Guide fot darting animals
Guide

The best methods for darting and tranquilizing animals

Tranquilizing animals safely and efficiently relies on choosing the right equipment and medications for the job - both when done in the wild, in zoos, and on farms.

In this guide, we will walk you through the best practices and pitfalls of darting and remote tranquilization of animals.

Introduction

Darting animals is a complex task. Anything can happen when dealing with animals, which is why it's crucial to be well-prepared and have the right equipment and training for the job.  

Whether you're medicating cattle in a barn or tranquilizing a jaguar in the rainforest, darting of animals can be a risky process and the safety of both humans and animals must be paramount.

It is very much about using reliable equipment that ensures that the task is carried out in the most humane way for the animals and with a high success rate, avoiding critical situations.

In this article, we'll guide you through all the considerations you need to make to be well-prepared for your next task - whether you're dealing with domestic or wild animals and whether your task is remote tranquilization, medication, or biopsy.

This article is written by:
Steffen Stræde, CEO and co-owner of DANiNJECT og former CEO og Copenhagen Zoo and Knuthenborg Safaripark. Find on LinkedIn
Jesper Stagegaard, co-owner of DANiNJECT and CEO of Ree Park  Safari. Find on LinkedIn

Reliable equipment is key when immobilizing animals

Choosing the right equipment is key to getting the job done in the best possible way. 

The selection is key because the equipment will help you achieve 3 important things:

Safefy for your team

Safety for your team 

First and foremost, you need to make sure no one on your team gets hurt. When you need to sedate or medicate animals, you risk the animal getting stressed and not responding as planned. 

If your equipment fails and the animal isn't correctly hit or the anesthetic is only partially injected into the animal, you risk ending up in a critical situation where you have to find a stressed animal that is trying to escape.

In this situation, you or other members of your team could be hurt while trying to find and capture the animal.

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Animal welfare 

Your objective will always be to carry out your task in a way that causes the least possible harm to the animal.

This is in part about avoiding the equipment failing in a way that the medication is not injected correctly and the animal escapes.

In many cases the drugs used for tranquilizing animals need to be reversed with an antidote, this is why it’s crucial to be able to localize the darted animal. Therefore, misfires of this type are very critical. 

Next, it's about choosing equipment that has the least possible impact on the animal. The more precisely you can set the force with which the arrow is fired, the better you can ensure that the animal is not harmed.

For example, some rifles are only available with three settings - low, medium, or high power or five settings (1 to 59 - with the risk that the animal's tissue will be damaged if hit with too much force.

On the other hand, if you choose a CO2 rifle where the force can be set precisely according to the distance you need to shoot from, you can ensure that the animal is not harmed by the impact of the dart.

The design of the arrow also plays a role in how humanely the animal can be anesthetized. If the stabilizer is designed correctly, it will create both ballistic precision and air resistance late in the flight path, hence helping to slow down the arrow just before impact so that the animal is not harmed unnecessarily.

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Getting the most out of your resources

Remote immobilization of animals is often a costly task.

Especially when it comes to research expeditions where a whole team of researchers and veterinarians are involved, and where helicopters, trucks, craits, etc are likely to be used. Every extra day in the field is a big expense.

That's why reliable equipment is not just a matter of safety, but also an investment in getting the job done efficiently and not wasting unnecessary resources due to inefficient or unreliable equipment.

Rifle, pistol, blowpipe, or jabstick?

How you approach the task is, of course, entirely dependent on which animal you need to tranquilize and in which environment. 

Do you want to dart an antelope from a helicopter hovering over the savannah, a monkey in a zoo, or a dolphin on open water? 

These are obviously very different tasks that require different equipment.

Similarly, your usage pattern will influence which equipment is the right choice. 

If you regularly perform one specific task that always involves sedating or medicating the same species of animal under the same conditions, you can choose equipment that is perfect for that one task. However, if you have more varied tasks, you'll often want to look for equipment that can be used across these tasks. 

Generally speaking, you will be choosing between:

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Jabstick (pole syringe)

A jabstick is a long pole with a syringe and needle attached to one end. It is a manual device that requires the operator to be within close proximity to the animal (0-2 meters).

It is used for the direct administration of vaccines or other medications to animals.

The difference between the DANiNJECT jabstick and a traditional pole syringe is that the jabstick automatically releases the drug on full impact, making it faster and more reliable.

Jabsticks are especially useful in confined spaces or when handling small to medium-sized animals that can be approached closely without significant risk.

It is also valuable in situations where quiet and minimal disturbance is important.

It is very suitable for dangerous or large animals in protected spaces, but where unprotected close proximity poses a significant risk to the handler it is not ideal. It is also not ideal for use in open areas. 

DANiNJECT Blowpipe, new 3

Blowpipe

A blowpipe is a long tube through which darts containing sedatives are blown by the operator.

It is used for the remote delivery of immobilizing drugs to small or medium-sized animals, typically at short to moderate distances, i.e. 1-10 meters.

Blowpipes are ideal for use in relatively quiet environments where stealth is necessary, such as in dense vegetation, stables, or urban areas where firearms cannot be used. They are also useful when a gentle approach to immobilization is preferred.

Blowpipes are, however, not effective for long distances or for large thick-skinned animals requiring higher doses of sedatives or thick needles and high pressure to penetrate, as the blowpipe darts have limited capacity, range, and penetration ability.

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Pistol

A tranquilizer pistol is a handgun designed to shoot darts filled with sedatives or medications.

Pistols are used for medium-range, i.e. 3-20 meters, immobilization tasks and are effective for a variety of animal sizes.

Pistols are particularly useful in environments where greater precision is required at medium distances, such as stables, capturing stray dogs in urban areas, or immobilizing medium-sized wildlife in open fields.

They are not ideal for very long distances or for situations requiring stealth, where even limited noise may startle the animal. Also, their effective range and accuracy are limited compared to rifles.

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Rifle

A tranquilizer rifle is a medium to long-range (3-80 meters) tool designed to accurately deliver darts filled with immobilizing or treating drugs over greater distances.

It is used for immobilizing or treating animals from a distance, particularly large or dangerous animals, or when operating in open spaces.

Rifles are invaluable in large, open areas where safety and distance are paramount, such as in wildlife reserves or in cases involving large predators, helicopter, or open water operations.

Rifles may not be suitable for use in confined spaces or in situations where over-penetration of the dart could harm the animal, but some rifles can set the pressure soft and precise for very short distances e.g. 1-3 meters They are also not the best choice for very close-range work due to their size and the skill required for safe handling.

You can either choose a CO2 rifle or a rifle that fires with a powder charge. With a high-quality CO2 rifle, you can set the pressure very precisely so that you only dart the animal with the necessary force, making the impact as humane as possible.

With a rifle fired with a powder charge, the dart is fired with greater force and the animal will absorb the excess energy, which can cause tissue damage.   

Take the test and find the right equipment for your immobilization task

 

Choose the right dart and needle

Selecting the appropriate dart and needle for animal immobilization or treatment will ensure the effectiveness of the procedure and minimize stress and potential harm to the animal.

Some of the important factors to consider are:

Animal size and species

Larger animals often require darts with a larger volume to deliver an adequate dose of the active agent. On the other hand, smaller animals normally need darts with a smaller volume.

Animal species all have varying skin thickness, fur characteristics, and muscle density, which will influence the choice of needle length and gauge. For example, a thick-skinned species like a rhinoceros will require a different needle compared to a thin-skinned species like a dik-dik antelope.

The same animal can even require different needles depending on the time of year. For example, a bear with a thick winter coat and fat deposits will require a longer needle than if the immobilization is done in the summertime.

Drug, chip, transmitter, or biopsy

The physical properties of the drugs in use (the viscosity) can affect the choice of dart and needle, as some drugs may require a larger gauge needle for efficient delivery. The volume of the dart should of course match the required dose of the drug, ensuring that the entire dose preferably can be administered in one dart only.

The choice of dart and needle will also depend on the task at hand. If the aim isn’t sedation, but marking the animal with a chip, placing a transmitter, or maybe taking a biopsy, this will define the requirements for dart and needle. 

The type of needle

The length of the needle should be sufficient to penetrate the animal's skin and deliver the drug into the muscle or subcutaneous tissue.

It should, however, not be so long as to risk hitting bone or penetrating too deeply, potentially causing internal damage.

A larger gauge (thicker needle) or double exit hole needle may be required for delivering viscous drugs or for penetrating thick skin, while a smaller gauge (thinner needle) can be used for thin-skinned animals and less viscous drugs.

Securing animal welfare

The choice of needle is also important for animal welfare. It’s important to choose needles that have the least possible impact on the animal but still get the job done.

Barbed versus non-barbed needles will often be a consideration. Barbed needles are designed to stay in place once they penetrate the skin, ensuring that the full dose is delivered. However, they can cause more skin damage upon removal. Non-barbed needles may fall out more easily, risking incomplete drug delivery but typically cause less damage.

In general, there are 4 categories of needles to choose from:

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See recommended needle sizes

To help choose the right needle size, we have created an overview in of recommended needle sizes for specific animals.

Choosing the right drug and dosage for immobilization

Choosing the right dosage of drugs for animal immobilization is a complex process that requires a thorough understanding of pharmacology, animal physiology, and the specific circumstances of the immobilization.

As this field is constantly evolving, we recommend staying up-to-date with best practices by attending courses or engaging in networks where knowledge around this topic is shared.

We also recommend looking to the most widely recognized source for information about animal immobilization, the “Handbook of Wildlife Chemical Immobilization” by Jon M. Arnemo and Terry Kreeger. 

Training, maintenance, and preparation for your next task

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Practice your skills

Even if you have the best equipment in your bag, you are still ultimately dependent on the person behind the rifle and their shooting skills.

That's why training is important. If you're going to immobilize animals from a distance, we recommend that you attend courses to learn how to operate the equipment properly and that you continuously train your shooting skills.

Especially if remote tranquilizing or medicating animals is a relatively rare task, it's important to keep your skills up to date so that you can feel confident when you're faced with the situation.

Don't neglect maintenance

Having well-functioning equipment is also about maintenance. The CO2 rifle doesn't require much work, just wipe it down, make sure it’s dry, and pack it away, but with needles, maintenance is essential. 
Some quality darts and needles can be reused multiple times, it's just important that they are properly maintained and cleaned before reuse.

Here you can read about dart maintenance (link), and here you have a guide to cleaning of syringes (link). It is very important that the equipment is cleaned properly, especially if you are using very potent anesthetics and do not want any residues mixed into the next dose.

Prepare for your next task

A third thing you should be disciplined about is reordering medication and possibly restock equipment so that you have everything you need for the next job. Often people forget to reorder and it ends up being a stressful matter of urgency to get the drugs you need for the next job in time.

However, if you have that part covered and have a reliable, quality rifle in your bag and sufficient training in its use, you can face the next task with peace of mind.

You'll know that you'll be able to successfully tranquilize or medicate the animal and that neither animals nor humans will be harmed in the process.

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Contact DANiNJECT

Do you have any questions about darting and immobilizing animals?

Don't hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions about how to dart and tranquilize animals. We will be happy to help!