Fractures and Euthanasia
“We had to euthanize this raptor because the fracture was not repairable” … may not make any sense to those outside of raptor rehabilitation. So let us try and explain.
The end goal/requirement of wildlife rehabilitation is to release the animal back into the wild. But it must not be released with any physical impairment that would make it either unable to hunt for its own food or be more vulnerable to injury or to a predator.
If an animal is not releasable back into the wild we can occasionally place a bird in qualified institution (zoo, etc.) that wants the animal. But there are even certain physical impairments that do not allow us to place them - but that is another article!
So why would a fractured bone not be repairable? (Remember, the bird must be able to be returned to the wild.) Here are several examples of why:
A fracture that involves a joint: It is not repairable in such a way as to permit healing with full movement of the joint. In people and in some pets, if a joint is damaged there are options such as a joint replacement or arthrodesis of the joint (surgery that causes permanent immobilization of the joint). Joint replacement has not been developed for raptors. And a joint that does not move would leave the animal without full function of the limb, and thus non-releasable.
A fracture that involves both the radius and ulna: The radius and ulna in all species that have them, must glide or slide along each other as you move and twist your forearm. If both are fractured at the same place, it is extremely difficult to get the bones to heal without them either healing together or without developing scar tissue between them that prevents normal movement.
A fracture that is in too many pieces: If a bone is shattered in too many pieces, it can be impossible to get it to heal.
A fracture that is old and already healed: We do get birds in with old fractures that are already healed. This is more common in turkey vultures because they already eat carrion (dead things) so they can still walk around and find dead things to eat. Raptors that hunt live things more typically die in the wild of starvation before the bone heals. There are situations in which a bone can be re-broken and reset, but it is an extremely difficult surgery that our avian veterinarian does not perform.
A compound fracture: A compound fracture is one in which the broken bone protrudes through the skin. If the bone has been sticking out for a period of time, the bone can become dried out and die. These fractures cannot be repaired.
A fractured lower jaw: Their lower jaw bone (mandible) has a blood supply that is easily damaged when the bone is broken. If the blood supply is damaged, the bone will die. Also, the bone is not thick enough to do most types of orthopedic surgery on. We have attempted to stabilize a mandibular fracture by applying dental acrylic but with little success and it is difficult to get the acrylic to stay in place long enough for the fracture to heal.
We try our best to provide the care needed to release these magnificent raptors back into the wild. And it is never an easy decision to euthanize, even when it is the right decision.