

“Rehab is really difficult to address because the American public is very very emotional about it. When we screw up and cause problems or animals are in distress, they really want to fix it,” Harvey says. “It would be really great to have a big expose on rehab centers and come up with concrete data. I’m convinced you’d find that the amount of money spent on rehab doesn’t justify what it does for populations.”

I think a wayward hummingbird in Minnesota would be the perfect opportunity to delve into the wildlife rehab wars. After all, who really benefits when a tiny, lost bird takes flight on a 747?

Here are a few clips if you’d like to see samples of my work: “Malaria Control: The Great Mosquito Hunt,” for Nature —
“The war on milk,” for thirty two magazine — http://www.minnpost.com/thirty-two- magazine/2013/01/war-milk

“Ospreys Flock to Cuba, With Conservationists Close By,” for National Geographic News — http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/02/0221_030221_ospreys.html

Please let me know if you have any interest.

Thanks so much for your time, Emily

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