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From Rescue to Recovery

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A female bald eagle was struck by a car while foraging on road kill in Brooksville on Jan. 24, 2019.  This story is not only about her path to recovery, but a look at those who help save, treat and rehabilitate sick, injured or orphaned wildlife.


After the eagle was hit, she was brought to Owl’s Nest Sanctuary in Odessa, FL.

“This is our fifth eagle already for the year,” said Kris Porter,  a state and federally permitted wildlife rehabilitator and founder of Owl’s Nest Sanctuary.  “She is doing fine, she had a little blood in the eye from the impact, and she’s got a hematoma on the elbow, but in reality she is good, just bruising and nothing broken,” Porter added.

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Porter was able to determine that this particular eagle had been attending eggs in her nest as this is the breeding season for bald eagles and she had developed a brood patch.


In the bald eagle species, both parents develop an incubation (brood) patch because they share the incubation duties. The incubation patch begins to form on the breast or abdomen shortly before the female lays her eggs. Hormonal changes cause the feathers, that cover that area, to fall out. That leaves a wrinkled patch of bare skin that blood vessels fill with warm blood. When we see the female or male “wiggle” as they settle upon the eggs, they are spreading the bare patch over the eggs to keep them warm. Source: https://www.eagles.org/


“She has been on eggs, and I am sure that she was grabbing roadkill and I am sure she has chicks,” Porter concluded.  “The father will keep feeding them until she shows up again,” Porter further explained.


Kris Porter has been around wildlife for many years, her passion and dedication to help animals that are injured or in stress go above and beyond.  “We have an incredible team that just goes right into the action,” Porter said. “Every story touches me, and I have to be sharp and think of the next step all the time.”


Due to the nature of the incident and the presence of visible injuries on the female bald eagle,  Porter transported her to the Animal Care Center at Busch Gardens for further treatment.


Since January, the Animal Care Center at Busch Gardens has received over 70 animals that were in need of some type of medical treatment. Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Peter Black has been helping injured animals that are frequently brought in by wildlife rehabbers.  He also oversees the animals at Busch Gardens and has done so for the past eight years.


Dr. Black said, “I always liked wild animals ever since I was a little kid. I really loved learning about them. As I got older I learned more about some of the challenges they face, in terms of habitat loss, pressures from humans and animals that were endangered.  I was looking for ways that I could help them, and the one thing that sort of appealed to me in a very practical sense is the medical route.”


One of the challenges wildlife veterinarians face as explained by Dr. Black is that many wild animals instinctively attempt to hide their injuries. “If you are an animal out in the wild, and you act like you’re sick, or injured you are going to be the first one the predators pick out as a potential weak link for being prey.  Their whole instinct is to hide the signs of illness, so you have to be fairly investigative to try to find out what that is.”


When a certified rehabber brings the animal to the center, the wildlife veterinarians will conduct a full examination to assess any injuries or illness. “If it needs further work, further hospitalization, surgery or anything like that, we’ll keep it here, work on it and get it fixed up. At that point, it will go back to the wildlife rehabber.”


Time does make a difference when attempting to save a wild animal. Dr. Black stated, “A lot of times with these wildlife cases what can make the difference between an animal that can be successfully released back into the wild and an animal that can’t is the speed in which they receive care. Getting them (rehabbers) to realize that sometimes that speed makes a real difference, is key to success in a lot of cases.”


A majority of the cases that Dr. Black and his staff receive are human-caused incidents rather than naturally related incidents. Dr. Black remarked,  “So much of what we do with these wildlife rescue cases is not actually natural injuries if you will, they’re actually human-caused injuries. We see a lot of animals that have been hit by cars, a lot of animals that have been entrapped in fishing line or caught with fish hooks.” The doctor stated that since we as humans either directly or indirectly caused an injury to wildlife, we as humans can also be a part of the process to fix that.


Following the bald eagle’s treatment at the Animal Care Center at Busch Gardens, she was brought to Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores for rehabilitation.  The Sanctuary is tucked between two high rise condominiums along the beach in Indian Shores. This quaint but vital place is home to many pelicans and other birds that have been rehabilitated from an injury but, unfortunately, would not be able to survive in the wild.  Part of this sanctuary includes Dr. Marie L. Farr Avian Hospital which is where the onsite veterinarians monitored the female bald eagle.


Keith Wilkins, Director of Operations for Seaside Seabird Sanctuary explained, “When a wild bird is brought to us, the hospital staff examines the bird and based on the diagnosis of the bird determines what we do next. Most birds that come to us we treat on site, it could require medication, rest or fluids.”


Each case can be different, depending on the injury or illness. With great care, the hospital staff monitors their recovery process in a specific rehabilitation and recovery area within the sanctuary. Once their strength has returned, and the hospital staff is confident about their recovery, the animals are transferred back to the licensed rehabber and released back into the wild.  


“Some birds, depending on the injury, may have a permanent disability that would hinder them from being released out into the wild because they wouldn’t survive,” Wilkins said.  “In that case, we would look at their quality of life if they lived in captivity.” In some cases, the sanctuary may keep them as a permanent resident, or work with other sanctuaries around Florida or even out of the state that may have a more suitable and adequate home for the bird to live a safer, healthier life.


“For every bird that comes in, regardless of the reason, especially the ones that are threatened or endangered, (knowing) that we can treat and rehabilitate them so we can get them back out in the wild, that is the greatest feeling in the world,” Wilkins said.


In October of 2017, following hurricane Irma, a stranded manatee was trapped in a canal in Bayport, just west of Weeki Wachee.  Dr. Mike Walsh, a UF Associate Professor of Aquatic Animal Health and Head of the Marine Mammal Stranding Response Team based at the College of Veterinary Medicine located in Gainesville, was there to assist at the scene.


During a recent lecture at Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve in Yankeetown, Dr. Walsh focused on how response teams can quickly assess and perform diagnostics of stranded marine life, such as manatees, and dolphins. New technology and equipment,  that is now available, have resulted in timely diagnosis which is collected at the time of rescue and then used in improving the rehabilitation and recovery of the injured animal.


When infant marine mammals are found and isolated from the parent Dr. Walsh explained, “What we don’t know in many cases is how long the baby has been separated from the parent and if it’s a long period of time and their food intake is really low, one of the things that will happen is they’ll become hypoglycemic.” Time and reaction are critical with any animal found, and something as simple as their blood sugar is too low could result in death.“ By the time you find them, they are already in a very weakened state, and the level of illness is unknown, so if you delay it can be the difference between the animal surviving or not. Getting them to a facility as soon as possible is important, which means knowing who to call,” Dr. Walsh said.


Who to call…the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC(3922) and they will connect you with the nearest certified rehabber.


Dr. Walsh explained that it is ideal for the person who has spotted the injured animal to remain with the animal until the rescue group arrives, but that sometimes that is asking a lot because it may be an hour or two before a rescue group can get there.   “Unfortunately, we have lost animals from people leaving, and then the animal moves off, and as far as we know it might not do well,” Dr. Walsh reported. The important things are to be able to make the call in terms of getting the help going as quickly as possible.


Dr. Walsh said that our area of the coast has its challenges for animal rescue. While less population isn’t a bad thing, it does mean fewer eyes on the water to spot the animals in need of aid.  People who visit the coastline either as tourists, residents or fishermen need to be observant. “We depend on you guys, fishermen in particular as our eyes on the water that can let us know when there is an issue so we can get out there and help,” said Walsh.


Last year, according to 2018 reports, there were 13 manatee reports, two citation reports (one dolphin and one juvenile right whale) and ten carcass recoveries.  Amber Lea Kincaid the Marine Mammal Stranding Biologist at the University of Florida, stated, “The majority of calls we respond to, the animal, is already dead, unfortunately, and we had six responses where we searched the area and didn’t see the animals so it can be very frustrating.”


When certified rehabbers build a connection with wildlife veterinarians, it establishes an essential lifeline and recovery process for the injured or orphaned wild animal.  Dr. Walsh remarked,

“You can have a very successful rehab program without veterinarian involvement if the animals are healthy and the approaches are based on good nutrition and good science. The important side of that though, is the wildlife veterinarian has techniques and applications that can make that animal more healthy, or in some cases, if they are traumatized, they can help the trauma aspect.”


“So it is really best when there is a partnership between wildlife veterinarian and rehabbers,” Walsh added.


If you find an injured or orphaned wildlife animal, the first thing to keep in mind is it may or may not be safe to approach that animal. They do not know that you are trying to help and they will try to defend themselves against what they might feel or appear is a threat towards them. The best way to help them is by calling the FWC Wildlife Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC(3922).


For more information about the non-profit organizations and agencies mention in this article, please visit their websites below.






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Leslie Stein
Leslie Stein
Leslie Stein has over 35 years experience as a Speech-Language Pathologist working with neurologically impaired adults. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of South Florida in Speech Pathology.
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