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Return to the Wild

Bear returned to the wild

Wildlife rehabilitation handles a wide variety of animals, and all of the misfortunes they might encounter: cat attacks, lead poisoning, vehicle accidents and entanglement injuries, just to name a few.

But the Wildlife Center of Virginia has a common goal for all of its patients. When their surgery, medication and careful handling has made them strong again, they are returned to the wild. Being able to move, hunt and hide with ease means they can get back to the life they had before their mishap.

The uncertain part of this happy ending is that it can be hard to know how well each animal has fared over time. When they’re no longer under the watchful eyes of rehabilitators, what can we learn about their life after release?

The most common method is bird banding. By fastening a small, numbered band around a bird’s leg, rehabilitators and researchers can keep track of its movements in the wild. The number links back to all kinds of information about the bird (where it was initially found, what injuries it had, where it was treated, etc.) in a federal database that is updated with each sighting. And the bird doesn’t have to be recaptured to gather this data—the numbers on each band can be seen for up to 50 yards with the right lens.

When more constant input is needed, a telemetry unit can do the trick. These devices give much more information about the birds wearing them, and that information is gathered in real time. By outfitting a bald eagle with one of these units, researchers can see its location, its altitude, speed, migration habits and more.

When a bear is released, a GPS collar might be used to track its movements and monitor its adaptation to the natural environment. Because bears can become curious about trash cans and other manmade temptations, it’s important to be sure they are spending more time in their own natural habitats and not endangering themselves by becoming a nuisance. The collars aren’t safe for younger bears, since they are still growing, so those bears are likelier to get a tagged ear that works much like bird banding does.

What You Can Do!

  • If you find a band or device, report it to your local wildlife agency. Knowing when and where it was found contributes to a large body of knowledge about the species that wore it, and the device itself may need to be retrieved.
  • Support your local wildlife rehabilitators. These people work very hard to give a second chance to animals that have been sickened or injured, and their efforts have a much broader reach than that single animal.
  • You may be wondering what happens when an animal does not get well enough to return to the wild. In some cases, an animal is so unlikely to recover that euthanasia is the only humane solution. But in some other cases, the animal enjoys a comfortable new life as an education animal, helping nature enthusiasts of all ages better understand their wild neighbors.