Working With Wildlife – My Top 5 Lessons Learned

by Stephanie Zec

Many hours volunteering at the Wildlife Medical Clinic (WMC) has made it my home, and my team of volunteers have become my vet-school family. As I approach the beginning of my fourth year, the transition to working in the teaching hospital will be bittersweet as I will have to leave the WMC. These are my top five wildlife lessons that I have learned from my time at the clinic.

1. Bigger is not badder.

Many of our volunteers become anxious when they are expected to work with an adult raccoon or an adult Great Horned Owl – the largest owl found in Illinois. In reality, they should be equally conscious of safety precautions when working with some smaller species. When we perform medical procedures on our resident birds, it is often times the kestrels that draw blood on our volunteers. Even smaller animals that do not appear intimidating can be dangerous. Despite taking the proper precautions, the most common bite injury in the Wildlife Medical Clinic is due to squirrels. So be careful if you find one!

2. Never underestimate the human-animal bond.

Kinkuna was our laughing Kookaburra resident bird. He was overweight, had a crippling foot malformation, and a laugh that could be heard from a mile away. Kinkuna was the first animal I ever tried to train using positive reinforcement to improve his quality of life. He quickly became my post-test companion, my lunch friend, and my ‘I just need to see an animal right now because school is making me stressed’ buddy. The clinic lost Kinkuna over a year ago, and it is still tough for me to walk into his old flight cage.

3. Animals are tough.

In the wild it is the weak that are preyed upon, so animals hide their injuries and illnesses.  My team once had a Merlin (a small falcon) that presented for a wing fracture. This animal was on its feet and would try to escape from us when we needed to catch it. Blood work revealed that this animal was so anemic and low on blood protein, it was miraculous that it was still alive. I have seen animals with fractures so ugly they make me cringe – yet that animal is barely showing any signs of pain.  I wish I had that level of pain tolerance.

4. Stress is a secret killer.

Did you ever notice that when you are stressed out, that is when the sickness comes? Physiologically, this is due to a little chemical known as cortisol. Stress causes an increase in cortisol secretion which then directly suppresses your immune system – always at the worst possible time.

For our wild animal patients, interaction with people is their worst nightmare. Now they are sick, stressed out in a foreign environment, and definitely do not want us handling them. I have seen doves die in people’s hands from being stressed and rabbits die within minutes after handling, due to no fault of the volunteer. If you ever find a wild animal, do not attempt to treat it. Please send it to a professional (like us). In the meantime, the best medication you can give a wild animal is putting it in a dark, quite area (like a shoe box for small birds and mammals) and leaving it alone until you can transfer it to someone with wildlife medical experience.

5. Communication is key!

My wildlife team that I am a co-leader of recently had the honor of treating a three year old female Bald Eagle. This poor creature had a wing fracture and a deep wound near the fracture site. This type of injury required intense medical care – which the eagle was less than thrilled about.  Eagles are nine pounds of anger with a six foot wing span. To restrain her and administer medication was a three person job. One person would blind her with a towel and grab her talons. Once she was safely pinned in her cage, the second person would come and “hood” her and hold her head so she couldn’t bite anyone.  The third person would then help maneuver the blanket to “burrito” the eagle, preventing her from unleashing her wings while we administered medications. If my team wasn’t communicating clearly and effectively with each other, someone could have been seriously injured. Instead, she was successfully sent to the rehabber and everyone was injury free.

 

 

 

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A Summer With The Owls

by Sarah Adams

“Just a pull a little tighter and you will complete that surgeon’s throw,” the manager explained as I completed my sutures for a laceration on a duck – yep that’s right, the first animal I learned how to suture on was a duck. Now as a vet student, I am very thankful for the experiences that I gained at the Wildlife Medical Clinic while spending summers there as an undergrad extern. The high volume caseload meant that there would always be a new challenge. Some of my most memorable cases include nursing two goslings back to health from an accident with fishing line, treating a box turtle that was hit by a car, an Eastern screech owl who needed eye drops, a fox kit with traumatic injuries, two orphaned bobcats from Louisiana, and a great horn owl with a fractured femur. Some of the more challenging cases include wrestling with a groundhog, an escape artist barn owl, and a notorious raccoon for treatments.

Some of my most interesting clinical experiences include giving intramuscular injections to baby red-eared sliders about the size of a quarter, tube feeding baby rabbits, bottle feeding fawns, and learning how to draw blood on birds. Learning how to do proper physical exams, write medical records, and record patient histories from the finders were valuable skills that will be useful no matter what area of veterinary medicine you explore.

From owls to turtles, rabbits to raccoons, I learned more than just clinical skills; I learned about public health, epidemiology, responding to medical emergencies, and educating the public about wildlife and the importance of conservation. Most importantly, working at the Wildlife Medical Clinic has taught me the power of collaboration in medicine. It was the knowledge and experience from the doctors and wildlife managers that helped make my experience truly unique. I learned that the knowledge that one doctor has can be different from another, and when that knowledge is combined the best treatment plan can be achieved. As of right now the Wildlife Medical Clinic has sparked my interest in emergency medicine; I look forward to seeing where else it takes me through my career in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

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Building a Relationship With Captive Wildlife

by Malke Weil

As resident coordinator, one of my jobs is to train our resident birds to make their interactions with us safe, stress free, and even enjoyable. Our newest member of the resident team is Thistle. She is an American kestrel who came into the clinic in the summer of 2012, with an injury of her left eye. She recovered, but lost the eye, and a one eyed kestrel cannot hunt adequately in the wild. As a patient, she was never afraid of us, she would rush to the front of her cage in anticipation of food, so it was decided that she was a good candidate for the resident program: non-releasable, and not afraid of people.

Once she joined the team, it was time to train her. All our birds are trained to enter a crate, step up on our gloves, and tolerate a basic physical exam, so we can work with them safely and without stress. We train with positive reinforcement, so our first step was finding her reward. She is very food motivated, so that was decided. We had to get her comfortable with taking food from us, so when we rewarded her, she would take it. We started by giving her food and staying nearby while she ate it. Wild animals feel vulnerable when eating, because they are not fully focused on their surroundings. So eating in front of you implies a trust. The next step was putting food closer to us so she would have to come closer to get it, and finally we had her come to our glove and take the food from us directly. She is an eager learner, so this step did not take long at all.

Then we got her comfortable going into her crate, that way, anytime we needed to transport her, she would comfortably comply. We fed her in her crate, and as she went it we said “crate”. Then we came up with a crate command, and every time she follows it, she gets a treat through the holes in the crate. Next step was to get her comfortable sitting on glove. We held food in our gloves and waited for her to come get it. We would hold onto the food so she would have to stay until it was finished. And sometimes she would stay long after she finished the meal. Then we knew she had reached that comfort level. Once she was coming to sit on the glove with or without food, we started jessing her. Jesses are ropes that go through anklets on their feet, so we can take them for walks without the danger of them flying away and injuring themselves. So to get her comfortable with that, we’d have a treat in the glove, and when she was distracted eating it, we slipped the jesses through her anklets. After a few times, she got used to that and allowed us to do it without the food distraction.

Once she had all those behaviors down, she could be a full time part of the resident team. She is a superstar at PR events, for any of you who have seen her, she is cooperative, and enjoys the attention she gets. She loves going on walks, stretching her wings out to feel the wind go through her, and more than anything, she loves one on one attention with our volunteers. She is a smart bird and is always eager to learn. The only time we have problems with her is when we are not working with her often enough. I feel so blessed that I got to be a part of her training team, and it makes me happy that although we could not give her back her old life in the wild, we were able to give her a new one that is full of happiness and enrichment.

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Bald Eagle 2013-1058

by Tanya Coty (VM16)

The Wildlife Clinic is currently host to an American treasure, a bald eagle, affectionately named George. George arrived at the clinic on October 17, 2013. Two U of I alumni veterinarians saw him by the side of the road near Springfield, after apparently being hit by a car. They made the long trip to bring him to the Wildlife Clinic where he has been receiving care ever since. Radiographs of George’s injured wing indicated that he had a fractured right humerus and a consultation with the ophthalmology department at the teaching hospital revealed that he is blind in his right eye.

Radiograph of George’s right wing. Notice the fractured humerus, the wing bone closest to the body.

George is currently recovering from his wing injury in the clinic until he is ready to go to a rehabilitation center. The Wildlife and Exotic Animal Medicine and Surgery department repaired his fracture with a pin in the medullary cavity of his humerus and an external fixator. Once his wing has healed enough for the fixator to be removed, he can leave the clinic.

Caring for an eagle is a unique challenge for the students. While he only weighs 7.7lbs (3.5 kg), George is incredibly strong and equipped with powerful talons and a sharp beak. As a wild animal, he is less than cooperative with treatment. When he initially arrived and while recovering from surgery, he had to be handled twice a day to receive pain medication due to his injuries. The team has since scaled back on handling George to reduce his stress.

In spite of these challenges, George has made excellent progress with his recovery and will hopefully be transferred to a rehabilitation facility soon. There, he will build up strength in his muscles, which have atrophied from weeks of disuse. Birds that are kept in captivity for more than two weeks typically need time to build up their flight muscles before they can be released to the wild. This is especially important for birds of prey, like bald eagles, because they rely on soaring to hunt and survive. The rehabilitation staff will also assess his ability to hunt with his blind eye. Because he is a bald eagle, if George cannot be returned to the wild, he will stay as a “resident” animal in a wildlife center or zoo. This is because bald eagles are protected under federal law, even though they are no longer listed as an endangered species. The Wildlife Clinic has to have a special permit to hold bald eagles for medical care. If you come across an injured bald eagle, please contact US Fish and Wildlife Services or a wildlife rehabilitator. It’s also important to remember that it is illegal to keep feathers, eggs, or other “parts” of a bald eagle.

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Bird of the Month

by Lauren Kane (VM16)

© 2007 Cal Vornberger

The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) are small shorebirds that breed only in three regions in North America: Atlantic Coast, the Northern Great Plains, and the Great Lakes. Piping plover were listed as threatened and endangered in 1986 and is an endangered species in Illinois. There is estimated to be 2,800 breeding pairs throughout the three North American regions. Breeding habitat has been replaced with shoreline development and recreation, which overtime, decreases the quality foraging and roosting habitat of these birds. Currently, the Fish and Wildlife Services have two main goals to recover this species and remove them from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. The first is to achieve well-distributed increases in numbers and productivity of breeding pairs, and secondly, to provide long-term protection of breeding and wintering plovers and their habitats. For more information, please visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/pdf/summary.pdf

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Featured Endangered Wildlife Species

by Steve Zachar (VM16)

Mexican Gray Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)

Similar in size to a German Shepherd Dog, the Mexican gray wolf is the smallest wolf subspecies, as well as the most critically endangered wolf species in the world. They are currently listed as Extinct in the Wild on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. Due to government-mandated predator removal efforts in the mid-1900s, as well as a reduction of natural prey species, the Mexican wolf completely disappeared from the wild by the late 1970s. The Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan began with just seven individuals in 1978, and it was not until 1998 that 50 captive-bred wolves were released into protected wilderness areas in New Mexico and Arizona. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) annual year-end survey reported 75 Mexican wolves in the wild, a 17 wolf increase from the previous year. The FWS will maintain protection of the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest while expanding recovery efforts. With continued success of captive breeding programs and federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection, the FWS is hopeful that Mexican gray wolf numbers will rebound as well as their Gray wolf cousins, whose population has gone from near extinction in the U.S. to several thousand over the past several decades.

Mexican Gray Wolf, © Jim Clark / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For more information on the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, visit: http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/

References:

1. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Service Proposes to Return Management and Protection of Gray Wolves to State Wildlife Professionals Following Successful Recovery Efforts. The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 7 June 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/pdf/NR_wolf_press_release.pdf>.

2. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Wolf Recovery in North America. The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, January 2007. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.  <http://www.fws.gov/home/feature/2007/gray_wolf_factsheet-region2.pdf>.

3. “Basic Facts About Mexican Gray Wolves.” Mexican Gray Wolf. Defenders of Wildlife, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013 <http://www.defenders.org/mexican-gray-wolf/basic-facts>.

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For the Birds’… Safety

Image courtesy of Arnold Glas

Birds suffering from wing fractures and head trauma due to window collisions are some of the most common patients seen at the Wildlife Medical Clinic. Please check out this post from www.birdwatchingdaily.com on ways that you can help save these birds- and your windows.

http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/blog/2013/09/18/uv-reflecting-glass-tapes-decals-liquids-home-windows/

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Next Stop, Champaign!

by Nicki Rosenhagen (VM15)

On May 20th, the Wildlife Medical Clinic took in two very unique patients – a pair of bobcat kittens. The animals had been found on a Friday in a train car in the Tuscola area; since the finder didn’t know for sure if the cats were orphans, he left them alone for the weekend to see if the mother would return. When he checked again on Monday, they were still there – hungry and scared.

Even though it may seem strange to leave two young animals alone, the finder made a very good decision. All too often, the clinic receives “orphaned” animals that have been unintentionally kidnapped by well-meaning citizens. Since mother animals have to leave their babies alone for periods of time to find food or just to avoid attracting attention to a nest, people sometimes find these healthy animals and assume they are orphaned. By not immediately catching the bobcats, this man gave them their best chance at being reunited with their mother, but after two days alone, it was clear she wasn’t coming back. Upon further investigation, we learned that the train the cats were found on came up from Louisiana. Likely what had happened was that somewhere near the train’s point of origin, the mother bobcat left her kittens in the car for safekeeping while she went off to hunt. Unfortunately, the train was scheduled to depart before she could make it back.

When the cats were admitted, they were dehydrated, thin, hungry and full of intestinal parasites.  After providing fluids and medications to treat the parasites, the staff at the clinic set them up in an isolation area where they would see and hear people as little as possible. Because bobcats are relatively large carnivores, it is imperative that they never associate humans with food or positive interactions.  A bobcat that sees a human as a food source, a competitor or even a friend, is very dangerous and cannot be returned to the wild. Luckily, these cats had no love for humans – even at one and one and a half pounds, they were growling, hissing and spitting.

The bobcats have been in care for three weeks now and are healthy and aggressive. Both of the sisters have more than doubled their intake weight, dining on rats, mice, chicken and fish, and they are ready to move to the next phase in their rehab process. Next week, the clinic director and one of the managers will be transporting the bobcats to a licensed rehabilitation center in southern Illinois. This center has experience raising and releasing orphaned bobcats and even has a specific enclosure for the species. At their new home, the cats will continue to grow, learn to hunt and acclimate to the sights and sounds of the outdoors. Once they are old enough and capable of fending for themselves, the bobcats will be released to live out their days in the wild where they belong.

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