Weekly Journal (East Ottawa)
Friday April 7, 2006

By Wes Smiderle

Local residents fight for return of wildlife rehab centre

Local residents fight for return of wildlife rehab centre
Claudia and Ross Owens of Vars volunteered at the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre pose outside their home.

For Ross Owens and his wife Claudia, it started about 10 years ago with a baby squirrel.They'd found the animal alone and abandoned on the property of their Cumberland home. Neither Owens nor his wife were sure how to care for the squirrel, but they'd heard of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre in the west end of the city.

"So we put this thing in a box and drove 50 km to the centre to try and save it," recalled Owens, who now lives in Vars. "We got interested in the work the centre was doing and started volunteering about one day a week."

The centre's staff and volunteers performed "rehabilitation" work for injured or orphaned wild animals, such as raccoons, rabbits, or otters. They'd nurse them back to health in a safe environment before releasing them back into the wild.

Owens built cages and performed maintenance work at the centre while his wife fed and cared for the animals. They helped out there for seven years, until it closed in 2002 as a result of changed provincial regulations.

The loss of the centres has left a void that remains essentially unfilled. People who find an injured or orphaned animal on the side of the road have no one to call.

"There are some places that are operating but I don't know how they're operating or doing things the way they really should be doing them," said Owens.

Former volunteers continue working to educate the public on how to deal with wildlife encounters safely. Others, like Owens, have tried pressuring the provincial government into changing back the rules.

"I've been trying to help the centre in their fight with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to try and put something in place that allows for wildlife rehabilitation in Ontario," he said.

"Right now, there virtually isn't any. Or, at least, any that's legitimate."

Nancy Doubleday, an associate professor in the Geography and Environmental Studies department at Carleton University, said the centres served a vital role in educating people about the consequences of development decisions and maintaining an awareness about the balance, or imbalance, with the natural world.

She said the lack of any wildlife rehabilitation services has hampered public awareness and overall ability to make decisions in balance with surrounding ecosystems.

"We have abandoned our responsibility to wildlife in the region," said Doubleday.

New rules 'unworkable'

According to the centre's president Donna DuBreuil, the local service -- and others like it across the province -- were forced to close as a result of changes to animal release regulations imposed by the MNR. The new rules make it illegal to release an animal beyond close proximity to where it was first found.

Supporters of the centre maintain that this change renders pointless all attempts to release formerly injured or orphaned animals back into the wild. DuBreuil called the new rules "unworkable" and "unwarranted."

Owens, one of 60 volunteers who used to work with the centre, agreed.

Previously, centre volunteers would assemble small groups of animals to create a social group and then release them in a suitable location where they could establish their own territory.

The new MNR rules thwart these efforts in a couple of different ways, mostly since it would compel centre volunteers to break apart the newly-established social group. Releasing an animal alone in foreign territory governed by a different social network would, according to Owens, be little more than a death sentence. Releasing an animal back into an urban or suburban area where it was initially injured wouldn't be much of an improvement.

"You can't separate their established social environment and put them all back where they were found," said Owens. "First of all, what would you do with an animal found on Elgin Street?"

Although the centres have closed, Owens and others agree that there's no lack of former volunteers still trying to do the same work, though doing so is illegal.

"There's quite an underground network going," said Owens. "People have an attachment to animals. Most just can't leave an animal on the roadside to die. They'll do something with it, or try and find someone who will.

"Unfortunately, there's not a lot of real professional help for people."

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Local residents fight for return of wildlife rehab centre
Claudia and Ross Owens of Vars volunteered at the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre pose outside their home.
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