I started caring for wildlife in September of 1982. I was a newly graduated veterinarian working my first job in the little town of Rough & Ready. I’d just finished treating a horse for a hoof abscess when I came upon a bird in the road. This was a beautifully colored creature, flapping and twitching in the center of the lane just before a busy intersection. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was about to meet my first bird of prey, a young male kestrel.
I pulled over and watched as a line of ‘humanitarians’ tried to run over the struggling bird. No one would pause long enough to allow me to retrieve the poor thing, so I stepped into traffic and forced them to a halt. I wrapped the bird in a towel and drove it to the clinic.
I’d picked up some experience working with parrots during my undergraduate years, but birds of prey were foreign to me. We didn’t have Internet in those days (imagine!) and it was difficult to even determine the species I was dealing with! I gave him a physical exam, just as I would have done with a parakeet, and determined that there wasn’t all that much wrong with him. There was a little blood coming from his nostrils and he wasn’t very alert. His heart and lungs sounded fine and his crop was empty. He had a spectacularly beautiful set of feathers that showed no wear at all. He’d taken a whack on the head though, and his pupils were unevenly dilated.
The diagnosis: my little friend was young and stupid; he was learning how to hunt, not doings so well, and tried to scavenge road kill for a meal. He’d gotten whacked by a car and had a nasty concussion, but would probably be fine. I tube-fed him some cat food and gave him a dose of antibiotic, then parked him in a cage and covered him for the night.
The next morning I pulled back the towel to find a dopey but otherwise fully functioning kestrel, gave him a checkup and another dose of antibiotic, and fed him again. Our kestrel friend would not eat willingly, but the cat food did the job and he gained weight. Before long his pupils were back to normal and he was moving around his cage. We kept him another couple of days to be sure he was in full flesh, and released him on a glorious autumn morning. As he flew off I remember thinking, “Good luck! I hope we never see you again.” This was to become my mantra at every wildlife release.
That was the beginning of a long string of wild patients. I worked with Wildlife Rehab and Release, a hugely successful rescue program. I did the medicine and surgery, they did the hard work of long-term care and rehabilitation. Most of our patients were Red Tail Hawks, but we saw scores of owls, kestrels and kites, and even the occasional eagle. Songbirds were also welcome, as were swans, geese, foxes and fawns (to name a few). On one occasion we provided care for a baby cougar, on another a rattlesnake with a broken jaw!
Old Weird Harold was another of the early wildlife patients. Harold was a mature Great Horned Owl. The rescuer had picked him up, thinking him dead, and got the shock of his life when the owl started moving under the car seat. Oops! Harold, who turned out to be female, remained semi-comatose for 5 days before being revived by an injection of vitamin B-1. She was heavily parasitized and weighed less than 1/3 of her normal weight, but ate and gained rapidly with treatment. Unfortunately, Harold was never quite right. The parasites had depleted her brain of thiamine, leaving permanent damage. We attempted to release Harold on three occasions, but she refused to fly away. Fortunately, Harold was welcomed by a breeding program.
Eagles were always special patients. Bald Eagles strike me as the perfect American symbol: These guys are intelligent, but a little dingy and distractible, much like our politicians. Bald Eagles never seemed to focus on any one thing for long. Golden Eagles are another story. One bird was treated for an infection at the elbow joint, which stopped him from flying. I performed surgery on the wing and had to check his progress every week. This Golden Eagle became so accustomed to our visits that he’d actually extend his wing for me to examine! He was calm, focused, and scary-smart.
Sadly, the birds with names (Harold, Bubba, PelletHead…) that we came to know best represented our program’s failures. These were animals whose hurts we could not heal. Those whose personality allowed were diverted into teaching programs (under very strict Federal guidelines) and so were allowed to be named. All others were released back into the wild or were euthanized (as required by law). There is no such thing as a “wild” pet. Another required mantra of the wildlife rehabilitator is “we DO NOT create cripples.” Over the years we treated and released hundreds of birds of prey. Caring for these magnificent creatures has been the highest privilege and a highlight of my career.