Helen Schwantje

Helen Schwantje

RCRW: A Q&A with the vet charged with the caribou’s health

Helen Schwantje, the wildlife veteranarian for the BC government, talks about what it will take to care for caribou during penning project

Part four of an ongoing column and story series exploring the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild maternity penning plan.

Helen Schwantje is the wildlife veternarian for the BC Government (meaning she’s the only government employee doing that job). She has been at her position for 20 years and has worked with other captive breeding programs. She will be working with the RCRW stakeholder group to care for the caribou during captivity. Here’s what she had to say about the project:

What will your role be with the project?

“Originally, when the idea was initiated I was asked my opinion on it and so through that helped them devise a strategy. What made sense? What was the experience in other jurisdictions? As I see it, I provide animal care support for the project in terms of helping them design it so that the animals are taken care of humanely and management is appropriate for wild caribou. That may mean commenting on the type of fencing they use. It certainly will involve how and when they capture the animals, whether or not they’re sedated, how they’re sampled for pregnancy and health.

“The care of them during the maternity penning project will be under some of my direction. Not entirely, but some of it. We’ll develop protocols. We haven’t really discussed all of the details in terms of whether I’ll be on site the whole time or whether someone else will be with some veterinary skills. There is a local veterinary clinic that may be deployed – we haven’t discussed that yet. I’ll probably be the go to person for that aspect and setting up protocols for their care. It’s all about animal care and welfare.”

What kind of health issues will you be looking at in the caribous?

“Number one is we only want pregnant females, so we’ll have to determine pregnancy either at capture or when they’re placed in the pen. We need to make sure that the animals that are brought in are healthy as well so that they don’t have any long term issues with lameness or poor teeth or things like that. Just initial examination.

“If you think about how one would care for livestock in a captive situation during the last few weeks of pregnancy and the first few weeks after birth, after calving or after lambing animals are in close contact, animals will be somewhat stressed so we’re going to be worrying about the cows having healthy deliveries, or at least the space and psychological well being so they will care for their young. If new mothers are disturbed or under a lot of stress then they may not take care of their offspring very well so we want to make sure of that.

“In terms of diseases, these are animals that normally calve in isolation, they don’t calve in groups. They don’t tend be in close contact until the calves are a little bit older. Any time you have animals in close contact in a small area you’re going to run the risk of higher parasite loads and more opportunity for transmission of any infectious diseases. We’re not seeing a lot of infectious diseases in caribou in the wild but we really don’t have a lot of opportunity to examine them and to test them, Especially this group, since they are at low numbers, we haven’t done a ton of health testing of them. There may be something that’s just sort of off-the-wall that we’re not expecting and it may be concentrated more just simply because the animals are in close contact.

“If we only have a few cows in there at a time, and obviously their calves, the chance there’s anything infectious that will impact their health is pretty low. Other projects have seen a little bit of parasite issues, so a little bit of diarrhea. Gastrointestinal health might be more of an issue because we’re going to put them on feed they’re not 100 per cent used to. They won’t be able to only select their own feed. We’ll have to supplement them with some pellet food they’re not used to. As they’re getting used to that they may have some GI upset, so we’ll have to watch them on that.

How do you go about treating the caribou to stay healthy?

Reduce stress, feed them appropriately as much as possible. The other projects have developed … pelleted rations that appear to work really well. We’ll gradually start them on those kinds of feeds while still providing some natural lichens, and try to do that as slowly as possible. That seems to be fairly effective. The area that is fenced has some natural vegetation there so they will be able to access that a little bit, but after a couple of weeks there won’t be very much there.

In terms of stress, providing shelter, providing areas where they can go where they can’t be seen very readily so that they feel secure without people staring at them is really good. The fencing is usually recommended to be something that they can’t see through, so they can’t see us on the outside of the pen. We’ll keep sound down to a minimum, we’ll disturb them as little as possible. If something gets sick, that creates a real challenge. We’ll avoid handling them as much as possible but if we have to, we’ll treat them like every other animal – more like a cow or a sheep than a horse. But chances are we won’t have to do that very much. That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re hoping to prevent those kind of problems rather than planning too much for them.

What about caring for the newborn?

Again, reducing stress, leaving them alone is the best. Caribou don’t tend to have a lot of calving issues. Calves are small size, they come out like little torpedoes. They do have long legs and long necks so there is the potential for them to be a little bit tangled up but it’s not often we hear or see caribou cows with difficult births. If something like that occurs, we’re going to have to act very quickly and decisively and relieve any kind of calving problems. Just realign the calf and pull it out if we can. I don’t expect that. I expect the first thing we’ll see is a little guy tottering around in the bush behind its mum, and that’s what we’re hoping for. The key thing is those calves have to get up and nurse as fast possible and that’s certainly what they do in the wild without any assistance from us.

If a cow is disturbed, for example if there’s an aggressive second cow or something like that, and maybe it’s a new mom or inexperienced mom, that can result in problems where two cows fight over the same calf, or something like that. That might be a little bit more of an issue just simply because these cows are calving much closer than normal to each other. The other projects I haven’t seen a lot of reports of that so I’m not expecting it but it is something we’re going to have to anticipate and develop a protocol for.

What are we going to do if two cows are fighting over a calf?

Right now I can’t give you exactly what I’m going to do in that kind of situation but I’m working with some really astute biologists who have a lot of common sense and I think we can figure out something there. As much possible we want to leave them alone to do what they can do on their own.

Is there anything else people should know about caring for caribou or issues you’re looking at for this project?

It’s a really special opportunity that I think people are going to really be – and I think they are already – really be engaged with because of the mother-child thing. They’re very cute little animals, but we’re not doing this to feed our egos or anything like that. We’re doing this to try to recover a species that, frankly, I wish we didn’t have to.

This is a really intensive type of management of a species that should be able to deal with this on its own. It’s not something I particularly like to do. I like being close to wildlife but I’d rather them be out running in the hills. This is a very unusual step that we are being forced to take because of the pressures that are on the caribou population. It’s not something we want to do. We’re being forced to do it. It’s not something that’s natural, although it’s going to give us an amazing opportunity to be close to the species at a time in their lives where they’re really vulnerable. It’s not something we want to do, and I think that’s worth emphasizing.


The Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild project is competing for $100,000 in funding through the Shell Fuelling Change program. To be successful, RCRW needs community members to visit the RCRW page on shellfuellingchange.com, sign up and vote. Google ‘Improving Mountain Caribou Calf Survival – Maternity Penning’ and vote before the April 30 deadline.