Veterinarians and Wildlife: A Complicated Set of Relationships
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2015
David A. Jessup, DVM, MPVM, DACZM
Wildlife Disease Association, Royal Oaks, CA, USA


At a side meeting during the 2014 American Association of Zoo Veterinarians annual conference, a spirited discussion arose concerning provision of medical care, including anesthesia, by non-veterinarians working for wildlife agencies. This paper attempts to explain the legal differences between free-ranging wildlife and captive/owned animals under U.S. and Canadian laws and the North American Model of Wildlife Management.

Veterinary practice acts generally specify that only veterinarians can provide a diagnosis or clinical medical, surgical treatment, anesthesia, and/or dentistry to animals. Practice acts serve to protect the public from fraudulent professional service providers (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) by non-licensed persons. They apply to commercial situations where a fee is charged for services. But commercial laws do not necessarily apply to situations where there is no fee for service and no doctor-client-patient (DCP) relationship. State and Federal wildlife laws may supersede commercial laws.

The DCP is fundamental to veterinary private practice. On corporate farms, or in zoos, there is a client that owns or has ownership authority for the animal. But clients can choose to treat (or not treat) their own animals, even do surgery (farmers commonly dehorn and castrate), and administer medicines (even anesthetics) if legally obtained.

In North America, native free-ranging wildlife are not owned, but an agency or agencies of government (State and/or Federal depending on species and location) has management authority. This can be seen as a form of ownership and includes authority to ‘take, kill, capture, approach, pursue, or possess’ them. This is the basis for licensed hunting and fishing (legal forms of ‘take’). It is also what allows agencies to permit rehabilitators and private and zoo veterinarians to provide care for free-ranging wildlife. The agency is the ‘client’ in the DCP for free-ranging wildlife, as well as the regulatory agency.

Wildlife management agencies in North America have employed veterinarians to provide and supervise medical care and preventive medical services since the late 1960s. Currently about 75 veterinarians work for State, Provincial, Tribal, or Federal agencies in North America. An additional ∼80 veterinarians employed by private non-profits, universities, and cooperatives work primarily on wildlife under various permits and agreements. In 1979, when AAWV was founded, there were five State and two Federal wildlife veterinarians. In terms of employment, wildlife veterinary medicine is paralleling the track of zoo veterinarians, with about a 20-year lag time.

There is no requirement that agencies employ veterinarians under the same laws that govern commercial veterinary medicine. And, just as veterinarians in practice use technicians and sometimes owner/clients to provide medical care (including medications and some anesthetics) under their ‘supervision,’ so wildlife veterinarians often use biologists. There are also practical reasons for this. Wildlife veterinarians often have a ‘practice area’ one or two orders of magnitude larger than a typical large animal practice. California, for example, is 800 miles long and 300 miles wide. Immobilizing a deer in a furniture store in Redding, or a bear up a tree in Fresno, can seldom wait for a veterinarian to get there. Shooting them is often the only alternative. As in large animal medicine or animal control, welfare of the patient may be better served if someone acts for the veterinarian.

Wildlife management agencies do not need veterinarians to obtain scheduled substances. Anesthetics from Schedules IIN through IV can be obtained on a ‘research’ DEA license. But, for reasons of liability and professionalism, increasingly wildlife agencies prefer to have staff veterinarians supervise their use. Typically an agency staff veterinarian will supervise and/or provide training for biologists in wildlife immobilization, and prescribe Schedule III and IV or prescription drugs (Telazol, xylazine, yohimbine) for field use (indirect supervision) by biologists, while reserving access to Schedule II and IIN drugs for use only under their direct supervision. Agencies of government generally manage wildlife as populations rather than individuals. Commonly, sick animals may be collected (killed) for a postmortem examination under the concept that getting a quick and accurate diagnosis can lead to better informed and effective management of the remaining animal population. Para-clinical veterinary skills (pathology, microbiology, epidemiology) are often more applicable to management of populations of wildlife than clinical medicine and surgery. One clear exception to this is surgical implantation of telemetry devices. That veterinarians have clinical skills, as well as great paraclinical skills and training, may be seen as value-added by government agencies when it comes to making personnel decisions. The legal, political, and social value of having staff professionals (like veterinarians) is also not lost on agencies of government that, in the end, are directed by politicians.

In its earliest form the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was not seen as applying to wildlife, either captive or free-ranging, unless held for commercial display or research. However, the breadth of species and situations under which AWA is applied now includes projects in which wildlife are to be handled in the field by any institutions (universities and non-profits) that receive Federal funding. Since AWA requires the involvement of veterinarians in Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC) review, some level of veterinary input generally occurs for most wildlife projects. Most Federal, but relatively few State wildlife agencies, have their own ACUCs.

There is no group like Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that oversees the quality of veterinary services provided by wildlife veterinarians. It should be remembered that until the 1970s many medium to small zoos did not have on-site veterinary staff, and veterinarians working in zoos could find themselves overruled on medical issues by curators and/or directors. As might be imagined, the relationship between the agency/employers and veterinarians working on free-ranging wildlife can be challenging at times. Terms of employment, job titles and descriptions, and levels of support vary widely between agency/employers. The bottom line is that free-ranging wildlife veterinarians have a complicated set of relationships with their clients and patients and are still defining and redefining that relationship.


Speaker Information
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David A. Jessup, DVM, MPVM, DACZM
Wildlife Disease Association
Royal Oaks, CA, USA