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Justice for nonhumans: Why I rehabilitate wildlife

By Erica Cirino, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

Last week, a neighbor called to tell me her dog had unearthed an entire nest of rabbits. The dog mauled a mother rabbit and all her less-than-two-week-old babies but one, which had apparently tried to evade Fido by scurrying away and watched the slaughter from a distance.

Eastern cottontail, about a week-and-a-half old. Photo: Erica Cirino

Changing environmental policies can lead to concrete improvements in ecological health. And in my writing and photography I deliver messages about the need for improved legislation making life on this planet healthier for all beings. I’ve also chosen to deliver some justice from humans to nonhumans in another way, one that’s small but tangible: I rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned wild animals; and then, if they reach health or adulthood, release them into nature.

Participants in the global 2014 Climate March called on governments to get serious about implementing policies to curb carbon emissions and address the needs of human and wildlife communities affected by climate change. The march pictured took place in New York City. Photo: Erica Cirino

Without a mother, the baby rabbit required urgent help to survive. At two weeks, baby Eastern cottontails, like this youngster, are tiny brown balls of fur that can fit inside the palm of your hand. At this age, he would still be drinking his mother’s milk. So I took him in, preparing a heating pad and rehydration formula. The baby rabbit was still and shivery, close to shock, when I received him and would need warmth and fluids to get back to a less-stressed state. Then, I’d feed him with kitten-milk replacement formula, a decent substitute for rabbit milk, a few times a day—mainly in the morning and at night, when his mother would normally feed him.

I was spending hours of my day caring for this one tiny rabbit. It was not lost on me that, if he miraculously made it to adulthood—which is no small feat with finicky, panicky cottontails—and I was able to release him into a local nature preserve—my goal—he would likely be eaten within weeks by a hungry hawk or fox. Despite this seemingly grim possibility, I believe there is justice in assisting a wayward nonhuman animal in returning to their natural lives instead of allowing them to die without helping them. Wouldn’t you lend a hand to a person in need?

Eastern cottontail baby, two weeks old. Photo: Erica Cirino

I’ve held a wildlife rehabilitator license for the past 11 years. Almost all of the thousands of nonhuman animals I’ve helped have been harmed by humans or human actions, from getting hit by cars to attacked by dogs to swallowing plastic to poisoning and on and on. A tiny fraction of these animals were attacked by others or hurt in chance accidents like falling from a nest.

Rescuing a great-horned owl that had fallen down a chimney. Photo: Erica Cirino

Individuals who feel wronged may seek justice. Even whole communities are seeking justice for the destruction of fundamental rights to life that belong to the collective whole of everyone on the planet. Like a healthy natural environment. Over the past several decades, communities—which tend to be lower income and have a high majority of people of color—such as Flint, Michigan; Rockaway Beach, New York; and New Orleans, Louisiana; Tonawanda, New York; Rocky Flats, Colorado, have sought justice for land, water and air contaminated by industrial pollutants or destroyed by the effects of climate change. Some harmed human communities have found justice through cleanups paid for by polluting corporations and shored-up storm-protection infrastructure built by the government—but the vast majority have not.

The Northport Power Station in Northport, New York, is one of the last remaining power plants in the U.S. that burns oil (in addition to coal), making it inefficient and highly polluting. More than 7,000 people live in Northport Village, in the immediate vicinity of the plant. Photo: Erica Cirino

And yet, environmental justice is even less commonly being served for a major segment of Earth’s population: Wild nonhuman animals. While many organizations work hard to represent wild creatures in court and rallies, humans have rarely make reparations to wild animals for our damages to nature. Yet they too suffer greatly. Better environmental policies that reduce humanity’s exploitation and harm of wild nature as much as possible—such as rules prohibiting destructive human activities, reducing waste, cutting emissions, preventing deforestation and development—not only benefit human communities but also communities of wild animals.

There are many ways to help wildlife in need. You can donate to conservation organizations that lobby on behalf of bringing environmental justice for humans and nonhumans alike. You can reduce your carbon footprint. You could use less plastic. You could clean beaches. You could educate your community about how to help. You could learn how to rehabilitate wildlife, like I did. Every step toward helping improve the lives of Earth’s nonhumans is a step toward delivering some much-needed justice.

We humans often view ourselves as opposite the natural environment and so we tend to mistreat it because we think of ourselves as different from it, as outside of it. And yet we’re right inside; we are akin to rabbits like the one I’m caring for, and all other species—the furred, feathered, scaled and all wild beings in between. It must be so if a human can successfully raise a nonhuman to adulthood.

Eastern cottontail, nearly three weeks old and approaching release. Photo: Erica Cirino

We share the same Earth, the same nature. It’s time for justice, for all.

One Comment on “Justice for nonhumans: Why I rehabilitate wildlife

  1. Erica, so eloquently stated, and I am rooting for the little bunny to have a good life once released. Thank you for saving him, your compassion, and your recognition that we’re all part of the cycle…..

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