Rehabilitating wildlife – all the same or individual cases?
By Alma van Dorenmalen, Rescue & Rehabilitation Manager
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you work with animals (especially in a captive setting) is to generalize an entire species. Although you can learn as much as there is to know about a certain species developing expertise and knowledge about behaviour, nutrition, group structure and dynamics as well as natural habitat; each individual animal is different with its own distinct personality and character. Understanding that the personality of an individual animal is an important aspect of the rehabilitation process is tremendously valuable. Looking at the individual character of an animal does not only improve individual welfare, it can also speed up the rehabilitation process significantly.
Intrinsic motives are different for each individual animal and they are subject to change overtime due to experiences. A combination of genetics, experiences and coping mechanisms define the personality of an animal, just the same as humans. Pet owners can tell you all about it: my dog is always so happy to join me on the couch and another dog is more happier with catching a ball. This is partly defined by the type of breed. Obviously, a border collie would love to run around more than lying on the couch. However, how do you define the difference if a dog of the same breed prefers to run with you when you go out for a jog and the other one only enjoys it when you play catch the ball? This is when we go beyond the species, the breed, this is when we are looking at the personality of an animal, their character. For most pet owners this sounds very familiar, however this also applies when you work with wildlife, it is the personality of an animal that can do the trick.
Almost 2 years ago the Wildlife Centre received a female yellow baboon. Her first few years were spent as a pet living with a man who took care of her. Although he was doing the best he could, obviously the circumstances for this particular animal were not ideal. She didn’t have any contact with her own species, which resulted in a lack of social understanding. It took me roughly a year to integrate her with other baboons. The reason I succeeded was the result of a combination of identifying her character, what she needed as well as creating the right circumstances to allow her to learn and grow over time. Unfortunately creating these circumstances is not always as easy as it may sound, however it something that needs to be aimed for at all times in order to give every individual animal a chance to be successfully rehabilitated. Whether this is going to be in a semi-wild environment where the animal is able to live with conspecifics with a good quality of life, or whether this may involve rehabilitation back into the wild.
We can compare this female with another of the same species that was a surrendered pet and lived for 16 years with a family. As a pet this second female grew up with younger children and eventually ended up in an enclosure outside. She was brought here very humanised and trying to get all her attention from people only. After having her next to other baboons for only a month her positive affiliation towards people began to shift and although she initially always asked for comfort when I was observing her, she suddenly did not even pay attention to me. Within that first month I saw her changing into a baboon and she was making friends with her adjacent group.
With the knowledge of her background and her lack of social interaction with conspecifics this was something I initially did not expect. This therefore serves as an example of how the personality and character of this female baboon is completely different to that of the younger female. The combination of their past, their genetics and experiences has defined their personality and results in a totally different coping mechanism when adjusting to a new environment. The first baboon needed a distinct approach with very small steps in a completely stress free environment before she was able to learn and grow. The second baboon who I thought was going to need more time for adjustment, ended up getting on relatively easily, adapting more quickly and learning faster.
Another good example is when a litter or nest has been rescued. After one day of working with any kind of species you will be able to tell the difference between the individuals based on their physical features, their behaviour and their characters. There is always one that is more bold, shy, curious etc. etc. despite having been exposed to the same situation.
When you are able to identify certain traits from an early stage you can prevent making the wrong decisions or applying the same protocols to each and every animal during their rehabilitation. To a certain extent a standard approach can be applied, however paying attention to the individual and defining their specific needs, taking their personality into account, this is where you can gain the most success when rehabilitating wildlife.