About 7,000 wild animals are treated each year at the GREFA wildlife hospital in Madrid. DW visited the patients, feathered and furred, to find out how humans put them at risk – and offer hope of conservation. A red kite is having physiotherapy to recover from a gunshot wound. Vet Virginia Moraleda is massaging the bird’s wing. She explains that the bird is doing well and will soon be set free.
It’s one of lucky ones. Only half the 7,000 animals that come to the Grupo de Rehabilitación de la Fauna Autóctona y su Hábitat (GREFA) hospital each year make it back to the wild.
Vultures, for instance, have to be in an extremely fragile state of health before they’re likely to be found lying on the ground and brought in to the hospital, explains Nacho Otero, head of GREFA’s rehabilitation and release department.
Human friends and foe
But those that do make a full recovery make it all worthwhile. Especially as around 80 percent of patients end up here for man-made reasons. “At least let’s repair what we as humans do to wildlife,” Otero says.
A few have been deliberately targeted by hunters. But most have had accidental run-ins with their human neighbors – colliding with glass door, for example, or being hit by a car. Power lines are the biggest killer. In Spain, almost 34,000 birds die each year from collision or electrocution. Many more are left disabled. Trash is also a major hazard for wildlife. Lizards get trapped in soda cans; endangered Canarian shrews are often found dead inside discarded bottles.
European pond turtles — endangered or extinct in most European countries — are illegally traded as pets or put at risk by other “pet” species brought from abroad but eventually abandoned in the wild.
One of the patients is a Spanish pond turtle with a shell malformation. Rocío Fernández, a student vet and volunteer at the hospital, says it was probably bred in captivity and lacked nutrients because of inadequate food and sunlight.
“They are very cute when they’re small but once [they grow up], people don’t know what to do with them,” Fernández says. Lost to the wild
Contact with humans carries all kind of risks for wild animals. Young foxes or wild boars, for example, can become dependent on humans, meaning they can never live a normal life in the wild.
That’s the case for a fox Otero is looking after. A family accidently ran over its mother and took the cub home to care for it. But nine months later, they regretted their decision.
Otero says if it had been brought in right away, it could have been released along with five other baby foxes which the hospital returned to the wild earlier this year.
Now it’s too late. The young fox would not only face tremendous challenges to survive, but could endanger other animals, if farmers reacted to him approaching humans for food by placing traps and poison.
Otero hopes the fox will soon move to an educational open-air center, but is waiting for permits to make this possible. “Being here for him is like being imprisoned,” Otero says sadly. Birds, meanwhile, have better chances of readapting to life in the wild – particularly those with low intelligence levels like vultures, should they survive.
In any case, “we try to keep their contact with us to a minimum,” Moraleda says. “We usually treat them far less than once a day. And don’t worry, they don’t see us as their friends – this hurts!” she says, extending the red kite’s wing.
Víctor García, wildlife specialist with the Spanish Environment Ministry, is carefully fitting a new solar-powered transmitter to a black vulture’s back. The old one alerted conservationists that the bird was not moving. It turned out to have a dislocated wing.
Now, it’s going to rejoin a growing population of the birds in the Pyrenees, which had been pushed to the brink of extinction a century ago.
GREFA doesn’t just care for individual animals. It’s also working to revive whole populations – like that of the lesser kestrel. In the 60s, there were around 100,000 breeding pairs in Spain. Now there are just 12,000, and that number keeps falling.
At GREFA center, they’re being bred in captivity. But GREFA can’t rehabilitate species alone. Threatened migratory species in particular can only be saved though cross-border efforts.
The long-distance migrant Montagu’s harrier is another bird of prey at risk. In Madrid, 28 pairs have been reduced to just four in the last few years. “They don’t come back from Africa anymore, but we don’t know exactly why. We need further research,” Otero says.
At the hospital, every animal brought in is a priority, be it a Spanish imperial eagle — which has benefitted from successful conservation efforts — or a baby sparrow. Otero says the act of saving an animal at all is important to our relationship with the natural world.
For a child, a sparrow chick found flailing on the ground may be the most important animal in the world; “it probably has already been given a name.” Rescuing helps motivate people and raise awareness, Otero says.
Schoolchildren are invited in to the hospital to learn about threats to the natural world around them – and solutions. Observing a Bonelli’s eagle with an amputated wing, a child asks what he can do to prevent birds from electrocution. “Well, just turn off the lights. Less consumption, fewer power lines, fewer electrocuted birds,” Otero says.
Living in harmony with wildlife doesn’t come easily in the modern world. The common vole, for example, tucks into crops, causing major disputes between conservationists and farmers. But, after years of awareness campaigns, they’re finally cooperating to use birds as a natural control system for the diminutive rodent.
“In general, the situation has really improved,” Otero says. “Many farmers call us because they’ve found a snake in their barn — that was inconceivable a few years ago; they would have killed it immediately.”
When people bring animals that are really beyond hope, we think we may have gone too far raising awareness, Otero says.