How Wildlife Rescue Centers Are Coping with Covid-19

For many animal rescuers and rehabilitators, the pandemic has brought a new set of challenges.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

Despair and heartbreak are two words to describe how the volunteers felt when Olly Pitt, general manager for the Australian Seabird Rescue (ASR), told everyone to stay home. In March, as Australia reacted to the Covid-19 outbreak, Pitt’s staff, faithfully clad in blue ASR shirts and holding trays of raw, pungent squid destined for the 26 sea turtles in rehab, listened to the rest of her message.

photo of monk seal release
A rehabilitated yearling monk seal is released into the wild on Laysan Island in Hawai’i. Photo by Matt Chauvin/NOAA. .

“Because of Covid-19,” she announced, “it’s crucial that we put measures in place not only to protect our organization but to protect the volunteers as well.” For that reason, Pitt continued, ASR would be sending many volunteers home and postponing programs.

Over the last few months, the Covid-19 outbreak has unleashed a dystopia of physical distancing, lockdowns, and anxieties. Only those with an Im essential passcode are allowed to carry on in a strange new world. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centers work in conjunction with wildlife veterinarians, making them an essential service. But the pandemic has brought a whole new set of challenges that many of these centers couldn’t have predicted. Because centers have their own unique organizational structure, they have different ways of coping with these changes. For most, it boils down to volunteers and donations.

“From March 23, we asked all of our volunteers that were elderly, living with someone elderly, have school children, or were showing signs of illness to no longer come to the center,” says Pitt. “I’ve had to balance that and the pressure building up with running the center without our normal influx of vollies and funding.”

The Australian Seabird Rescue usually operates with around 40 volunteers, but now they’ve had to learn how to make do with the remaining few.

“When we issued our Covid management plan,” recalls Jen Slape, ASR’s North Coast coordinator, “we cut back to one volunteer a day to help feed the animals and clean the tanks. This is just the bare minimum so we can adhere to the social distancing measures while taking care of the essentials.”

At the moment, only two people out of ASR’s six rescuers are working, alternating days to rescue marine animals. “Our two rescuers are coping,” says Pitt. “Fewer people on the beaches also means fewer people reporting rescues, but they will need a well-deserved break after all of this!”

photo of monk seal release
Australian Seabird Rescue’s sea turtle releases typically bring a big, supportive crowd, like this release at Shelly Beach in Ballina, NSW in March. During the Covid-19 pandemic releases have been private. Photo courtesy of Australia Seabird Rescue.

Larger organizations have a little more breathing space, but they still rely heavily on volunteers. The Marine Mammal Center, with locations in Hawai’i and California, is the world’s largest marine mammal hospital and the only partner organization authorized by NOAA to treat Hawaiian monk seals, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.

“With a trained force of more than 1,400 volunteers, the center’s volunteers are truly the backbone of our non-profit organization,” Giancarlo Rulli, a spokesperson for the center, said in an email.

According to Rulli, volunteers at the center’s operations in California and Hawai’i contributed more than 150,000 service hours in 2019 alone. “That’s approximately $4 million in workforce value,” she said, “a staggering figure.”

Dr. Cara Field, the center’s medical director and staff veterinarian, explains that the hospital continues to provide expert care for their marine mammal patients, “while also prioritizing the health of our staff and volunteers in both California and Hawai’i-based operations.” This includes reducing the number of volunteers and staff on every shift, following CDC distancing guidelines, and eliminating non-essential projects. “All staff who can do so are working from home,” Field says.

Ryan Berger, the center’s Northern Range operations manager, says that their volunteers go through a rigorous training process that allows for greater flexibility, since these volunteers are able to work alone or with limited assistance while maintaining social distancing. This adaptability, he says, has proven it’s worth during the pandemic.

The Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service, or WIRES, in Australia can manage the Covid-19 restrictions a little differently because they handle animals that don’t need specialized aquatic enclosures and filtration systems, like sea turtles and seals.

“WIRES is unique in that our volunteers rehabilitate wildlife from their homes, not from hospitals and centers,” says John Grant, their media officer.

photo of monk seal release
Orphaned joeys at a WIRES rehabilitation home will be released together when they’re old enough to survive. Photo courtesy of WIRES.

Representing Australia’s largest rescue organization with 3,000 volunteers and 28 branches in New South Wales, rescuers at WIRES receive more than 50 calls per day, depending on the branch location.

After the bushfires earlier this year, an influx of donations has allowed WIRES to meet this demand by providing their rescuers with medical supplies, specialized food, medical support, veterinary bills, and improved enclosures. This funding couldn’t have come at a better time, as Covid-19 has closed down tours, school holiday programs, training sessions, and fundraising events that typically bring in significant funds.

Other organizations haven’t been as fortunate.”[Our programs] are all postponed,”ASR’s Pitt says. “As a non-profit, this heavily impacts our finances, but what scares me the most is not being able to educate the public on our marine life.

“On a positive note,” she continues, “we’ve put our creative brains to work and come up with virtual ways of educating the public.” For example, ASR has flooded its social media outlets with educational videos and live talks about sea life. “I imagine that after the pandemic, we will still offer something similar,” Pitt says.

The Marine Mammal Center is navigating through similar digitally creative waters. “With no public visitation at both hospitals due to Covid-19,” Rulli says, “our Learning and Community Team are building learning resources to help families and teachers amidst school shutdowns.”

But as Covid-19 has forced wildlife rescuers and rehabilitators to adapt to these changes, many of them have chosen to look at the bright side.

“I’ve found myself able to remember what’s important,” says Pitt. “Before Covid, I was caught up in office work and not making time to dedicate myself to the animals in the center. Now, I’m reminded of the importance of 100 percent animal engagement, while still finding time for my office work, because sometimes, it can just wait.”

Plus, even with beaches and parks reopening, the limited visitor numbers could still be considered a relief to both wildlife and rescuers and rehabilitators. Pitt notes that they are seeing less direct anthropogenic activities such as fishing tackle injuries or trash that could be ingested by an animal, and the Marine Mammal Center has noticed a positive side effect of fewer people on the beaches.

“Seal pups are at their most vulnerable stage and can easily become stressed or abandoned by mothers if a human or dog gets too close,” Berger explains, and because many beachgoers can’t resist taking what Berger calls a “seal-fie,responders often need “to step in to rescue the dependent pups.” This year, however, has given seal pups their space.

In the meantime, wildlife rescuers remain hopeful. “The world will turn, the money will come, and volunteers don’t lose their passion overnight,” says Pitt. “They will come back, and our animals will recover.”

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