Wildlife research gives writing grad a voice

January 23, 2015

As a volunteer with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton (WRSE), Dawn Doell worked with a variety of native species. That experience sparked an independent research project on the long-term success of wildlife rehabilitation. 

Study merges Dawn Doell’s love of writing and biology

Dawn Doell, a graduate of MacEwan’s Professional Writing program, knew she was passionate about writing, but felt like she needed something to write about, so she decided to work toward a Bachelor of Science. About mid-way through her degree, she stumbled upon more than two decades of data on the animals treated at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton (WRSE). Little did she know then that the contents of those boxes would evolve into what she calls her educational Taj Mahal—a research project she presented at Student Research Week and that for two years shaped hundreds of hours of her free time.

Does wildlife rehabilitation really work?

When she mentioned her data discovery to Dr. David Locky, a faculty member in MacEwan University’s Department of Biological Sciences, he was intrigued. “There really aren’t many peer-reviewed studies on the long-term success rates of wildlife rehabilitation centres and no one has ever published a data set this large on the subject,” he says. So he encouraged her to register for Biology 498, an independent research course. It was the beginning of an ambitious and innovative research project that would continue long after she got her final grade.

Combing through banker’s boxes and digitizing the 13,375 records inside them took Dawn more than six months. And analyzing that data—looking for trends in the types of animals that came to the centre, their injuries and whether they were successfully released or euthanized—took several months more.

While Dawn knew it would take time, she didn’t realize how complicated the analysis would get. “You don’t just plug numbers into a statistical formula and have the results pop out,” she says. “You have to decide how to organize the data and check to make sure it’s accurate.”

That meant accounting for missing information (there was simply nothing on file for 1992), addressing peaks and valleys in the amount of information being reported in different years, and analyzing trends for which different groups of species—mammals, birds and reptiles and amphibians.

Dawn found relatively low success rates during the first ten years – only 5 per cent of animals coming in were being released. But since 2001, WRSE has had an average 32 per cent success rate. In 2012, the rate reached an all-time high of 45 per cent with only one unknown outcome.

“Essentially, animals that comes into the centre have a 50/50 chance of survival,” she says. “But in the wild, their chance of survival may be zero.”

Looking at the impact of people

Dawn’s study also addresses success rates specifically for species at risk and includes a section that compares changes in the number of animals at the centre with Edmonton’s population growth over the same 22-year period.

“This comparison has a strong, linear relationship with Edmonton’s population,” says Dawn, explaining that this is a particularly interesting finding because, while there is a lot of information about human encroachment on wildlife areas, there really isn’t a lot of hard data available.

Making science accessible

“It has been interesting and exciting to take everything I learned in the Bachelor of Science and Professional Writing programs and put it together in one big project,” says Dawn. ”I’ve put my heart and soul into this. Research is such a great opportunity to enhance your educational experience—you don’t just go to school to get a grade. And it feels great to help a charitable organization that wouldn’t otherwise be able to do this type of work.”

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