An adult female grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is brought into your veterinary practice together with her unweaned young after their drey was, apparently, blown from a tree. The member of the public who found the squirrels only did so because her dog caught and injured the mother. A brief clinical examination found the mother to be distressed, tachypnoeic and unable to stand; a conscious radiograph identifies a vertebral fracture. The kits are all lively, keen to suckle and one of your nurses is equally keen to hand-rear them. How should you proceed?
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Glen Cousquer qualified from the University of Edinburgh in 1997 and has spent much of his career in wildlife, avian and exotic practice. He completed his certificate in zoological medicine in 2003 and has since worked in exotic and small animal emergency practice both in France and the UK. He holds an MSc in Outdoor Education and is currently an ESRC scholar at the University of Edinburgh's Moray House School of Education, conducting research into professionalism, professional ethics and values education in the mountain tourism industry and pack animal welfare on expedition.
Readers with views to contribute on ‘Grey squirrel treatment and hand-rearing’ should e-mail them to email@example.com so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue, or fax comments to 020 7383 6418. The deadline for receipt of comments is Friday, October 26. Please limit contributions to 200 words.
Issues to consider
Empirical considerations: Grey squirrels have become an established part of forest and parkland wildlife in the UK since their introduction from North America during the 19th century (Pepper and Patterson 2001). Having evolved in oak and hickory forests, it is thought that the species has developed a number of significant behavioural advantages over the native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). For instance, the grey squirrel spends up to 80 per cent of its time foraging on woodland floors and can lay down significant reserves during the autumn. By contrast, red squirrels spend only about 33 per cent of their time feeding on woodland floors and rarely increase body weight by more than 10 per cent (Gurnell 1994). Grey squirrels are also asymptomatic carriers of a parapox virus, which is fatal in red squirrels (Tompkins and others 2002) and may play a significant role in their decline. Currently the grey squirrel is considered one of the worst invasive species worldwide by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (Lowe and others 2000).
Legal position: In the UK, the grey squirrel is listed as a destructive, non-native wild animal under the 1932 Destructive Imported Animals Act, which prohibits their unlicensed keeping in captivity. Schedule 14 of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act prohibits the unlicensed release of non-native species, while Schedule 9 (Part 1) of the same Act lists the grey squirrel as one of the animals,established in the wild that cannot be released into the wild without a licence in the UK. For instance, Natural England will issue licences for the release of grey squirrels within 1 km of their rescue site, provided that this release does not present a threat to red squirrel populations (Anon 2008). Similarly, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales are responsible for the issuing of licences in their respective countries.
Ethical considerations: The law, as outlined above, reflects a particular position that places a greater value on the rights of a vulnerable native species. As such, it argues that the rights of individual squirrels are not equal and authorises their destruction. It is important that such interpretations be held up to scrutiny for they are the product of a social process and contemporary value system, in which conservation of endemic and threatened species is afforded a top priority.
While a utilitarian approach might weight the various considerations according to a particular order of priorities, the basic assumption is made that each ‘subject of a life’ does not have an equal right to that life. If this were a human example, we would be forced to consider ways of repatriating grey squirrels! This reflects the controversy surrounding both euthanasia and internment. Nussbaum (2006) considers these frontiers to be nationality, species membership and disability, and grey squirrels find themselves to be of the wrong nationality and species.
Possible way forward
From a veterinary perspective, our overriding priority is arguably to ensure that animal welfare is not compromised. The euthanasia of the adult female is thus justified on welfare grounds to spare unnecessary suffering; similarly, the kits' welfare would be compromised if allowed to starve. The dilemma arising in this case requires us to consider whether the kits can be responsibly hand-reared with a view to release.
We also have a duty to educate the public and our staff about delicate ethical issues. If we wish to support the current legislative system that seeks to protect red squirrel populations, it is essential that we understand how that system works, promote greater awareness of it and help ensure that policies are respected. We are in a unique position to provide a balanced and reasoned opinion that respects both animal welfare and biodiversity, which requires practical wisdom and great sensitivity.
If the above imperatives are accepted, we can conclude that we are duty bound to ensure that the hand-rearing and release of these young grey squirrels is undertaken under licence. Where the squirrels are from an area that hosts red squirrels, however, the kits should be humanely killed.
THIS series gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute to discussion of some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved. In addition, a possible way forward is suggested; however, there is rarely a cut-and-dried answer in such cases, and readers may wish to suggest an alternative approach. This month's dilemma, ‘Grey squirrel treatment and hand-rearing’, is presented and discussed by Glen Cousquer. Readers with comments to contribute are invited to send them as soon as possible, so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. Discussion of the dilemma ‘What if it was your dog?’, which was published in the September issue of In Practice, appears on page 551.
The series is being coordinated by Siobhan Mullan, of the University of Bristol. It is hoped it will provide a framework that will help practices find solutions when facing similar dilemmas.