• Morgaine Faye

A story I reported for the paper this week, Cute Animal Death Watch, digs into a state policy that requires wildlife rehabilitators to euthanize invasive species—or nonnative animals that cause ecological harm.

The policy calls for killing animals many Oregonians probably don’t know are invasive—including possums, and several species of squirrels and turtles. If you bring in an injured wild animal to an animal rehabilitation clinic, there’s a good chance it could be invasive. That means the rehabber either has to take in the animal and kill it, or refuse to take it in at all. Many rehabbers have decided to turn these animals away rather then euthanize them, so you—as the good-hearted opossum catcher—will be left with a tough decisions to make.

Legally you can’t keep an invasive animal unless you have a special license. You can turn the injured animal loose, and “let nature take its course.” You can also kill the animal yourself, which is perfectly legal, but arguably difficult for most people. Or you can take the animal to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which will kill it for you. But the way ODFW kills some of these animals you might find a little disturbing. Some of the graphic details are below the cut.

To euthanize invasive animals, ODFW employs guidelines established by the American Association of Zoos and Veterinarians. Just like a vet putting down the family dog, when it can, the state uses a lethal dose of the barbiturate Phenobarbital to euthanize invasives. (For birds, the preferred method is carbon dioxide). Only the state doesn’t always have access to this animal killing drug of choice.

Under the law, sales of Phenobarbital—which is also given to humans for a variety of reasons—are restricted because it's a habit-forming drug. Legally, only licensed doctors and vets can administer the drug. Many rehabbers (like the Audubon Society of Portland) have vets on staff and can therefore euthanize animals in this relatively human way. But at ODFW, vets are in short supply. So the job of putting the animals down is often left to a state biologist.

As ODFW biologist Keith Kohl says that for many animals, “lesser drugs” than Phenobarbital work just fine. But for critters with really slow metabolisms, like reptiles, well, then, things get a little gory.

For invasive turtles like the red-eared slider, not getting Phenobarbital—which will put it down—means the ODFW can sedate the animal with drugs, but not kill it. Actually killing the critters lies in the hands of an ODFW biologist, literally.

As we reported, the process is grisly and involves decapitating the animals, and because turtles can still have neurological activity long after they’re decapitated—the guide used by the agency says it’s up to an hour—the animal’s brain must either be crushed or “scrambled” to snuff out any remaining neurological activity. How other animals are killed varies by the biology of the creature, and if your morbid curiosity can’t wait, it's spelled out in this report.

As disturbing as this is, not euthanizing invasives is also problematic.

Because rehabbers have left the euthanasia decision up to the public, if you find an injured invasive you might have some serious thinking to do. Places like the Audubon Society will not automatically confiscate an invasive creature if you bring it in, they'll ask whether you want the Society to euthanize it or whether you want to take it home and let it die one way or another.

Many rehabbers who spoke with the Mercury say they suspect many people choose to care for injured invasives themselves rather than hand them over for euthanasia. This is not only illegal, it’s also not good for the animals, many of which require professional treatment, and some of which might even need to be put down. If this happens to you, here’s hoping the hurt creature you find in your backyard isn’t an invasive turtle.