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How Language About the Animals We Care For is Changing

Last month there was a fascinating article in the Globe and Mail, by Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

Singer noticed how, in the recent news articles about an escaped cow, the media was using the pronoun “who” to refer to the cow, rather than the identifier “that”.  It was the “cow who escaped”, not “the cow that escaped”. 

As Singer notes, this subtle change in common language is significant, and should not go unnoticed; it marks a shift in the public perception of and value of animals.

While those of us with pets do not hesitate to refer to them as he or she and acknowledge distinct personalities, the same affection is not always shared with livestock or wildlife. A dog may be referred to as she – and most often by a given name, even – but it many cases it is still that skunk, this hare, and those geese. Though we are seeing a shift.

And this shift is important as animals of all kinds come to be acknowledged as sentient beings who can experience pain and become victims of carelessness or cruelty, and deserve proper protection under animal welfare laws and regulations.

At AIWC, while we commonly use who, he, and she to refer to the wildlife in our care, we still do not give our patients names. This is a conscious decision; it is important to keep their status as wildlife at the forefront for us, our volunteers, our supporters, and the public. Our patients are wild animals who will be returned to the wild when their care is completed; they are not pets. But personal pronouns are still the preferred way to refer to a patient around the centre – even if someone’s unsure if the patient is male or female, they’ll usually assign a temporary pronoun of he or she in communication, just to avoid the perceived iciness of saying “that hawk”, for example. 

Exceptions to this, of course, are Gulliver and Griffin, our Educational Ambassadors. They are members of the AIWC team for the duration of their lives. They are not pets – they’re both still wild animals, no matter how habituated – but I certainly don’t know anyone who’s met him who would refer to Gulliver as simply “that skunk“. 

How about you? How do you refer to different kinds of animals? Have you noticed a shift in recent years?

When it comes to orphaned or injured wildlife, we’re here to help!

Earlier this year a New Jersey woman found herself in trouble with state officials after taking in orphaned squirrels and caring for them for four months.

Just like in Alberta, keeping wildlife in New Jersey is illegal. The squirrels were seized by Fish and Wildlife officials, and she received a $500 fine.

In Alberta, the Wildlife Act governs all wildlife related licensing, and wildlife rehabilitation centres are issued permits prior to operating. Without a proper permit (and meeting the care requirements needed for obtaining a permit), it is illegal to keep wildlife in your residence or business for the purpose of rehabilitation or to keep them as a pet. Convictions of offences in Alberta can result in fines up to $100,000 and up to 2 years’ imprisonment. Many municipalities also have additional by-laws in place regulating the types of animals that can be kept in a home or residence.

Of course, this is all in the best interest of the animals. It may be tempting to help out an orphaned animal – especially babies – but several species require specialized care and nutrition that is best administered with the expertise of our wildlife biologists (for example, cow’s milk won’t provide the needed nutrition to any baby animal other than a cow!).

Not to mention, wildlife rehabilitation centres have access to medication and x-ray equipment that may be required. It’s an unfortunate truth that AIWC has admitted patients who may have spent a day or two in the home of their rescuers before we were called, and were found to be malnourished or denied needed medical attention as a result. These people certainly had their hearts in the right place, but without the right information and expertise, the animal can still suffer as a result of good intentions.

There is also a real danger of habituating an animal to humans when it is rehabbed in a home situation – they will be too comfortable around people and may never be able to be successfully released or survive on their own in the wild. Dedicated wildlife rehab centres have protocols in place to reduce human interaction as the animal’s health improves, so they are sufficiently ‘wild’ in time for release.

These regulations are also for the public’s safety: there is a risk that bringing wildlife into your home can transmit diseases, parasites, and other zoonoses to yourself or any pets in the home.

Luckily, in Alberta, AIWC is one of several legally permitted wildlife rehabilitation centres and we’re open every day! If you find orphaned, injured, or oiled wildlife, call us immediately: 403-946-2361

If it’s after hours, our Wildlife Hotline or website can point you to a 24 hour veterinary clinic who will admit the animal until we can pick them up the next day. If you’re not in southern Alberta, we can also refer to you a closer wildlife centre.

Of course, the impulse to help an animal in need is entirely correct and we love to see the public engaged in and caring about local wildlife. And if you’re looking to get involved, consider supporting or volunteering with your nearest wildlife rehabilitation centre!

Pictured: Orphaned red squirrel admitted to AIWC in 2014.

Do Not Feed the Ducks

The sign says “Please Do Not Feed the Birds”.

You’ve probably seen several of these signs around Calgary’s rivers and ponds. And you’ve also probably seen many people disregarding the request, too.

However, these signs are there for a reason, and unfortunately the city of Windsor, Ontario is the latest example of why: the the fall of last year, city parks officials recovered the bodies of approximately 20 ducks who died as a result of what they were being fed by visitors to the park.

Bread, for example, is ‘junk food’ for ducks. It is not part of their natural diet and though it might be filling, it does not contain the nutrients they need to survive, leaving them to suffer of starvation and malnutrition. 

In most cases, ducks will be able to find enough national food sources on their own, in the wild, and will instinctually move on to a new area when needed. However, when ducks become habituated to human feeding and regularly fill up on harmful food like bread, they will not be as inclined to seek out natural food sources, and their reliance on food from park visitors can turn fatal from them, as was the case in Windsor.

This is why the signs are in place: it is important to keep our wildlife wild. We may be lucky share our urban waterways with ducks, geese, and other waterfowl, but fostering a reliance on humans for food sources – especially substandard ones – only harms the animals we are there to admire.

Photo: female mallard duck patient admitted earlier in February, 2016

Bats in the News Across Canada

Bats are a frequent patient here at AIWC – we average about 30 each year, and we currently have five over-wintering with us, awaiting their releases in the spring when they’d naturally come out of hibernation and insect populations are plentiful. 

In eastern Canada, white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection, has been drastically reducing bat populations as the disease moves westerly across the country, from the maritimes and now into Ontario. The fungus lives in cold environments and affects bats where they hibernate. It is mainly spread from bat to bat, but humans can also contaminate caves if caving gear is not properly cleaned between locations.

There is currently no cure for white-nose syndrome, and it is estimated the fungus has killed 99% of little brown bats in Nova Scotia. However, some good news came out of PEI last week showing bat activity may be starting to rebound! 

Meanwhile, in Banff, Parks Canada researchers found a cave in the National Park in December that showed evidence of bats using the area to hibernate. This marks the first time researchers have found evidence of bats hibernating in the National Parks area, and provides the opportunity to better study and understand Alberta’s bat populations, as well as proactively plan for and prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome throughout the province. 

What can you do to help Alberta’s bats?

  • install bat boxes on your property
  • maintain their natural habitats (e.g., maintain trees, reduce outdoor lighting)
  • do not disturb hibernating bats if you come across them
  • if you’re a caver, make sure you thoroughly disinfect and decontaminate your gear between locations and excursions so you do not contribute to the spread of white-nose syndrome
  • if you find a grounded or injured bat, call our Wildlife Hotline for help: 403-946-2361

Montana Sage Grouse to Relocate to Alberta

The greater sage grouse is an endangered species found in south-eastern Alberta. In order to combat the declining species, the province of Alberta is working with Montana to bolster the local population.

There is an estimated fewer than 90 sage grouse left in Alberta, but this spring 40 will be transferred from Montana’s healthy population as part of a recovery plan.

Past relocations in 2010 and 2011 were met with some success and showed that sage grouse from Montana could successful resettle with the small Alberta population and result in nests and hatchlings.

Also, in order to combat habitat loss due to farming and oil and gas activity, the federal government issued the first ever protection order under the Species At Risk Act to restrict human activity on grassland in Alberta where sage grouse nest.

The sage grouse was first listed as endangered in 1998. They are the largest grouse species in North America and are known for their impressive mating displays.

What can you do?

Simply by reading this and sharing or talking about it with others helps to bring awareness to Alberta’s declining species. The sage grouse is no more or less important than any other animal who plays their role in a healthy ecosystem, and to lose the population in its entirety is a devastating prospect.

You can also support conservation efforts for local wildlife through volunteering or donating. 

Wildlife health is an important indicator of Alberta’s environment, and we all have a shared responsibility to support our wild neighbours. Each native species should be a source of pride for Albertans, and the sage grouse is no exception. 

After all, it all comes down to this:

“We don’t own the earth. We are the earth’s caretakers. We take care of it and all the things on it. And when we’re done with it, it should be left better than we found it.”

-Katherine Hannigin, author

Owl Encounters During Nesting Season

Last week, a great horned owl attack on a cross-country skier near Red Deer made quite a few headlines. Skiing at night with a head lamp, the owl went after the skier twice, leaving him with several puncture wounds.

What caused the owl to attack is uncertain, but it is likely that the skier startled the owl and was perceived to be a threat or an intruder, and the owl was protecting its nesting area. 

Great horned owls are residents of Alberta, meaning they do not migrate; a mating pair will reside in their territory all year. This means males may defend their territory, first with warning hisses and bill-clapping. If the owl’s initial warnings are not heeded, and an intruder persists, the owl will strike with its feet, grasping and raking its target with its talons.

Great horned owls are also one of the earliest breeding raptors in Alberta, giving them an advantage over migratory birds. Mating pairs are determined by January and nesting begins, with eggs generally laid in March.

In the case of the skier, it is likely he was identified as an intruder by a nesting owl protecting his territory and his mate, and the skier was unable to see or hear the owl’s warnings prior to be attacked.

To avoid incidents like these to the benefit of both us and our wild neighbours, here are a few things you can do:

  • Give them space: avoid known nesting sites while the owls are nesting and raising their young (January-April)
  • Look out for nest sites: great horned owls do not build their own nests – they use nests created by hawks or crows the previous summer
  • Watch (or listen) for warning signs: you are more likely to hear a nearby owl before you see them, so keep an ear out for hissing, bill-clapping, hooting, or shrieking
  • Don’t startle the owl: make noise, wear a bell, or talk to your companions so you aren’t perceived to be sneaking up on them
  • Scare the owl off: if you area has a problematic owl, it can be deterred by shouting, banging cans together, and other loud noises (note: the great horned owl, like all raptors, is protected under the Wildlife Act (Alberta), so use of lethal force is illegal)
  • Stick to daylight: great horned owls are active at night and dusk/dawn
  • Don’t feed/bait owls – a key to their survival is a sustained, healthy wariness of humans
  • Wear appropriate protective gear for your sport (e.g., helmet)
  • Keep your pets close and on leash while outside so they do not harass wildlife

Owl attacks on humans are incredibly rare, but territorial owls near nesting sites are not. Fortunately, there are many steps we can take to reduce these incidents and give our provincial bird the space it needs this time of year.

After all, most injured animals we see at AIWC are a result of human activities. If we’re aware of how our activities affect them, then we can take steps to create a strong co-existence between Albertans and our wild neighbours.

Cougar Sighting in Banff

Last week CBC reported a mountain bike trail closure in Banff National Park due to a cougar feeding on a carcass.

Cougar sightings are reported throughout Alberta, but they are most frequently sighted in the mountains and foothills, and a healthy cougar population is a positive sign of a healthy ecosystem. Cougar populations have been on the rise in recent years, meaning populations are expanding into areas they wouldn’t normally be.

Of course, Alberta Parks notes steps we can take to ensure cougars do not become habituated to human territories, including:

  • keep garbages secure;
  • secure outdoor areas for livestock and other animals;
  • do not let your pets outside unsupervised;
  • do not leave pet food outside and avoid feeding wildlife;
  • install motion-sensor lighting; and
  • ensure there are no accessible spaces under your house or deck.

An increase in cougar populations in Alberta is no reason to be worried, though.

Cougar attacks on humans or pets are rare and they are naturally wary of humans. Just spotting a cougar does not mean you are in immediate danger.

However, if you do happen to come across a cougar in the wild, there are some steps you can take, according to Alberta Parks:

  • avoid hiking alone;
  • keep all dogs on leash when in cougar territory;
  • gather all people in your group closely, especially pets and children;
  • keep your eye on the cougar, back away slowly and do not run;
  • avoid sudden movements;
  • carry bear spray when hiking in the wild and be prepared to use it;
  • if a cougar shows an interest in you, make yourself appear large, wave your arms, and shout;
  • never play dead; and
  • after the cougar has retreated, continue to look out for it as you immediately return to safety.

It is also very important to abide by any trail closures due to cougar activity, and violations of trail closures can carry steep fines.

Of course, cougars are very stealthy and naturally avoid humans, so it is very likely one may come across your path and you may never see it. And if everybody does their part, we can peacefully coexist with all of our wild neighbours without concern.

Do you have any stories of cougar encounters in the wild?

* Image of cougar kitten in care at AIWC in the early 2000s. 

Increased numbers of crossbills in Alberta?

In the 2015 Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), both Calgary and Edmonton reported record numbers for red and white-winged crossbills. At AIWC we too are seeing an increase in admissions of these finches.

In 2014, we admitted 0 crossbills, however, since December 2015 we have admitted 16 (red and white-winged). Why the increase? Some biologists suggest that an abundance of food last spring is the cause. With an increase of food, such as conifer seeds, more offspring survive. Individual crossbills have been reported to eat up to 3000 confider seeds a day!

CBC Results for Crossbills:

Red Crossbills Reported:

  • Calgary: 237
  • Edmonton: 741 (0 reported in 2014 and 2013)

White-winged Crossbills Reported:

  • Calgary: 1101
  • Edmonton: 2217 (0 reported in 2014 and 2013)

* Thank you to Birds Calgary and Wild Birds Unlimited for the results.

95% of the animals admitted to our centre are injured or orphaned due to human activities. The majority of the crossbills recently admitted to AIWC were victims of window strikes. To learn more about what you can do to prevent window strikes, visit FLAP Canada.

Are you seeing an increase in crossbills in your area? If so, let us know 🙂

AIWC Wants Your Christmas Trees!

Did you know that real and artificial trees help provide a natural habitat to the patients in our care? For all of our patients, we try to provide them with as natural an environment as possible. This helps them feel less stressed in their surroundings, which in turn aids their recovery.

On January 3rd, 2016, we invite you to drop off your tree at AIWC from 11am till 4pm. Come out and visit us and enjoy some hot chocolate and sweet treats while learning more about AIWC.

The health of our patients is our highest priority and as such, tours of our clinic are not permitted as stress is one of the biggest killers of wildlife in captivity. Those who are able to make it to our centre on the 3rd will be able to see areas of our clinic through the camera system we have in place.

To kick-start our year, we are asking for suggested donations of $10 to help provide funds for our wildlife patients in 2016. As a registered charity, AIWC relies on charitable donations and dedicated volunteers to support the more than 1,600 varied animals in need of care every year. AIWC welcomes Alberta’s injured, orphaned, and oiled wildlife, small and large, from hummingbirds to moose calves.

Whether you have a real or artificial tree, we want them! Please ensure trees are free of any ornaments and other decorations, for the safety of our patients.

After January 3rd, trees can be dropped off until January 10th, outside one of our main buildings on any day between 9am and 5pm. Please call us ahead at 403-946-2361. We are not able to pick-up trees.

I look forward to seeing you on January 3rd! Directions to our centre can be found here. Have any questions? E-mail me at

See you on January 3rd! 🙂

Holly Duvall
Executive Director

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