IS IT RIGHT TO KEEP A GREY SQUIRREL IN CAPTIVITY?

Updated: Jun 29

One Voice for Animals UK Guest Blog by Natalia Doran

Guest Blogger Natalia Doran runs a Licensed Squirrel Rescue, Urban Squirrels, in London.


"If you are reading this blog, the chances are, you do not believe in keeping animals in captivity. Equally, if you are reading this blog, the chances are that you are in fact keeping animals in captivity yourself. They may be pets, rescued animals or wildlife casualties, but they are in captivity and you are clearly ok with that. In the normal run of things, this situation is not seen as an ethical dilemma or an instance of hypocrisy. If you have to think about it at all, you would say that the animals you keep in captivity are happy and would not survive in the wild if released. Usually, this is as far as it goes, and as far as it needs to go. But not always.


The ethics of captivity has become an urgent and thorny issue for all wildlife rescuers here in the UK who are involved with helping the so-called “invasive alien species”, such as grey squirrels and muntjac deer. At Urban Squirrels, a wildlife rescue unit that actually specializes in grey squirrels, we were confronted with this issue in a particularly stark and traumatic way.

In December 2018, Natural England, the licensing body that oversees, among other things, grey squirrel rescue activities, emailed all rescue centres to say that new legislation, the Invasive Alien Species Order 2019, was coming into effect. As of the end of March 2019, all our licences were to be revoked, and any grey squirrels found on our premises would have had to be euthanised. Needless to say, a vigorous campaign ensued!

Urban Squirrels started a parliamentary petition, which gained around 60,000 signatures. The government made a statement, questions were asked and answered in Parliament, the issue was covered in National Press. You can read about this in more detail on our website. The public campaign delayed the introduction of the legislation, so more animal lives were saved, and achieved an important concession inasmuch as Natural England agreed to issue licences for us to keep and move grey squirrels.


Re-release back into the wild, however, remains illegal, which puts rescuers into an extremely difficult position. Essentially, they have to choose between killing the animals brought to them or keeping them in captivity for the rest of their lives. Several rescue centres have made the decision not to apply for a licence to keep grey squirrels, and introduced a euthanasia policy. When members of the public question their decision, they state that they do not believe in keeping animals in captivity. This should be the beginning, rather than the end of the discussion. There is such a branch of philosophical knowledge as the ethics of captivity, and it is there for precisely such occasions, when we need to make correct decisions - both as rescuers, when we decide which animals to help, and as members of the public, when we decide which rescue centres to support.


There are two main questions that need to be answered, and each presents a fork in the road of decision making.

Question one: Is the animal’s captivity in the interests of the individual animal, or in the interests of humans? It is entirely logical for an animal rights activist to be opposed to zoos, circuses and animal research (even behavioural research if it involves captivity), but support wildlife rescue that involves taking animals into captivity, even prolonged or life-long captivity, because the latter situation is in the interests of the individual animal, and the only alternative is death.

Question two: (assuming the animal is in captivity for their own sake, and not for human education or profit), Are the animal’s basic needs being met? Animal Welfare Act 2006 specifies these as the need for food, water, vet treatment, freedom from stress and discomfort and freedom to express natural behaviour. These are open to interpretation, especially the part about expressing natural behaviour, but the basic guideline ideas are there. Thus, a rescue group that would, for example, keep a grey squirrel in a small barren cage, should not be supported, on the ethical grounds of the animal’s basic needs not being met. However, if the squirrel has a diet of fruit, veg, nuts and necessary supplements; lives in a large aviary where she/he can take a 2 meter jump, or has regular access, for several hours a day, to such a space; is taken to a vet whenever a serious illness is suspected; has toys to chew on, nest-making materials and somewhere to dig; has the mental stimulation of observing a changing environment of some kind (garden, home, rescue centre) – such a squirrel has her/his basic needs met and can be kept in captivity if the alternative is death.

The decision of whether to kill or keep in captivity is made easier for us when we remember that we are, after all, talking about fellow sentient creatures, and even fellow mammals, and can be guided by what we ourselves would prefer if put in similar circumstances. If we were going to be either executed or put in prison for life for a crime that we did not commit, which would we choose for ourselves? Our choice would, naturally, depend on whether or not life in fact means life (or would our friends on the outside fight for our release) and on whether we would, for example, be kept in solitary confinement on bread and water or in a large comfortable cell with books, Internet and opportunities to work and exercise. Deciding the fate of a non-human animal can be made much easier with a bit of empathy.


Another consideration that is broader than the ethics of captivity, but is nonetheless highly relevant to it, is the value of an individual animal life. If we are involved in rescuing animals that are not threatened with extinction as a species, it can only be because we value the life of each individual animal. Why would we be rescuing them otherwise, when there are so many of them out there? But if we have thus committed ourselves to save individual lives, we need to be consistent and treat the life of every client brought to us with the utmost respect. When that life is gone, it is gone. It is logical, therefore, to opt for the lesser evil of captivity. Always, it is worth repeating, as long as the basic needs are met.


The kind of theoretical discussion that we have had so far has to, of course, be translated into the real world. Wildlife rescue organisations have limited resources, and once the licence numbers are filled, we have to start turning animals away, because becoming a glorified animal hoarder is not a good option either. This is the awful situation that the current legislation has put us into. But we do not give up on the hope of winning back our right to re-release our clients. Whatever one’s opinion of the ecological impact of grey squirrels might be (do read more here https://www.urbansquirrels.co.uk/for-those-who-do-not-like-grey-squirrels/ if you are interested), the fact remains that rescue numbers are simply not statistically significant enough to make any difference to that impact. Urban Squirrels continues to fight for the right to re-release, and invites you to keep an eye on our very busy social media accounts for updates, especially where the legal action is concerned. In the meantime, we all try to save as many lives as we can!


Here are some thoughts on the ethics of captivity...

The main consideration is this: Is the captivity in the interests of the individual animal?

For example, if the animal is kept to be displayed for people to look at, it is one thing. If the animal is kept because he or she will not survive in the wild, it is another.

Further ethical considerations are (a) Basic needs and (b) Comparable life.

(a) Are the animals’ basic needs being met, as specified in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 – food, water, vet treatment, freedom from stress and discomfort, freedom to express natural behaviour? These are open to interpretation, especially the natural behaviour part, but the basic guidelines are there.

(b) What is the alternative? If the alternative is to release back into the wild, it is one thing, if it is to kill because release is illegal, it is another.


DUM SPIRO SPERO! (While there is life, there is hope!)"



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