Show us your wild side at this year’s Walk on the Wild Side dinner and auction event, May 2 at Pear Tree Estate. All proceeds benefit the Wildlife Medical Clinic. Find out more, or register today.
Show us your wild side at this year’s Walk on the Wild Side dinner and auction event, May 2 at Pear Tree Estate. All proceeds benefit the Wildlife Medical Clinic. Find out more, or register today.
by Zach Kline (WMC Manager – VM16)
Imagine a scene, if you will, where a heart-pounding tension is building. Three dusty gunslingers grimly face off; they stand equidistant from one another, forming the points of a large, dangerous triangle. Somewhere unseen, an instrumental piece by Ennio Morricone grows steadily louder. The men’s faces begin to come into view, “is that Clint Eastwood?” you ponder, examining the gruff looking cowboy with a poncho draped over his shoulder. Closer inspection reveals that this man is no man at all: he is an eagle, a Bald Eagle—cleverly disguised as a 1960’s movie icon. Similarly, the familiar visages of Eli Wallach and Lee VanCleef are notably absent, the wide brimmed hats sit instead on the heads of a pulsating fly larvae and a Canada goose, respectively.
A tumbleweed bounces hurriedly through the center of the triangle as the would-be combatants nervously eye each other and brush the grips of their pistols with their fingertips. The music builds to a climax as this Mexican standoff teeters on the edge of devolving to a Mexican shootout, when suddenly the illusion is broken and you are abruptly transported back to the place you once were—staring intently at a computer screen full of animal themed sentences.
Looking around the room, you can’t help but feel a little bit glum. Indeed, real life generally prohibits the possibility of wildlife cowboys engaged in shameless references to spaghetti westerns, but you take solace in the apparent fact that this particular blog post has a few dozen more animal-themed sentences to share—so this thrilling literary ride ain’t over yet! In fact, it’s just getting started.
So, who am I, exactly? I am second year veterinary student Zach Kline: Sergio Leone film enthusiast and student manager of the Wildlife Medical Clinic. At this moment I have just about completed my first full year since being hired as a student manager, and felt compelled to share some of my most memorable experiences from the past year. A year of being a manager has been a veritable roller-coaster ride. Of course on this roller coaster you have to replace loop-the-loops with getting covered in animal excrement, and replace all of your fellow coaster riders with hundreds of orphaned baby rabbits, but to stay true to the simile: like a roller coaster, this job has its ups, downs, and times when you feel like you might vomit. So, to keep with the Western theme, I present to you the “Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” of Wildlife Medicine.
Is there a purer, shinier good than Freedom? Ha-ha, rhetorical question—of course not! My Ultra-Red American blood wouldn’t allow my fingers to type something else, anyways (trust me, I tried!). Now, if freedom could take a physical form, how would it appear? Obviously it would take shape as a majestic Bald Eagle. Just try to imagine a beast with a more profound aura of freedom—it simply can’t be done.
That’s why “The Good” of my first year as wildlife manager has been the excellent opportunity to treat two injured bald eagles! These magnificent birds (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) occasionally pass through Champaign County during their species’ migration, but seldom stay for longer than a week. So, while it was serendipitous to have two individuals arrive at the clinic in a short span of time from one another, it was far from extraordinary. Both individuals suffered severe trauma to their wings. The first to arrive: a presumed male nicknamed “George”–was presented with a broken humerus from a vehicle collision, while the other, a presumed sub-adult female came to us from Peoria, IL with a fractured major metacarpal (“hand bone”). Wing injuries are perhaps the most common cause of admission for birds to the WMC, and can vary substantially with respect to the potential to successfully treat and release the animal.
As a general rule: fractures that occur at the level of a wing joint, those that are old enough to the point where the tissue has begun to decay, or those where the force of trauma shatters the bone into many small fragments are considered to be prohibitive to successful re-release of the animal. Thankfully, we felt that the fractures on these two amazing birds could be successfully managed, and thus the long period of medical rehabilitation began.
Both eagles underwent surgical procedures wherein metal pins were inserted into the adjacent bone fragments and held together with an external crossbar to ensure stabilization of the break and allow appropriate healing. As one can imagine, a bird with the wingspan equivalent to that of an adult human could be considered a formidable foe. Add to the equation that the bird is injured, angry, and has an equivalently large and upset relative in the next room, then multiply that by 2-3 months of daily treatments and you would find yourself in quite a situation! A bald eagle has a large, powerful beak (even compared to other eagles) and 2-3 inch long talons on each toe that can easily pierce through the heavy protective gloves we wear to handle birds of prey. Just to make things more interesting—our eagles would flip over on their backs and grasp out with their talons when going on the defensive, ensuring that restraining the bird meant having to pass through a protective bubble of razor-sharp claws!
While the size, strength, and high stress levels of these birds could be daunting, I placed the WMC eagle experience on my “Good” list because of the way in which working with them hones one’s clinical skill. To properly restrain an eagle, one must be swift, precise and strong; yet gentle, silent, and empathetic. Too little force allows the bird to escape and injure itself or others, yet too much force/noise causes tremendous stress to the animal—delaying healing times. Essentially, those birds were my feathery, patriotic Senseis, my Avian Mr. Miyagis, if you will. With the valuable knowledge gained from working with those powerful creatures, one may then disseminate the teachings of the eagles to other WMC members, ensuring a better quality of life for all future birds of prey in captivity.
In veterinary medicine, as in human medicine, there is an ever present risk of additional complications arising during a patient’s treatment. Secondary pathologies may arise due to a weakened immune system from a disease, from self-mutilation due to stress in captivity, or from the inability to move around the enclosure while recovering. A notable example found in Veterinary and human fields are pressure sores. Known more commonly as “bed sores” in human medicine, pressure sores arise from constant applied force on a localized area of tissue. Reduced blood flow to the area combined with cellular damage begets inflammation, and if the pressure is rarely alleviated from the area then inflammation never subsides and the tissue begins to die.
Pressure sores present a daunting challenge in injured waterfowl since a significant number of admissions are due to debilitating trauma to the legs. Heavy birds such as Canada geese initially spend a large amount of time resting on their torsos while recovering from a leg injury. Further complicating the issue is the prominent keel bone of waterfowl. This blade shaped bone sits at the center of the bird’s chest and abdomen and provides an anchoring point for the major flight muscles. However, the thin edge of the keel also serves as a point of acute pressure when the bird spends a long time lying down, and potentiates the formation of sores. Although adding padding, anti-inflammatory drugs, and hydro-therapy will help to stave off the occurrence of sores temporarily, patients requiring long periods of treatment require extreme monitoring and advanced wound care to counteract sore formation. Even then, there is no guarantee that pressure sores can be avoided. Sadly, that was the case with two Canada geese that were long term patients over the past year. The worst part is that secondary problems seem to rear their heads just when you were starting to feel hopeful about the improvements with the primary problem. Not cool, man. Not cool.
Let me start off this segment by letting you all know that I love bugs. I find the incredible diversity found in arthropods fascinating. Heck, I spent one of my first social experiences of Vet School excitedly describing a recent encounter with a brown recluse spider, so believe me when I say that I hold invertebrates in rather high regard compared to your average Joe. With that being said, I still experience a negative visceral reaction when examining a wild animal with a festering wound full of fly larvae.
Yes, maggots and other pestilent arthropods are, in my opinion, the ugliest aspect of Wildlife medicine. As we approach the warm weather season, so shall the flies begin to emerge from their wintery slumber and proceed to lay eggs on any and every suitable piece of flesh they can find. Occasionally, a lacerated wild animal evades death long enough to be captured by a kindly human and admitted to the WMC. While revolting in appearance, maggots can play a useful diagnostic role when assessing wound severity.
The quantity and size of the larvae crawling around within a wound space can give clinic members clues as to how long ago the injury occurred which plays a role in deciding how to move forward with treatment. Additionally, some species of fly larvae only feed on dead flesh, in essence debriding the wound from decomposing tissue that can become a center for bacterial infection. In fact, some maggots have evolved to secrete antibiotic compounds which eliminate bacterial competition for the glorious smorgasbord of skin and muscle.
These particular traits have been used to great effect in human wound care, as the maggots clear necrotic tissue and prevent harmful bacteria from growing! However, fly larvae that feed on live flesh are just as abundant in the wild, so we take care to remove all external parasites when an animal enters our care.
Don’t worry; the bug fun doesn’t stop at baby insects either! We now come to the adult Pigeon Louse Fly (pictured right). These housefly sized insects are flattened and have long, crablike legs that help their movement around feathers of the birds they feed on. Their discoid bodies and tough exoskeletons make these bugs hard to kill: not only for birds grooming their feathers, but for the handlers of those birds as well. What’s worse, the little bloodsuckers have a tendency to leap out of plumage during avian physical exams and always seem to aim for the face. I’ve seen groups of clinic members thrown into disarray at the emergence of a pigeon louse fly from a wild bird—usually followed by a haphazard fly-hunting mission by one of the students as the others continue with the exam.
Naturally, there is an abundance of invertebrate parasites which call the bodies of our patients “home”. Fleas, ticks, lice, mites and notably Cuterebra (pictured below): a fly larva that uses the skin of small mammals as a cozy little sleeping bag as it pupates. Oh, did I mention that they can reach the size of a quarter? Yeah, so that’s a thing. Fortunately for us and the animals, external parasites are relatively easy to manage, so this ugly aspect of wildlife treatment doesn’t stay that way for too long.
by Jenny Kuhn (VM16)
Nokomis is an 11 year old Great Horned Owl. He is a permanent resident of the Wildlife Clinic, as he cannot be released into the wild (due to imprinting and other health concerns). The clinic is near dog kennels, and occasionally, you can hear barking through the clinic walls. Over the years, Nokomis has learned to bark like a dog! I was lucky to finally capture him hamming it up on video. Watch at the link below:
by Christine Mallo (VM16)
At the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic, our mission is to rehabilitate sick or injured wildlife back to the point where they can be released into their natural habitat. The rewarding emotions you feel after doing such is extremely exciting, and is part of what makes the clinic such a draw for students. I have only been a member of the clinic for over a year now, but my membership in it is something I can carry with me for the rest of my future career as a doctor. I advanced from team member to team leader between my first and second years, and have loved nearly all experiences encountered…except a few…
In the summer of 2013, the clinic was presented with a pretty interesting case, and an animal that not all of us have seen before, a Barn owl. Owls are considered raptors, in that they catch prey using the large talons that they possess. These talons can be very dangerous to handlers as well, so special precautions are taken to keep handlers safe. This particular owl was presented with a fracture in its left leg. Radiographs were done before any surgeries to determine how severe the break was. Luckily, this break was directly in the middle of a bone; the easiest kind to fix because no joints are involved. The members in the summer arranged to have orthopedic surgery performed to stabilize the bones into their proper locations, and to encourage healing. While this procedure is taxing on the animal’s body and lots of physical therapy is needed to keep the patient’s muscles strong, this is not an uncommon procedure in the clinic. The owl was placed on pain medication and anti-inflammatories to reduce the amount of swelling and potential pain associated with the fracture and surgery. Eventually the fracture healed but during this patient’s stay, the real problems occurred!
First off, when wild animals are in captivity, they have a hard time feeling fully comfortable. Although we humans tend to eat more when we are stressed, wildlife tend not to eat. Because of this, my team had to work to cut up and hand feed food to this owl, which is not an easy task! Trying to convince an owl that the food you’re giving it is AWESOME takes a lot of skill, but eventually the patient started to eat on his own. Also, we believe that by moving our patient to one of our larger flight cages, we made it feel like it was in a more natural setting. So far, two goals were accomplished! Our patient’s leg was healing, and it was feeling comfortable enough to eat on its own!
Then…something else happened! Owls are meant to sore and roam the skies freely, with plenty of room to spread their wings. Unfortunately, this bird accidentally banged its left wing on one of the walls of the enclosure on day and the resulting wound was severe enough to require twice daily treatments. Somewhat like our own dog or cat at home (or even ourselves!), when there is a scab, we have to pick at it. This is just what the Barn Owl did! Because he had a little lesion from banging his wing once, he started to pick and pick and pick at his wing to the point that it became very infected and we had to surgically intervene. The Zoo Med doctors had helped us throughout this entire process, but this is really where their expertise came as a huge help. Dr. Whittington was able to “debride” the area on the wing that became infected…twice! Debriding means that the unhealthy tissue is removed, to promote the healthier surrounding skin to heal across the wound. The second time this was done, Dr. Whittington actually sutured the healthy skin back together. After a few more cleanings, the wing was better! Three problems were originally on our list, all of which turned into three solutions!
After being positive that our patient was healthy enough to leave the critical care that we provide, we contacted the Illinois Raptor Center to send our bird to them for more a more intense flight therapy. This patient spent a total of 75 days in the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and over that time it lost muscle conditioning. If we were to send this patient into the “real world” right away, it may not survive due to being out of shape. At the Illinois Raptor Center, their teams can allot more space to each patient, really making sure that they build their muscles back to being strong and sturdy.
When all was said and done, my team was extremely proud of themselves for being the students fully responsible for the rehab of this accident-prone owl. For a lot of the team, it was their first time handling a bird of prey, and the lessons we learned along the way (myself included!) were incredible. The thing about wildlife is that while we may try our hardest to make their stays as short as possible, sometimes they introduce new problems along the way. But this is part of what our futures as veterinarians will be: problem solving and staying on our toes. It wasn’t always easy, but at the end of the day, we helped to save a life. Who could ask for more than that?
by Malky Weil (VM16)
What do you do when an animal comes in with feather damage but no other evidence of trauma? That was the question we asked when we received our Kestrel patient. She had extensive feather damage on her right wing, including broken feather shafts, and loss of primary feathers. She was unable to sustain flight. We took radiographs (x-rays) to see if there was further trauma not visible or palpable to us. We did not see any bone damage or soft tissue damage to the wing. Everything else on her physical exam was normal. Our one challenge was that we could not release her, although presumably healthy, because she could not fly.
We could send her to a rehabilitator and keep her there until she molted and grew in new primary feathers, but that could take up to a year. We were hoping to get her out sooner. So we decided, with the help of the veterinarians, to do a procedure called imping. Imping is a procedure where you find donor feathers, and implant them into the bird, giving them usable feathers to fly with. It seemed like a good idea. We found a deceased kestrel former patient that we could use as a feather donor.
To imp a feather, you cut the patient feather so there is no more damaged feather left, just the top of the shaft. Then you find something to use as an “imping splint”, often bamboo sticks. These fit into the feather shaft of both your donor bird and your patient. They may need to be whittled down to the appropriate size. You cut your donor feathers to the correct length, and then place the splints in them. You then place the splint in the donor feather shaft. You need to be very careful to be using the right number primary feather, since they all have different tasks that help with flight, and make sure your newly placed feather is at the right angle, so the bird will be able to use them for flight. Once you have fit them correctly, you then glue them in.
At that point, you let them dry, help the bird rebuild any muscle loss from lack of flight, and give them time to get used to the extra weight of the imped feathers. Then it’s time to flight test them. If they can fly well enough to escape predators and hunt, you can release them.
We just finished the imping procedure, and will wait and see if it was successful. Hopefully we will be able to send her on her way soon!
by Lauren Kane (VM16)
Blue Iguana (Cyclura lewisi)
The Grand Cayman Blue Iguana (Cyclura lewisi) is endemic to the island of Grand Cayman and is one of the longest-lived species of lizards. Fewer than 15 animals remained in the wild by 2003, and this wild population was predicted to become extinct within the first decade of the 21st century. The species’ decline is mainly being driven by predation by feral pets (cats and dogs) and indirectly by the destruction of their natural habitat as fruit farms are converted to pasture for cattle grazing. Since 2004, hundreds of captive-bred animals have been released into a preserve on Grand Cayman run by a partnership headed by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, in an attempt to save the species.
The Blue Iguana is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. In late 2012, the Blue Iguana Recovery Program estimated that the wild population had risen to approximately 750 individuals, and the IUCN subsequently downlisted the species from critically endangered to endangered. The Blue Iguana Recovery Program’s conservation strategy involves generating large numbers of genetically diverse hatchlings, head-startingthem for two years where their chance of survival in the wild is high, and using these animals to rebuild a series of wild sub-populations in protected, managed natural areas.This is accompanied by field research, nest site protection, and monitoring of the released animals. Restored sub-populations are already present in two non-contiguous areas—the Salina Reserve and the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park.
For more information, please check out, http://www.blueiguana.ky/
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.
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.
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.