Tackling that tackle problem

We get all kinds of things donated to Peace River Wildlife Center, and we are grateful for each and every item.  People bring us things from our wish list—heating pads (new or used), garbage bags (hopefully NOT used), and food items for our residents and patients.  Sometimes our patients even make donations.  Or is it the local fishermen who are being so generous?

We have had a rash of patients lately entangled in fishing tackle.  We had a Florida softshell turtle that came in with a long piece of twine hanging out of his mouth.  Apparently someone had attached the twine to a stick, tied a hook onto the end, and was fishing old-school.  I’m not sure what he had hoped to catch, but apparently turtle was not on the menu because the poor hapless reptile ended up on our doorstep.  After a long game of “tug”, the hook popped free and we were starting to rejoice when we realized the twine was still threaded down the turtle’s throat.  Wonderful— not one hook, but two.

X-ray of tackle
X-ray of tackle

The double-hook action seems to be the theme of the week.  The next day we got in a pelican that had also swallowed two hooks.  On x-ray, we could see both hooks deep in the pelican’s belly.  Sometimes we get lucky and the birds are presented before the hook has passed into their stomach.  In that case we are often able to remove the hook from their throat before too much damage has been done.  Even if the hook is just inside the stomach, we can sometimes remove it, albeit with a little more difficulty.  When the hook has already passed so far along the digestive tract, we generally do not try to retrieve it for fear of causing even more damage.  In that case we will anesthetize the patient, pull the line as far out as we are able, and reach down the bird’s throat to cut the line as short as possible.  We hope that the hooks will pass on their own and the body will wall off any damage done.

This pelican had a special guardian angel looking over his rehabber’s shoulder.  When we tried to pull the line taut so we could reach down to trim it, the whole thing popped out of the bird’s mouth—hook, line, and sinker.  Well, no sinker, but there was a partially digested fish wrapped around the hooks.  Mmmm, mmm.  There is nothing quite like the smell of partially digested fish!  And yes, there was definitely a victory dance when that surgery was finished.  After a few days of observation, the pelican appeared to be eating well, acting normally, and was released.

This past week we also had three wild pelicans that flew into PRWC’s pelican pond area with fishing line wrapped around them.  Luckily we were able to catch the birds, untangle the fishing tackle and release them right back out.  Is it safe to say the pelicans are smarter than the fishermen?

Fishing tackle in a pelican's foot
Fishing tackle in a pelican’s foot

Some pelicans will dive for the bait fish on the end of a line, especially young birds, ones that have been fed by people, or hungry birds unable to find bait fish in the harbour.  Please do not lure birds toward your boat or the fishing piers.  Do not feed them fish carcasses.  The birds will take them, but they do not digest them and the bones, not surrounded by flesh, can tear up the pelicans’ pouches and digestive tracts.    Many birds get tangled in discarded fishing line also.  If you are casting and your line gets caught in the mangroves or a tree, please do not just cut your line at the end of your rod and move on.  This invisible filament hanging from the birds’ natural perch can turn into a noose.  The birds can get tangled in the line and find it impossible to escape.  If your line gets hung up in vegetation, please make every endeavor to free it.  Get as close to the branch as possible before cutting the line if necessary.  If you can’t get close, put on gloves, wrap the line around your hand, and pull as hard as possible.  The line may break, but hopefully at a point closer to the branch than if cut.  The goal is to leave no (or as little as possible) line dangling between the leaves.

Occasionally a bird will inadvertently fly through your line while fishing, especially when fishing from a bridge.  If this happens, slowly reel the bird toward you.  Place a cloth over the bird’s eyes to calm it.  If you hold the bird’s beak, be sure to leave it open slightly so the bid can breathe.  Gently unwind your line from around the bird’s wings, legs, or wherever the line has entangled.  Bring the bird to PRWC or any local wildlife rehab facility if there are bleeding wounds or you are unable to completely remove your tackle.

Lure stuck in a pelican's bill
Lure stuck in a pelican’s bill

For those of you who wish to donate your gently used fishing tackle to PRWC, please be aware that you do not have to deliver it to us imbedded in a pelican, cormorant, or turtle.  If you want to see a list of other items we can use, check out the link on our web site or stop by PRWC to pick up a copy of our Wish List.

by-Robin Jenkins, DVM