Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Inspiration in Action" for wildlife conservation - a personal account

OMG Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic is in the final for the contest! I rub my eyes and can not believe it. „Inspiration in Action“ is truly an awesome title for this and, believe it or not, the first grant proposal for a project that has been in my head for over 15 years. But how did I get there?

In brief and leaving out a few years and countries in between it started in 1994 when my dear friends from Profelis in Costa Rica opened my eyes to what would become the passion I would dedicate my career to: wildlife conservation and medicine, as well as rescue and rehabilitation.

I had decided to become a veterinarian out of a love for animals and the desire to work in and with nature with biology as second choice. After the first three years in vet school I felt discouraged about what I learned about the profession of a domestic veterinarian. While I loved dogs and cats, I more and more disliked the fact that we humans would breed animals to our liking of what we felt was „pretty“ while the animals suffered with the „breed dispositions“. Of course, „never argue „fashion““ but to me welfare was more important. I loved farm animals but I disliked the fact that their main purpose seemed to be to grow and produce as fast as possible, often under to me questionable conditions. I loved horses too and it was because of them that I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian at age 11; after I witnessed my first birth – who would not be inspired watching the first steps of a newborn foal? But at 22 I had come to realize that my motivation for becoming a veterinarian - the desire to heal and „help“ animals and to work in and for nature - had been somewhat naive.

It seemed to me our daily veterinary life would all too often make us have to be psychologists and make economic choices to sacrifice animals or their welfare to human needs. I decided to take a break for a semester. At this point I have to thank a special person: my mother! Instead of possibly turning into a „jewelry selling beach traveler“ (my back-up plan at the time) she convinced me to volunteer in a conservation project with wild cats in Costa Rica.

Little did we know that it would change my life, to meet two inspirational German biologists, founders and directors of Profelis. They had come to study wild cats, and discovered a clear need for a facility that would rescue confiscated animals for the government. They took on the challenge to try to provide a solution by receiving and when possible rehabilitating to release this endangered species. I saw their challenges: no money, several years of negotiations, cooperation issues, grant applications, bureaucracy and many adversities. And I witnessed their whole-hearted dedication: living in a humble little house and rebuild the center 3 times, even from total devastation through a hurricane, with their own hands and WITHOUT a salary, for as long as 7 years! That truly inspired me. It was them who pointed me to a contact in Guatemala, the veterinarian and director of ARCAS, a general wildlife rescue center. The most amazing 2 years of my life would follow, while travelling Costa Rica and Guatemala to work as a veterinary volunteer in wildlife conservation projects. ARCAS was truly inspiring in that for the first time I saw local people, not foreigners, and from poor backgrounds (so not philanthropists) work hard to save their natural heritage. I experienced the first baby season and I saw a wildlife rescue center overwhelmed with hundreds of animals coming from the pet trade in a period of 6 weeks.

I returned to vet school with new found goals and passions. I had learned about the need for professional veterinary assistance in wildlife conservation in the field. I had seen the hardship, mainly meaning little to no income, hard work and many set backs, but I had also been inspired by simple people, who had so much less than I was even born with, dedicate their lives towards animals and nature. And I felt that, coming from a rich „country of abundance“, Germany, I wanted to dedicate my career to benefit development and nature conservation and take that challenge as well.

My childhood experiences in and the resulting love for Latin America, and having seen animals in the pet trade on the „other end“ - after illegal smuggling to developed world, and usually point of no return - I wanted to apply my skills, where there truly still is a chance of returning an animal to its natural habitat. And, where we can still work towards preserving natural habitats, and ultimately a harmonious cohabitation of humans in nature. I know that is the naive part of me again, but I believe in the benefit of having positive dreams and goals.

Over the next 15 years the proposal suited for my desire to find a similar niche, where I could use my medical professions’ training to apply it to heal and help animals and work to conserve nature and „give back“, would be refined over and over. One day I would like to dedicate an entire book to the many inspiring people I met while volunteering and visiting projects in 7 countries and learning many lessons over many years. And I guess that could be a nice book because all so often we tend to think that the world is filled with BAD people and tend to not remember those great inspiring people.

Ending our „nomadic“ years and visiting and settling in Belize was a like a revelation to the still hazy vision. And of course the beginning of another long process of learning, which is certainly continuing as we speak. After 8 years of living here, evaluating the situation, finding the gap and my niche, networking, consulting stakeholders, gathering (philosophical) support, and working with the government, I have finally given up on the idea that „someone“ will come along and „absorb my idea“ and write a large grant for me. With the idea to assist solving many of the countries wildlife problems in one go, for now and forever (meaning beyond my own involvement). I know that was setting my goals way too high, but I did that for years anyways. And I didn’t even know how to begin. Here I just must thank my dear husband for supporting me throughout and pointing out „you are trying to jump from A to Z instead of going via BCDE...just do it yourself, and start it small.“ and I finally heard him too.

It was Spartacus the 600 g Howler monkey baby who „pushed me over the edge“ to decide that even if it was small, the need for a medical facility for wildlife and some basic medical diagnostic and treatment tools was overwhelming. And that I would just start this clinic myself, without a million $ grant. It was Spartacus who inspired me, to activate this blog, apply for a minute loan and finally start looking for financial support for the wildlife rescue facility that I somehow started dreaming about in 1994. And just to make it clear: since then I have held numerous paid jobs simultaneously to support my „expensive hobby and passion“ as a „professional volunteer“ mostly without outside financial support or a salary.

And a few days after the decision to finally start seeking outside financial support for the work I am most passionate about, I accidentally saw this „Inspiration in Action“ contest... which in addition to the opportunity to help wildlife, offered the opportunity to assist the countries veterinarians and fulfill my personal mandate in the veterinary association to assist the advancement of our profession. So I felt inspired and just started writing. And I got a lot of help in the writing. And now we are in the final and with YOUR HELP could win $25,000 to purchase medical and diagnostic equipment to serve an entire country.

Regardless of outcome, it is VERY inspiring to have our proposal selected over so many other great projects and it sure will give me more energy and desire to continue facing the challenges of trying to assist sustainable development and wildlife conservation as well as animal welfare. I will be EVER GRATEFULL for the amazing response from everybody out there!

We keep our fingers crossed that despite being an „outsider“ and a small Caribbean country, with your help the Belize Wildlife Referral Clinic will win the Heska Inspiration in Action contest! Voting continues until the 18th of December.

We need thousands of votes to compete with the other 4 excellent contestants. So I hope you can also help us by convincing as many of your US-friends and family to please vote for BWRC here:

Or directly on Facebook:

Many exciting new rescues have happened recently, including another baby howler monkey, an Osprey and the most amazing solitary eagle! So stay „tuned“ for more?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The usual unusual adventure... Are you ready to meet „Michael Jackson“?

What I love about my work in wildlife rescue and conservation is that there is nothing usual about it. I never know what might happen the next day or moment and there is rarely any routine. Of course, I have to admit that that is very challenging sometimes too. But most times it keeps things interesting and exciting!

This story starts with an email from Nikki from Belize Bird Rescue, with a picture of a bird attached. It’s a juvenile raptor. And to my embarrassment I must admit, upon first very quick glance at this photo, I shrugged my shoulders and thought, „oh another Roadside Hawk“ (a very common small raptor, indeed often seen on roadsides in Belize). A minute later my phone rang. It was Nikki, sounding somewhat anxious, telling me she just received this raptor in a rice bag. The raptor was supposedly stealing a farmer’s chicken. The farmer had shot the raptor and the farmer’s neighbor had brought it to Nikki in the back of a pickup. Once out of the bag, it was big and feisty, and Nikki asked if I couldn’t come NOW to examine, check and hopefully release the raptor again. She was NOT handling this one by herself! So I relooked at the picture and finally computed the size of Nikki’s cage, which I knew, with the size of this bird, nearly filled the cage. Ooops! So we wondered what it would be. Bird identification is like a common „game“ for us. We are not (and maybe never will be) experts at identifying birds. But we know experts and we network. And of course we have books and we try to identify them ourselves. So still on the phone, Nikki suggested „it really looks like a solitary eagle“. And I laughed out, and actually made fun of her over the phone.

A solitary eagle is within the rarest, least known and endangered raptors in the world. At this time there is only one known nest in all its range. I don’t think there has ever been a rescue of one, at least not reported. So we both shared the pictures with our bird experts, and once I got to Bird Rescue, and saw this animal for myself for the first time, I was amazed by its large size. It calmly looked at me, threatened a bit, but was not overly scared or aggressive: BAR (bright alert and responsive...).

So for the next 30 minutes we prepared for examination, shock treatment, and possible other treatments, and I repeatedly returned with the identification guide and read, and reread the description. All the characteristics seemed to fit for the solitary eagle, but I sure wouldn’t believe my ID skills for something like that! And then came the first two amazed messages from our bird expert friends, including the researcher who studied the only known nest, confirming that we indeed had probably the rarest patient of our careers in front of us. GULP. Nikki compared it to Michael Jackson coming to visit, and my answer that our clinic (currently still with out in-house clinic facilities... and basic equipment) is NOT a „rockstar“ place by any means; but we are the only of our kind :) so we had to make it work.

And the worst of it was... we had to find out why on earth someone was able to capture him, hence if he got severely injured by bullets. He must have been very compromised, or debilitated in order for a human to capture and „bag“ him. Or maybe, he was just stunned and then immediately captured in that moment? From the report, my first gut feeling suspected a shot to the thorax and a possible fracture in his shoulder.

Any wildlife examination starts with observation, and for this guy the observation didn’t reveal much, if anything. He was symmetric and I thought I detected a slight weakness in the left wing, which after a few minutes he drooped just a half and inch lower. That gave further weight to the suspicion of shoulder fracture.

So then we had to get our „hands on him“ and give him the first round of treatment; nearly always indicated in rescued wildlife and definitely in cases like this. We knew he was captive at least 24hrs and travelled under extreme stress: rehydration, steroids for the hypovolemic shock and a little bit of energy in the form of dextrose. I usually also add some B-complex vitamins, which never hurts and helps with the appetite which is always an issue in our wildlife patients – if they stop to eat, we lose them, no matter how well we could cure anything else! And of course I always like to give at least one dose of homeopathic rescue remedy.

I am still beyond words to describe the thrill of working with this eagle up close. We approached him with much caution, calmly and gently. Did I mention my gloves were not really apt for this kind of raptor, aside from the fact that I really do not like to use big gloves to handle or restrain anyways. And it was amazing how little he struggled or fought our approach. He was alert and resisted, but we were quite capable of slowly netting and toweling him out of the small cage and then... first disarmed his „weapons“, the talons, by closing the feet, taking care to not hurt him with his own talons, and taping them that way. Raptors have lots of force in their feet – even little screech owls do, as I can attest from personal experience with one falsely believed to be deceased... But the strength is only to clamp down (and fly off with prey in most cases) yet not to open the feet. So once taped in the closed position we were safe to work with him with our limited equipment or trained staff.

I must give huge kudoz to Miss Celisha for her assistance, as well as, of course Miss Nikki, who, sometimes against her will, has had to learn a lot more about raptor care, including intensive care and physical therapy, then she probably would have chosen on her own accord. All because of the needed wildlife clinic facility, but Nikki truly rocks! Celisha was a novice with raptors and jumped right in, alert, quick and ON IT. What an initiation! So with fabulous teamwork we got the eagle transferred to the exam room, examined hands-on once over, treated, checked and measured... a bit (realizing that we do not know how to properly do these measurements, since they are usually done by biologists) and then brought him to an outdoor enclosure that had hastily been cleared of its parrot inhabitants. The neighboring cages of parrots also had to be evacuated. Imagine the disturbance of an eagle in between a bunch of parrots. But I guess if Michael Jackson came to your very humble bed and breakfast, you too would give him the whole place.

So now while we had given the essential shock treatment and gotten a good look, the entire exam did not really reveal many abnormalities! There was a small amount of dried dark blood found on the outside of his beak, one small blood spot on the elbow of the same left side, slightly low body condition (rather normal for this stage of life in this bird). No fractures detected manually, neither in wing, shoulder nor elsewhere. Eyes clean, clear, responsive. Nothing wrong? So there we had a mystery, and if nothing was wrong then the bird must have been seriously ill and debilitated for somebody to be able to capture it, which would likely stack all possible odds against this bird, and our attempts to save it.

We definitely needed an x-ray! But since we are still working on acquiring that as one of the first more expensive basic pieces of equipment for the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic, we had to reconvene the next day and make arrangements to see if we could borrow a machine and arrange development without too much stress.

I did not sleep well that night. I worried that we didn’t know what was keeping this bird down and how I really did not want to lose this patient. In general we vets are trained to not get too attached to our patients, since we have to deal with the fact that we lose them sometimes, and especially in wildlife rescue! And I generally care equally for small or large, predator or prey with the priority or emphasis on conservation and sustainable management of endangered species. And this was probably the most endangered wild animal I would ever get to see and I so wanted to have a chance to release it back into the wild and see it fly free.

Intensive networking continued. I called our in country snake expert, asking him to do us the favor to find snakes for our VIP patient, and he of course returned the favor of laughing out when I told him what we had in our hands (in disbelief). By the time I had reached back home the people involved in providing assistance for this eagle’s rescue ranged from Spain, to Panama, Guatemala, Virginia to California and more.

This brings me to end this chapter of the story, with a HUGE amazed expression of gratitude to the power of networking! Thank you so much to everybody out there for helping!

And that brings me to the final plead for networking: please help us win the Heska Inspiration in Action Contest by voting for the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic. This prize would be the first step towards equipping a clinic with much needed equipment, not only for wildlife but also for the small developing country’s domestic animal veterinarians.

Voting ends on the 18th of December and our US competition has some excellent projects as well, so we need every US vote you can raise for Belize.