Dr. Meagan King is awarded Animal Ethics postdoctoral grant to carry out research on welfare biology at the University of Guelph

7 Nov 2019

We are excited to announce that we have awarded Dr. Meagan King a postdoctoral grant to carry out research on welfare biology in Canada. This is a new field of research at the intersection of the sciences of ecology and animal welfare, studying the wellbeing of animals living in the wild and ways of improving it. Her research will be carried out at the University of Guelph, and will be supervised by Dr. Claire Jardine, from Ontario Veterinary College.

This is a very neglected topic, and we are eager to advance more research on the subject. This project addresses not only human-caused sources of harm to animals living in the wild but natural causes of harm as well. This is important because the latter are extremely pressing yet neglected.

This project will assess the welfare, morbidity, and mortality of animals of different species across Canada. This research will analyze a number of sources of data on the subject, including data from wild animal rescue and rehabilitation centers across Canada. Previously, we funded a project that similarly uses data from rescue centers to get information on the harms to animals living in the wild in Greece. This seems like a promising approach using underutilized data on sources of harm to animals living in the wild.

Wild animal rescue centers sometimes collect data that can be very useful from the perspective of welfare biology. They sometimes collect data on the kinds of harm that wild animals who are admitted to their centers are suffering from. Looking at this data can help us get a better understanding of the most prevalent and significant causes of harm to animals living in the wild. This can help to inform us of what the most effective ways of helping them might be.

This research may be the most comprehensive of its kind in collecting data from diverse species and across such a large geographical area. By using such a large amount of data of this kind, we can get a better sense of how sources of harm and sources of mortality vary by species, region, season, degree of urbanization, and over time. This will include both animals living in the wild and those living in urban areas.

The research will identify effective interventions to help these animals, as well as promising areas for future research on the subject. We expect that the results of the project will have an impact especially among academics, but also among people interested in the defense of animals and the general public.

Thanks to all the people who support our work for making it possible for us to engage in projects such as this. We think that funding this kind of research could be very impactful, and we have quite a few other opportunities to fund research of this kind. Your donations and assistance are extremely valuable in helping us to fund more of these projects.

If you would like to learn more about these issues, see our sections about the situation of animals in the wild and ways we can help animals.

Below you can find a more detailed explanation of the research project that Dr. King will carry out under the supervision of Dr. Jardine about wild animal welfare, morbidity, and mortality in Canada.

Research project

Introduction

While there is a heavy focus on collecting data related to wildlife loss or conservation, less is known about the welfare of wild animals who die from, or survive, the plethora of challenges they face. Sources of suffering for wild animals include natural stressors, such as hunger, thirst, disease, injuries, predation, and parasitism. Human activities that indirectly affect wild animals and exacerbate natural suffering can be unintended (e.g., crop production, vehicle impact, window impact, domestic cats) or mediated through habitat destruction (e.g., urbanization, conversion of wild lands to agricultural production), introduction of foreign species, pollution, and climate change (Fraser and MacRae, 2011). Regardless of intention, however, it is crucial that we understand and manage the factors impacting the welfare, morbidity, and mortality of wild animals.

Causes of morbidity and mortality for urban wildlife, such as raccoons, squirrels, and rabbits, are mainly related to human activity and disturbance (i.e. trauma from vehicle impact, window collisions, cat and dog predation, as well as disease and parasites) (Burton and Doblar, 2004). In Canada and the US alone, billions of birds die annually from cat predation, collisions, and other human factors (Calvert et al., 2013; Loss et al., 2015). For animals who survive and are admitted to wild animal rehabilitation centers, they mainly suffer from parental loss (25-68% of admitted animals), cat attacks (5-29%), and trauma/impact (20-50%) (Dubois, 2003; Mullineaux, 2014). Most of these threats are indirect or unintended sources of harm that require more attention in research and management efforts (Fraser and MacRae, 2011).

Wild animal rehabilitation center data have been identified as an underutilized resource for understanding threats to animals living in the wild (Taylor-Brown et al., 2019). Most of the rehabilitation studies thus far have been focused on specific species of conservation interest and those that do integrate multiple species data focus on specific regions, such as British Columbia, Canada (Dubois, 2003), Britain (Molony et al., 2007), South Africa (Wimberger and Downs, 2010), and Queensland, Australia (Taylor-Brown et al., 2019). To our knowledge, however, no study has combined data from several species and sources across a large area, such as Canada, to identify the major sources and risk factors of suffering for animals living in the wild.

Objective

The overall objective of this study is to assess wild animal welfare, morbidity, and mortality across Canada. We hypothesize that these factors will vary by region, species, season, and degree of urbanization. This research will contribute to addressing three of Animal Ethics’s research objectives: 1) assessing the welfare of animals living in the wild, 2) identifying ways animals can be negatively affected by natural causes and indirect human factors, and 3) studying urban ecology.

Methodology

Data will be collected from two main sources:

1) We will analyze the major sources of wild animal mortality from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) database from 2010-2020.

2) We will study the reasons for rehabilitation admittance from available rehabilitation center records. These data will be collected through a collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, provincial ministries, and regional rehabilitation networks. Dr. Sara Dubois, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia SPCA’s Chief Scientific Officer, is willing to collaborate with us for this stage and has extensive experience with rehabilitation centers in Canada.

Expected Results

Data from these sources will include species, life stage, cause of mortality/morbidity, and location collected. From these data, we will identify the main sources of wild animal suffering and mortality by species, region, season, degree of urbanization (i.e. urban, suburban, industrial, agricultural, natural) and over time.

Expected Impact

These data will be integrated to identify the main reasons for wild animal suffering, by species, region, season, and degree of urbanization. From this, targeted recommendations can be made to mitigate specific welfare issues, focusing resources where they will be most effective. Additionally, we will identify understudied areas for future research.

Maximizing Our Impact

Results from this project will be presented through:

– At least one scientific manuscript identifying the main risks and recommended ways to target specific solutions to minimize suffering

– Scientific conferences, where we will present results and areas for suggested future research

– Wildlife rehabilitation networks, where we will present summary results and discuss areas for future collaborations and improvement

– Online dissemination (social media, infographics, blogs, summary videos) to inform the general public (regarding ways to avoid hurting wildlife, and knowing when and how to intervene)