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.