2016 is finally over. As one of the worst years in recent memory, it will not be missed. We will miss the people we lost and the ideals that have been trampled. So many bad things happened this past year, with the possibility of causing even more dreadful consequences, that it is difficult to look forward with any hope. But that is exactly what we must do.
Peace River Wildlife Center is starting the new year off with a bang. This is normally a slow time for us as far as patient numbers. Unlike previous years, our intakes have not slowed appreciably and most of our hospital and rehab cages are full to capacity.
The recent red tide event has been a large part of the issue. We have had many birds presenting with symptoms of brevitoxicosis—neurological signs due to the toxins ingested from eating fish in water with the red tide organism. Red tide is the common name given to an algal bloom, an unusually high concentration of aquatic microorganisms in the water, which can cause a reddish or brownish tint especially as seen from afar. In the Gulf of Mexico that organism is Karenia brevis. It is a natural phenomenon, but may be exacerbated by nutrient run-off from fertilizers. The presence of the organisms can cause a depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water, causing fish to suffocate. The organisms also produce a toxin (brevetoxin) that paralyzes the central nervous system of fish so they cannot breathe. The asphyxiated fish are in turn eaten by other fish, birds, and mammals and the toxin is passed on to the next victim. This toxin can also become airborne as waves crash on the beach breaking open the algae cells and releasing the toxin to become an ocular and respiratory irritant to animals and people near the shore.
While we routinely see shore birds during a red tide outbreak, this year we have seen some unusual victims. We have had some hawks displaying classic red tide symptoms—generalized ascending weakness and no blink response. Most of them have responded the treatment, which consists primarily of supportive measures until the toxins are flushed from their systems.
An even more unusual patient that presented recently is an adult female bald eagle. She came in with what looked like head trauma, but we can find no evidence that she had been hit by a car (a common occurrence while feeding on carrion on the side of the road) or interaction with another bird (another common malady during breeding season.) She was found next to an alligator carcass and she had a very full crop. Testing for lead poisoning was negative, so red tide cannot be ruled out for this bird either. Although we do not generally see it in eagles, they do eat species that can be affected.
Upon presentation, the eagle was very weak. She spent days lying in a padded bed of rolled up sheets and towels, being given fluids by injection. When she could finally hold her head up, we began tube feeding her a protein slurry—the equivalent of a fish milkshake.
As she regained a little more strength, she began to accept mice that we fed to her. Still needing to be assist-fed, she is starting to gain back some of the weight she lost during the early days of her hospitalization. She spends her days in an outdoor rehab cage to lessen the stress of being around people. Hopefully she will start to eat on her own soon and we can assess her readiness for release.
Luckily, she is not exhibiting signs of having started a nest already. She has no brood patch—a featherless patch of skin on the underside of a bird’s belly where the feathers have been plucked to line the nest. This patch of bare skin has lots of blood vessels near the surface and is used to keep the eggs warm during incubation. Since it is breeding season for these large raptors, we want to get her out as soon as possible so she can find her nest and mate.
PRWC’s year-end reports are in the works and we will hopefully be ready for assessment by next week. Preliminary numbers are hinting at a record number of patients passing through our doors. This is a good news/ bad news scenario. The bad news is that a lot of Charlotte County’s native wildlife is getting injured. The good news is that thanks to the generosity of our donors, PRWC is here to help them. And no matter what the new year throws at us, we will continue to be here to serve the community.
by – Robin Jenkins, DVM