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The dilemma

Your veterinary practice has been presented with an orphaned grey squirrel. On examination, you estimate the squirrel to be four weeks old – it weighs 60 g and its eyes are not yet open. It has no visible injuries and is well hydrated. The squirrel has a good chance of being successfully hand-reared to adulthood and could subsequently be released back into the wild. The wildlife rescue centre that you have taken squirrels to in the past has recently had their licence to release grey squirrels revoked, in accordance with the relevant legislation. How should you proceed?(IP, vol 187, pp 469–470)

Controversy has erupted surrounding the termination of sanctuaries’ rescue-release licences; it seems that previous ethical rescue strategies have been rendered illegal, whereas euthanasing grey squirrels that are in need of life-saving support appears to be advocated.

The legislation stems from the classification of grey squirrels as an invasive species. They pose a threat to native red squirrel populations as a result of their fruitful breeding capabilities and disease-mediated competition. Grey squirrels act as a reservoir host for squirrelpox virus (SQPV), which is fatal only to red squirrels (Sainsbury and others 2008). Grey squirrels also cause significant damage to forestry, damaging ecosystems within the UK, and are responsible for over £10 million of the approximate £1.7 billion total economic cost to the British economy of invasive non-native species every year (Williams and others 2010). Unfortunately, once a species is classed as a pest and biological or immunocontraceptive control methods prove ineffective, concerns for its welfare are often overlooked (Rushton and others 2002).

In 2019, the biosecurity minister Lord Gardiner expressed that, ‘there is no requirement for vets to euthanase injured or healthy squirrels as a result of this order.’ However, if an orphaned squirrel is presented by a client and has good chances of survival, it puts veterinary professionals in a challenging ethical position. We must avoid transgressing the law, while also maintaining an ethical standpoint. The primary aim should be to reunite the infant with its mother. The location in which kittens are found is commonly by the nesting tree where they will have been abandoned, and this is where the squirrel should be returned.

A contingency plan needs to be established if the mother does not return within one full day. The squirrel must not be left to die by starvation as this violates the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960. In this case, organisations that still hold a licence to admit new grey squirrels should be sought and contacted. If the above measures prove unsuccessful, the squirrel should be humanely euthanased under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This advice should be communicated to the person bringing in the animal before their arrival, so they’re aware of the limited options vets are permitted to provide. This approach indeed ends an animal’s life purely based on its species and origin, but one may argue that the legislation benefits red squirrels by removing the threat of grey squirrels and allowing them to recolonise within the UK – a promising prospect for the conservation of the remaining population of red squirrels.

Although implementing strict control measures for invasive species is a requirement under EU legislation, international cooperation will remain necessary once the UK formally withdraws from the European Union. A more integrated strategy may need to be established to humanely control grey squirrels alongside new techniques of protecting the rapidly declining numbers of their native counterparts.

Nicole Grygolunas, is a fourth-year veterinary medicine student at the University of Surrey.

NO ONE can order you to kill an animal that has been committed to your care if you do not consider this to be in the animal’s best interests – the RCVS is explicit on this. If this conflicts with current legislation, then the person presenting it should be advised of this and told that after treatment the squirrel must be taken to a wildlife rescue which has a licence to keep squirrels (unless the finder themselves wishes to apply for a licence to keep it).

Vets should acquaint themselves with the names of these centres, as orphaned wildlife of any species is better cared for at a licensed wildlife rescue centre than by a veterinary practice.

Contrary to the view expressed, licences issued by Natural England do allow for squirrels to be admitted to licensed centres. They are not solely for the rescue concerned to keep the animals in their care at the time the legislation was enacted (https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2019-01-23/211686).

It is highly unethical for a vet to say that current legislation obliges them to kill the baby squirrel.

Maureen Hutchinson, practitioner

Poll

Last month we asked: You are presented with a healthy four-week-old grey squirrel. What do you do?

55% said they would take the squirrel to the local wildlife rescue centre

3% said they would rear the squirrel themselves with a view to either releasing it later or keeping it in captivity

42% said they would euthanase the baby squirrel as it is illegal to release it under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Invasive Alien Species Order 2019

Vote in this month’s poll at:twitter.com/Vet_Record

*101 respondents

References

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