A Bird’s-Eye View of the Best and the Worst of Humanity [Clinics Series]

Something I love about veterinary medicine is that it allows you to see the best of humanity.  You get to work with people who dedicate their time (sometimes their spare time and sometimes their whole lives) to the health and wellbeing of animals.  While much of the time, these individuals may reap rewards in the form of sloppy kisses, paws kneading their stomach, or a soft nicker as they walk out to the pasture, this is not the case for wildlife rehabilitators.  When rehabilitating wildlife, the animals MUST remain afraid of you, because otherwise they are unlikely to survive once you release them.

The Carolina Raptor Center is an incredible organization which rescues, rehabilitates, and releases raptors while also working to educate the public on the challenges these incredible animals face.  To clarify, raptors in this context are birds of prey such as eagles, hawks, falcons, vultures, etc.  Since birds are the ancestors of dinosaurs, this nomenclature pleases me immensely and I like the idea that I spent two weeks working with modern dinosaurs.

On an average day, we would start off feeding and administering medications to patients in the hospital and in the outdoor enclosures.  Then, we would usually catch the birds who needed procedures such as bandage changes, radiographs, or physical therapy.  We also went out to exercise the birds who had graduated up to flight cages, which consists of encouraging them to fly from one side of the enclosure to the other a prescribed number of times.  In the afternoons, if all the procedures were done, we would have lectures, labs, or practice reading blood smears.

At any time, a new bird could arrive to the center and we would stop what we were doing to evaluate him/her.  You have to wonder what the rescue-rehabilitation-release process looks like from the raptor’s point of view.  S/He was just minding their own business, trying to find some food or a mate when suddenly a car slams into them mid-flight (for example).  They fall to the ground, try to fly away, and find that their wing is broken and won’t support their escape.  Then they are captured, confined to a box, transported to the rehabilitation center, restrained, stabbed with needles, anesthetized, and then wake up in an enclosure with their wing bandaged.  Over the course of the next several months they feel fear every time one of their captors comes to check on them or bring them food.  They are caught repeatedly and transferred to larger and larger enclosures.  They get stronger, their pain subsides, they learn to fly again.  Finally, they are again captured, confined to a box, and transported, but this time they are released to the freedom of the sky, once again able to resume the activities initiated months before.  They’ll never understand why you held them captive for all that time, and they won’t feel particularly thankful either. The wildlife rehabilitator has to seek reward in the knowledge that they’ve done their small part to decrease the negative impact of humans on the other creatures of this planet.

Wildlife medicine can both be extremely rewarding and heartbreakingly sad.  During my two weeks on the rotation, we euthanized approximately one bird per day on arrival because their injuries were so severe that they wouldn’t ever be able to be released.  Unfortunately, even though wildlife medicine involves wonderful, dedicated people, it also affords the opportunity to ponder the worst of humanity.  Almost every bird brought in to the center was there because of an unfortunate interaction with humans: hit by car, intoxication, gun shot.  These aren’t always with malicious intent, the gun-shot wounds being the most glaring exception, but it gives me pause.  Does wildlife deserve to die because they aren’t human?  I certainly don’t think so.  I can’t promise that I’m perfect and that my actions don’t affect our environment (they absolutely do), but I hope that my skills as a veterinarian will enable me to do my small part to make the world a better place.

This post is part of a series documenting my clinical year in veterinary school.  To read more from the series, please visit the Clinic Series homepage.

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