I’ve always been interested in “exotic” animals; I think to some degree all veterinarians have. When I was growing up, I went through the usual assortment of hamsters, guinea pigs, tropical fish, and water turtles, with the usual mixed degree of success at keeping them alive. I did some dull-witted things, like taking my guinea pig out to play with him in the dirt behind our house when it was too hot. It was too late when I realized that he was getting overheated; I took him inside, but he died that night. I made the opposite mistake another time when I’d found a baby bird and stupidly took him home to try and “save” him. By the time we got home, however, the daily fight with my brothers in the back seat over the critically important issue of who got to sit by the window (I was the smallest, and so always lost) had escalated to the point that I had forgotten the bird and ended up leaving him out in the car. I was, unfortunately, a case study in what is the most important aspect of exotic medicine, husbandry, which includes, of course, keeping the little creatures at the correct temperature. It was winter in southern Arizona, and when I remembered my bird and rushed outside later that evening, he’d gotten very cold and still. I brought him in, warmed him up, and gave him a little sweetened coffee, which did the trick for a while — he even ate some rice and beans! — but less than 24 hours later he succumbed.
I saw a lot of exotics at my first practice in Las Vegas, and learned a lot from my mentor there, Bill Taylor. Here is a picture of a little songbird that someone brought in to our clinic; he had managed to get himself so stuck in a fence that neither he nor the person who found him could get him out. The benevolent person cut his fence up and brought the bird in to us; we anesthetized the creature and got him untangled.
After a year and a half in Las Vegas, I came home to Tucson and went to work in a hospital that had not seen ANY exotics for years. In spite of trying to build up that side of the practice, I ended up seeing too few birds and other domestic exotics to become any good at it. Soon, though, I was approached by a wildlife rehabilitator, who asked if I would look at some of her cases for her. I gladly agreed, still being interested in exotics, despite the fact that apparently no Tucson exotics owners were interested in me.
My first wildlife rehabber was a young woman named Heidi; she wasn’t certified to handle raptors, she basically only got bunnies, pigeons, and neonate songbirds that had fallen out of their nests and been taken home to be “saved” by well-meaning, if misguided, people. Sound familiar?! I talked to everyone I could find about how to save these little birds, I tried everything I could think of, and I don’t think I had a whole lot better success as a DVM than I had as a WLK (Wild Little Kid.) The secret, as we all know now, is to leave them where they are. Unless where they are is the middle of the Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru, they’re better off taking their chances that their mom will find them and care for them before a marauding cat comes along than they are with us.
It wasn’t long before I’d been found by another wildlife rehabilitator, a woman named Darlene. I think they put a secret mark on your door, like the hobos of old would mark houses where people fed them so that others would know where to find a meal. Darlene is the real article, certified to handle raptors, big mammals — at least as big as racoons, 3 of which I helped her rope and vaccinate one day, and let me tell you, these are NOT friendly little cuddly animals! — just about anything short of a mountain lion (thank God!) Darlene is primarily interested in and works with raptors, and she has brought me an incredible string of owls and hawks to work on through the years. These are beautiful, amazing animals, and are oftentimes surprisingly easy to work with. They seem to make hardy anesthetic patients; I’ve pinned broken wings on several of them and once did an amputation on a great horned owl with a wing shattered beyond all hope of repair. It is incredible to me that these animals, who are so wild, who seem to embody the very spirit of freedom as they soar around the sky, tolerate being handled when they’re hurt, tolerate surgery and the treatments we give them, as well as they do.
Even though these are animals that are hurt badly enough to allow themselves to be captured, they aren’t always ENTIRELY safe. One of the most painful injuries I’ve ever received from an animal came from a red tailed hawk Darlene had in the hospital one day. We had been taking x-rays of the bird, and for some reason I was doing something I don't usually do, something I most often pass off to more qualified and braver people — I was actually holding a dangerous animal! The hawk seemed to be relaxed, so I relaxed a little, I was just standing there holding him, observing his baleful eye, when — he suddenly reached out and grabbed my thumb with his talon. It was the fastest I have ever seen an animal move in my life! I was watching him, and I didn’t see his foot move at all; he just instantaneously had his needle-sharp — but much bigger around than any needle! — claws deeply embedded in my flesh. The pain paralyzed me. I was at the mercy of a sick, 2 pound bird! My pitiful cries soon brought the technicians and Darlene running, and it took all three of them to get the little beggar’s toenails out of me. Man, did that hurt!! It felt like they had gone in right to the bone.
The thing about working with wildlife is that even though these are living animals and precious to us, they're not PETS, precious as individuals to some person; they're wild animals, a part of nature. This has several ramifications on their treatment, the first being that they’re usually pretty darned sick or injured to allow themselves to be caught in the first place, and the second being that they’re not owned by anyone, so I do all this work for free. It’s not that I mind doing something free to help animals, though; I, like most vets, do free stuff more often than most people realize. And even so, I still manage to make literally HUNDREDS of dollars every month! But, my point is, these animals are usually in pretty critical condition, and there’s no one else around to help them, so I can do things I might otherwise be afraid to try. The few really good orthopedic surgeons around are going to be too busy to be taking on a whole lot of wild animals with fractures. And a hawk or an owl with a fractured humerus bone in her wing is not going to survive in the wild, and will not make a suitable pet; she’d be miserable. So what have I got to lose by tackling it myself? See what I mean? It’s a little easier to be brave with these cases than with someone’s beloved cockatoo that they’ve owned for 15 years that is now suddenly ill or injured. Those birds I refer to the real experts.
And, the truth is, all my surgeries with these birds have gone very well. So working with wildlife has been a chance for me to learn and explore new areas of medicine and at the same time do something good for the wild animals that share our planet. It is at once a humbling and an exalting experience.
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© 1998-2003 Lee Fike
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