MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) - As wildlife rehabilitators across Alabama gear up for a legal fight against the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources over new permit guidelines, WHNT NEWS 19 took action to get some answers that rehabbers said they couldn't get from the people who ordered the changes.
It's a story WHNT NEWS 19 has been tracking since May, when there were no uniform guidelines regulating rehabbers. Some rehabbers in North Alabama were abiding by different regulations than rehabbers in different parts of the state.
In September, DCNR officials sent out letters to rehabbers that applied to all and outraged animals lovers and wildlife rehabilitators in Alabama.
WHNT NEWS 19 reported then the new guidelines forbid rehabbers from rescuing seven species of wild animals, no matter if they're injured or orphaned. Furthermore, the changes order rehabbers to euthanize any such animals that are brought to them by a concerned citizen.
Rehabbers told WHNT NEWS 19 felt blind-sided by the change, were not consulted, and say they got nowhere when asking for an explanation from conservation officials.
Several rehabbers in North Alabama contacted WHNT NEWS 19 to take action and get the answers they couldn't from the officials. So WHNT NEWS 19 travelled to the state capital to do just that.
Here's what we found:
Raccoons are the main target of the new sweeping changes over which animals licensed wildlife rehabbers in Alabama can help send back into the wild.
"Raccoons are the face of this," said Chuck Sykes, the Director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. "They're real cute when they're little, so they're the poster child."
Sykes is a degreed biologist. He ordered the changes, forbidding rehabbers from rescuing raccoon, skunk, opossum, coyote, fox, bats, and feral pigs. furthermore, rehabbers are now required to euthanize such animals brought to them.
Sykes' reasoning? Disease control.
"After meeting with the USDA, upon their recommendation, no rabies-carrying vector should be rehabbed," Sykes told WHNT NEWS 19 in Montgomery.
On October 7th, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources held a public forum in Montgomery on an unrelated issue. Rehabbers from around the state showed up to challenge the new orders.
"We're going to continue to fight this," said Janet Stratman, a member of the North Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitators. "The public is outraged over this. They just can't believe it."
Stratman is a rehabber from Madison County and contacted WHNT NEWS 19 to find out the reasoning for the move, since she said her phonecalls and emails to conservation officials went unanswered.
She pointed to the State Health Department's records dating back to 1950 indicating a huge reduction in rabies cases in all animals throughout the state. They document the highest number of cases at 732 confirmed cases for the year in 1953, as compared to 55 confirmed cases in 2012.
But Sykes said he based his decision to ban the seven species on research done by the United States Department of Agriculture in Alabama.
"They're the ones that's fighting the rabies spread throughout the state," said Sykes. "They trapped 300 raccoons in Shelby County. Twenty of them had rabies. Of that 20, about 15 of them showed no outward signs of having the disease. So, any animal that has a possibility of harboring rabies should not be rehabilitated. And, biologically speaking, I understand that."
"When he uses the term 'biologically', what's his reference point?" Stratman insisted. "I mean that can be used a lot of different ways."
Stratman and others worry the changes will lead to compassionate people trying to save wild animals by themselves instead of turning them over to trained rehabbers ordered to euthanize the animals.
"If we don't rehab them, the public is going to rehab them," said Stratman. "We, as rehabbers, see the signs of illnesses and disease. The public may not. The public brings us an animal that they think they are saving and then we have to tell them we're supposed to euthanize it? That's not what we do."
John Morse, a rehabber with Big Bend Wildlife Sanctuary in Enterprise, also attended the public forum. He posed a question to conservation officials: "What's wrong with the intervention of humans taking care of wildlife? Species genocide is something that nobody should practice."
Sykes responded to the complaints and criticism saying, "I understand their point, but again, I'm looking at large scale, not just one animal at a time."
Sykes said the move is to prevent the spread of several diseases to humans as well as other wildlife.
But Mindy Gilbert, the Alabama Director for the Humane Society of the United States, doesn't buy it.
She too attended the public forum and said, "It's counterproductive to protecting the public safety."
She said other states that have implemented species bans eventually reversed the move due to the adverse affects. "Of the 20 states in the Eastern Time Zone, only one state has a blanket ban on the possession or rehabilitation of animals and that's North Carolina. All of the other states support trained rabies vector species rehabilitation."
Sykes said, "I understand this is an emotionally charged issue. I'm an animal lover just like they are. I just look at it from a different perspective."
He added he and his department are open to other ideas and studies showing a different approach to battling the spread of diseases.
As for the USDA, WHNT NEWS 19 contacted the Alabama representative, Dana Johnson, but he told us he couldn't discuss the matter due to the government shutdown preventing him from conducting any business related to the USDA.