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Game Commission orders killing of orphaned animals

| Saturday, July 20, 2002

Orphaned animals turned over to state wildlife officers to be set free instead are being shot or bludgeoned to death under a controversial policy that's raising the hackles of animal lovers statewide.

In an internal memo obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Vernon Ross instructs wildlife conservation officers not to take baby animals whose mothers are known to be dead to any of the 50 wildlife rehabilitation centers statewide. It orders them instead to "dispose of (orphaned animals) discretely and humanely" unless media attention is aroused.

The policy is being denounced by animal rights advocates and wildlife rehabilitators as bloodthirsty and pointlessly cruel, but game commission officials say it's designed to prevent the spread of disease and to keep wildlife in the wild.

"The Pennsylvania Game Commission is just employing draconian methods," said Heidi Prescott, spokeswoman for the Fund for Animals, a national advocacy group based in Maryland that's sparred with the commission over everything from bobcats to swans.

"They're the agency that most people will turn to, because they think of the game commission as the people who take care of animals, and they're the least likely to help," Prescott said.

Game Commission officials say the policy is meant to protect the public health and to ward off rabies and chronic wasting disease, a nervous system ailment that's killing deer and elk in western states but has not been detected in Pennsylvania.

More importantly, according to commission spokesman Jerry Feaser, it underscores a basic tenet of game management and conservation: wild animals belong in the wild, not in homes or back yards.

"We do not want to put wildlife down. We want to keep wildlife in the wild," Feaser said. "There are predators in the wild, and in most cases, if a human did not encounter this animal, it would be taken by a predator. Now that may sound harsh, but that is the reality of nature."

Game officials say the memo, sent out last month, was meant to clarify existing policy and guide conservation officers in dealing with members of the public who wrongly think they're "rescuing" an orphaned animal.

"In the southwest region alone, we receive about 75 to 100 calls per day from people claiming to have taken orphaned wildlife, particularly in the summer," Feaser said.

Conservation officers are advised to put orphaned animals down by shooting, blunt force trauma and other quick, "humane" methods.

The policy does not apply to endangered or threatened species or to migratory birds. But those species that are at high risk for rabies — including foxes, skunks and raccoons — are decapitated and their heads tested for the disease.

Under state law, anyone charged with taking in wild animals faces a fine of up to $800. Feaser said the animals pose a risk of rabies, Lyme disease and other health threats.

Wildlife managers and other state officials also are doing everything they can to ensure that Chronic Wasting Disease does not gain a foothold here.

So far, the disease has been found mainly in western states, but it has appeared in the past couple of years in Wisconsin, where officials have been forced to slaughter some 15,000 wild deer.

The game commission regularly tells the public to stay away from wild animals, but people still keep bringing the cute and cuddly critters home, Feaser said.

Of the 500 or so people statewide who call daily regarding an orphaned animal, Feaser said officers only respond to the handful of cases in which the person refuses to release the animal.

When the officer arrives, that animal is going to die. Feaser said the policy is more humane than the alternatives.

"Yes, it's true that some of these animals can be rehabilitated and released, but more often they end up captive for their life. Is that humane?"

Wildlife rehabilitators are mostly reluctant to talk about their problems with the game commission, on which they rely for licensing. But Robyn Graboski, who owns a Centre Township rehab facility and is a member of an advisory committee to the commission, disputes Feaser's claim about the success of rehabilitation.

"The average rehabilitator releases 50 percent of animals that we get in. The other 50 percent die during rehab or are euthanized because their injuries are so severe," she said.

Graboski takes in about 800 animals a year. Statewide, she estimates rehab centers take in more than 10,000 animals per year.

The conservation officers who have to do the killing don't enjoy it either, said Mel Schake, supervisor for the game commission's southwest region, which includes Allegheny, Westmoreland and eight other counties.

"None of these issues are easy to deal with, but this is one where the decision's been made and we'll do our best to facilitate the director's memo," Schake said. "We have always struggled with trying to balance what's best for wildlife and understanding the natural inclination that people have to try to do things for wildlife when they don't really need it."

Federal officials say it's up to the states to determine wildlife management policies.

"The bottom line is the officials in Pennsylvania, they're deciding how to deal with chronic wasting disease in their state," said Ed Curlett, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

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