Amazing. Overwhelming. Inspirational. These are a few of the ways attendees described a meeting in which representatives from law enforcement, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, sanctuaries, NGOs, and universities gathered to address the challenges of wildlife confiscations and placements in southern California.
“What was so exciting is that it was the first time that all the stakeholders from all the different organizations were in the same room,” said RoxAnna Breitigan, director of animal care at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, Calif. “I think you always want as many people as possible who can solve a problem to be at the table.”
The trafficking and confiscation numbers are daunting, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reporting 834 cases involving seized or abandoned wildlife between 2015 and 2019. Those cases required the placement 48,793 individual live specimens in facilities with the capacity, ability, and resources to care for them.
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“Across the country, it’s always a challenge with humanely placing animals,” said Dan Crum, special agent in charge, Pacific Southwest Region, USFWS Office of Law Enforcement. “Most agents deal at the local level and do their networking within the vicinity of their points of entry. And these may not be the best places for the animals. We decided we needed a cleaner, simpler way of placing confiscated animals.”
Erin Dean, former resident agent in charge, USFWS Office of Law Enforcement, asked leaders at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in San Diego, Calif., to host an initial meeting in 2019. And her decision to start at the regional level was a smart one, according to Tamesha Woulard, supervisory wildlife inspector, USFWS Office of Law Enforcement.
“This need has been identified for as long as I’ve been around. It’s not a new conversation,” she said. “I was a little concerned about how to whittle it down and get our arms around it because it’s such a huge issue and it’s not an easy fix. Erin approached it as a southern California program and said, ‘How can it we do it here?’ That’s why it was successful.”
The collaboration resulted in the creation of the Southern California Wildlife Confiscations Network, a pilot program that will launch in late October. Its creators hope the Network’s new response protocol for the placement and care of confiscated wildlife will serve as a template for other high-volume confiscation regions in the country.
Agents must sometimes hold onto confiscated animals until they can find an appropriate placement, and that’s not an optimal situation for them or the wildlife. The strategy for dealing with this had obvious room for improvement, according to Woulard, who has been doing this work for thirty years.
“There’s always been a process that worked … somewhat,” she said. “We become aware of a need to confiscate something, and we have to decide if we have the ability to hold it. Do we have the room? Is there a safety issue? Do we need help? We make these decisions on the fly as I start calling people from a list of resources in a manual that we developed through necessity. … We saturate our facilities because I’m calling them again and again. I just hope they don’t stop answering the phone.”’
One of the people who’s often on the receiving end of those phone calls is Beth Schaefer, director of animal programs at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles, Calif. “One of the things I learned at that first meeting was that one of the biggest problems for the agents is looking down at an animal they confiscated and thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do with this.’ They’re stressed out about how to take care of the animals because their job is law enforcement, and I realized that we could seriously help with this issue.”
After the 2019 meeting, stakeholders worked together to develop a system of solutions, learning more about each other in the process. That type of collaboration was new and beneficial, according to Breitigan, who co-chaired the animal placement subcommittee. “The best thing for me was making face-to-face contacts and developing relationships with the agents. They now know who they’re calling, and we know who’s calling us.”
Understanding placement within the context of law enforcement was also an important aspect of creating a workable plan.
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“Our primary goal is to get the animals the critical care they need as soon as possible, and not having them sit in our temporary facilities,” said Crum. “Any and all ideas went on the table, and my role was to advise about issues related to policy, regulations, and statutes. We’re a government entity and we don’t have as much flexibility as NGOs. … There were so many awesome ideas if we were living in a perfect world, but we had to filter through those to focus on what was practical and realistic.”
Although that type of collaborative brainstorming with each other was new to both law enforcement and animal care providers, it worked. “I’ve been pushing so hard for a coordinated response,” said Meredith Whitney, wildlife rescue program manager, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “It saves time, energy, and money and it’s also better for the welfare of the animals. This is big and fantastic. It’s a game changer!”
The joint problem-solving effort will lead to the creation of a bank of appropriate, approved placement facilities. Institutions that are interested in becoming an approved facility may apply and will be reviewed and vetted by a committee that includes representation from a zoo, an aquarium, a sanctuary, a university, a rescue organization, an NGO, and AZA. The first call for applications will go out to all Southern California AZA-accredited institutions, GFAS-accredited facilities, university partners, and facilities recommended by law enforcement.
“We wanted to have input from zoos, sanctuaries, other facilities, and law enforcement to develop standards for these institutions … making sure they have the expertise, resources, and proper permits,” said Schaefer. “Having this list of approved facilities will spread the work around and streamline everything.”
Communication about potential placements will be improved by funneling all requests through a single point of contact (POC) who will be housed within AZA, under the umbrella of the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance.
“Confiscating agents will have one point of contact, and that person will rely on different people like taxon coordinators and network partners to assist with determining where the animals can be taken,” said Whitney. “This partnership is really providing the expertise to support the confiscating agents.”
The variety of species that are confiscated, and their differing needs regarding quarantine and environmental requirements, necessitate the involvement of subject matter experts, like Dave Collins, director of North American Turtle Conservation, Turtle Survival Alliance, and SAFE American box turtle program leader.
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“The whole effort defies easy answers,” he said. “We’re reaching out to new facility partners and expanding the list of facilities that can take turtles. And we’re starting to look at where we can be the most helpful working with other taxonomic groups. There will be different strategies for different groups … and hopefully, some of the challenges we’re dealing with will help them.”
USFWS will continue to have ultimate responsibility for deciding where the animals go, and the Network’s recommendation of optimal placement locations (via the POC) will be a significant determining factor.
The creators of the new protocols are optimistic that they will lead to a much-improved process. “As awesome as the agents and inspectors are, we’re not in the business of taking care of animals,” said Crum. “A tighter, more streamlined network and more effective communication will enable us to be more efficient in placing wildlife more quickly so we can get back to doing our jobs.”
And that efficiency will also lead to better outcomes for the animals, whether they can eventually be returned to the wild, repatriated, or remain at the facility once the case they are part of is decided.
“Animal welfare is top of mind for everyone,” said Schaefer. "It will be the first thing to get addressed, and it will be addressed quickly, as the animals may be able to be moved from the confiscation site directly to their new housing.”
The inefficiency of the confiscation and placement system had long been a complex problem without an obvious solution. Hopefully, the creation of the Southern California Wildlife Confiscations Network is just the first step.
“The vision was always to have a network that any of our regions could utilize,” said Crum. “Any project really depends on relationships, and we in Southern California have awesome relationships with our zoos, aquariums, and universities. If people in other areas of the country have those types of relationships, I think this plan can be readily implemented.”
Breitigan agrees and added, “It’s a testament to what can really help move things forward. Collaboration among very diverse stakeholders is remarkable.”
Hero Photo Credit: © Customs and Border Patrol
Mary-Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.