An unpredictable nature: working with wildlife.
by Laura Benfield, Head of Animal Care at Secret World Wildlife Rescue
Secret World Wildlife Rescue is tucked away in the village of East Huntspill in Somerset. You wouldn’t know it from the outside but our site covers around fifteen acres and we help over 5,000 animals every year. Our mission is to rescue sick, injured and orphaned wildlife, and to rehabilitate and release animals back into the wild wherever possible. We also reach out to schools and the wider public to inspire learning and love for our wonderful native fauna.
A busy team
I joined Secret World as Head of Animal Care in March 2015, and like many of my team I was a volunteer before that. I’ve recently completed my Foundation Degree in Conservation and Countryside Management which has been really helpful to complement the practical skills and experience I learn on the job. For example, my studies showed me how wildlife is affected by land use changes which can restrict access to food and habitat and bring animals into contact with traffic on our roads – sadly the cause of many of the rescues we deal with.
I manage a team of 21 including animal carers, reception staff, our vet nurse and our volunteer manager who in turn oversees hundreds of dedicated volunteers – who not only help care for the animals but work in our busy reception team, help with maintenance, fundraising and administration, and form a network of response drivers across the south west who rescue animals and bring them in for assessment and care.
In the past twelve months we’ve helped over 100 badgers, 90 foxes, 100 owls, 115 bats and almost 600 hedgehogs, as well as more unusual patients like peregrine falcons, otters and weasels. We’re very busy in the summer months – this year we had over 1,000 animals through the door in the space of just one month, including one day we won’t forget where 83 animals came through the doors in just 24 hours! It’s challenging – we work long hours, often rearing orphans at home as well as providing our 24 hour service, but we work as a team to make sure each animal gets assessed, and to make decisions about what to do next.
We don’t have a vet on site, but our vet nurse and animal care team work day to day under the guidance of our local vets, who also pay us a visit once or twice a week to diagnose, assess and treat any critical cases.
We’re particularly well known for our work in rehabilitating orphaned badger cubs. This year we rescued three newborn cubs in early February who had been brought in to their owners’ homes by dogs. Two of these were successfully reared, rehabilitated and have recently been released back into the wild, eight months older and a lot bigger and stronger!
When an orphan is being hand-reared, a close relationship with its carer is important. As soon as an animal has been weaned, we need to reduce contact with humans as much as possible. If an animal grows up being too familiar with humans, we won’t be able to release it. We promote this message to the public too. We have a responsibility to discourage people from becoming too familiar with wild animals, and from trying to keep fox cubs and other wildlife as pets (it does happen unfortunately).
We release animals back to where they were rescued wherever possible but with orphans, like fox and badger cubs, we need to find new release sites so they can establish their own territories. This involves working with landowners to assess and set up release sites, and monitor them. Often we will do a ‘soft release’ where the animals are supported with food and shelter as they make the transition to the wild.
If an animal does not have a chance of making it back to full health, we will make the difficult decision to euthanase – like the recent case of a swan who had swallowed a fishing line and hook, and its injuries were just too severe to treat. This is emotionally challenging for the staff and volunteers involved, as well as for members of the public who have brought animals to us, but an important part of what we do is to help animals who would have experienced prolonged suffering. Apart from a few resident animals, we don’t keep animals in captivity if they can’t be rehabilitated and released back to the wild. We aspire to the ‘five freedoms’ set out by the RSPCA.
The thousands of animals we rescue every year are a drop in the ocean compared to the millions in the UK who can benefit if people love and understand the wildlife we share our land with. So, our learning programme is a core part of our mission. Our new Heritage Lottery-funded learning centre opens in 2016 which will enable us to welcome more schools and other groups on site to be inspired by our countryside heritage and the rich wildlife that depends on it.
Wildlife is unpredictable, so our own continuous learning is important too. We’re lucky to have the experience and expertise to deal with what comes, but our resources are constantly under pressure.
I love the variety of this work. We never know what’s going to come in next! Orphan-rearing is also a highlight of the job. A baby hedgehog I hand-reared this year was recently released back into the wild – helping to give an orphan like this a second chance is exceptionally rewarding.
First published in CJS Focus on Wildlife & Animal Work in association with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) on 30 November 2015