Mercy for the Menacing: Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation
By Conservancy Wildlife Biologist Ben Teton
The patient lay lifeless on the operating table. The outlook was grim. This would be the second, and final attempt at a complex emergency surgery, the success of which would mean the difference between life and death. The surgeon’s focus was palpable throughout the sterilized operating room, silent but for the steady resonance of the cardiac monitor reporting that, despite the odds, hope endured within the patient’s all too frangible heart. As is so often the case in emergency medicine, survival would depend wholly on the judgement and precision of the attending physician, and their ability to navigate a treacherous path between multiple conflicting risk factors. On this day risk factors were popping up like jellyfish across our warming oceans, all of which were made more complicated by the patient’s hollow bones and, were the anesthesia to wear off, proclivity to tear out the good doctor’s eyes and fly away.
It was the prospect of having my own eyes torn out that occupied my attention on a blistering hot September morning last year as I headed down the Grapevine to investigate a report of a “huge eagle dying on the side of the highway.” The plan was simple enough; I would go down and see what, if anything, could be done for the bird, and if possible, transport her to our local veterinary hospital for care. As a wildlife biologist, I have a fair amount of experience handling wildlife, including large birds, but I am certainly no falconer. Wildlife rescue falls well outside the purview of my typical responsibilities with the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, but after being coached-up by a former colleague and wildlife rehabilitator, I was confident I understood how to handle and contain such a large bird without injuring it. Doing so without personally being sliced to ribbons, I was less sure. This trepidation only increased as I pulled over on the side of a dusty highway to see the gilded velociraptor hissing at me expectantly, her three-inch talons tucked beneath her like so many prison shivs. The report was accurate, she was huge, and she was certainly dying as she was completely crippled from an apparent blunt-force trauma. The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), is one of the most potent creatures to have ever taken flight from the surface on this earth, ever. Its Herculean eyesight combined with a massive 6-foot wingspan allow it to target a full-grown deer at a distance of two miles, then dive upon its prey reaching speeds over 180 mph. From there, the pointy bits take care of the rest.
Even as this large female lay crumpled like old laundry in a forgotten closet, her auric gaze cast forth the eminence of the imperial overlord that she was born to be. As our eyes met, she seemed to take authority over my very soul. I had concerns. As I quietly approached, one thing became abundantly clear: somewhere nearby a striped skunk was recounting to his skeptical compatriots the legend of when he defeated the mighty eagle in one-on-one combat. The bird reeked. Her wretched state bedeviled further by an implacable sun grinding out her remaining lifeforce by the minute. My hope was to gently wrap her in a saddle blanket and transfer her to a large animal crate for transport, which, to my great relief, is exactly what happened. This proud, deadly predator had no fight left.
While my Crocodile-Dundee moment had come to an end, the story of this bird’s recovery, and the remarkable hash of heroes who stepped forward on this creature’s behalf, was about to begin. This may come as a surprise, but many wild eagles remain uninsured, which means all of the comprehensive emergency procedures required to bring her back from the brink would be administered pro-bono. Add to that the facilities and specialized equipment necessary to care for such a large and potentially dangerous bird, it is a testament to the greatness of our civilization that I had anywhere to take her in the first place. Our tour of Southern California wildlife rescue facilities began at the Mountain Aire Veterinary Hospital in Frazier Park, where the redoubtable Dr. Cosko abandoned her well-earned day-off to treat the shattered and depleted bird. Suffice it to say, Whiskers the cat was less than thrilled as I rudely interrupted her flea treatment only to present a veritable angel of death to her attending physician.
By Education Program Coordinator Paula Harvey
Our latest professional development event took place on Valentine’s Day. Science and art teachers from six Kern High School District schools attended. We met at the Conservancy’s Sebastian campground and toured a small portion of the ranch in Conservancy vehicles. We separated into science and art groups and discussed ways teachers could use the Conservancy to support their programs. The creativity, energy and enthusiasm were contagious. During the drive, we were fortunate to see a condor fly by, then land on a nearby rock outcropping.
We returned to the campground for lunch, at which time, teachers discussed ways they could collaborate, combining their arts and science programs.
We drove to a site we have selected for school groups close to the Bakersfield National Cemetery. Teachers had an opportunity to wander and explore, talk, sketch, or just quietly enjoy the beauty of the oak woodland.
It was an inspirational day.
If you are interested in participating in one of our monthly staff development days, please contact me at email@example.com.