Slow down, you’re moving too fast

Slow down, you’re moving too fast

It’s T-time again.  No, not tea time—although with the cool mornings of late, a cup of hot Earl Grey isn’t a bad idea.  And not tee time—even if the cooler weather makes the siren song of gathering up the golf clubs and hitting the links almost impossible to ignore.

T-time at Peace River Wildlife Center is all about the reptiles.  We have been inundated with injured turtles and tortoises in the past few weeks, and most of them have been hit by cars.  Many of these patients are large adult gopher tortoises, up to 12 inches long and possibly 40-60 years old.  It breaks our hearts when these otherwise-healthy chelonians end up in our care.

It is unfortunate that the tortoises are increasingly active at the same time of year when the traffic is increasing with the arrival of our seasonal residents and visitors.  No one is guiltier of the occasional road rage episode than I am.  I’m always in a hurry, trying to beat the next light, to get to work, or get to Walmart before they sell out of kale.  Really?  Why am I always in such a hurry?  A little patience and a lot of diligence on the roads can help not only the tortoises, but your own blood pressure as well. 

When a turtle or tortoise comes in with a fractured carapace (top shell) or plastron (bottom shell), we must first ascertain how much damage has been done.  A turtle’s spinal cord lies along the inside of the carapace.  If there has been a fracture that crosses midline, there is a good chance that the spinal cord has been severed.  The tortoise may appear to be walking, but a closer look at the rear legs frequently reveals a more guarded prognosis. 

Normally a gopher tortoise will raise its body up, pick up one rear leg at a time and place it further in front of its current position (which is just a detailed explanation of what “walking” is.)  When there has been spinal trauma in this species, which has a primitive neurological system, there may still be forward motion, but the rear legs splay out to the back and side in a swimming motion without lifting the body.  This is called spinal walking and is a result of reflexes that go from the foot to the spinal cord and back. 

For true walking, the nerve impulses need to travel from the foot to the spinal cord and then to the brain and back.  A disruption along the spinal cord stops the impulse from reaching the brain and results in a special type of paralysis.  Not only does the tortoise drag the back of his shell, but innervation to internal organs is compromised and the gastrointestinal tract can shut down. 

The “lucky” tortoises that have fractures in their shells at locations other than across midline stand a better chance of survival.  Although healing is extremely slow in this species (go figure, huh?), the shells will heal in a way similar to our skin.  The fracture sites will granulate, fill in with a firm scar tissue, and eventually harden until it is almost as firm as the original shell.

Sometimes these fracture sites do not line up properly or are unstable.  In these cases, the rehabbers at PRWC pull out their best Dr. Frankenstein impression and bolt the two sides together with screws and wires or zip ties and super glue.  Often all that is needed, though, is tape.  We place medical grade (3 or 4 inch 3M Medipore) tape over the fracture site until it has started to heal. 

On the plus side, this low-tech solution allows some air in to the wound and helps keep flies and dirt out during the day while the tortoise is outside enjoying the sun and soaking in shallow water bath.  On the other hand, the tape costs close to $10 per roll and does not have a less-expensive generic equivalent at this time.  Since it needs to be removed to help speed the healing process while the patient is in the hospital overnight, the frequent bandage changes can be quite costly.

With almost a dozen turtles and tortoises in rehab right now at PRWC, we have quite the assortment of injuries.  We have one tortoise with a broken front leg, two with questionable spinal injuries, one is missing a large chunk of shell on his side after having been side-swiped by a car, a dog-chewed gular plate (front of the plastron) and several others with various nicks and dings. 

Tortoises can remain in our care for up to a year while they slowly heal.  Only time will tell if they will be able to be released back to the areas from which they came or if they will become permanent residents at some licensed facility.  If we could cobble all the working parts together from the assorted patients, we could indeed make a few Frankentortoises and get them back out there more quickly.

Ideally the best solution for these injuries is to avoid them.  With the influx of our winter residents and lots of wonderful visitors, we all need to help spread the word.  Drive carefully and always be mindful of the wildlife surrounding us here in southwest Florida.  We are fortunate to have such a variety of wild things here that have allowed us to share their world, but we must take care of them. 

If you see a gopher tortoise in the road and can help it without getting hurt yourself, please feel free to do so.  Some people are under the mistaken assumption that as a Federally protected species, tortoises cannot be handled at all.  You may pick up the wayward reptile and place it well away from the side of the road.  Take it off the road in the direction it was headed, or it will turn around and start over.  If it has been injured, note the exact location where it was found (so we can return it to its home territory if possible) and bring it to PRWC for treatment.  And please remember that gopher tortoises are land animals.  They do not have webbed toes and cannot swim—so when attempting to “rescue” them, please do not put them in water. 

Get out there and enjoy Florida.  Have a cup of tea.  Play some golf.  And observe the wonders of nature that surround us here in Southwest Florida.  But, please do so responsibly.  Your neighbors—both human and animal—will appreciate it. 

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Gopher tortoise healing after having been hit by a car.

Gopher tortoise healing after having been hit by a car.

Gopher tortoises attacked by dogs

Gopher tortoises attacked by dogs

No Margin, No Mission

No Margin, No Mission

Peace River Wildlife Center is on the brink of yet another exciting opportunity.  Contrary to recent newspaper headlines, PRWC is still working toward our expected April 2018 ground-breaking date for our new Center.  The developer whose land we currently occupy does want us to move—but we have known that for some time now, and are diligently working toward that end.  The developer himself has been nothing but patient with us as we traverse the winding path of permits, plans, and parliamentary procrastination.  No one knows just how long this process this takes better than a developer, someone who wrangles with it on a daily basis.

PRWC will be moving off his property as soon as possible.  Our new footprint in Ponce de Leon Park will be right next to where we are now, so even the most directionally challenged visitor will have no trouble finding us.  Unfortunately, that location has become the new fly in the ointment for the developer’s legal team.  They fear PRWC’s proximity to his property line will devalue his holdings.  They are suing the City of Punta Gorda (not PRWC) since they are the ones who own the land.  We are merely tenants and our “landlords” are dictating where we build our new facility.

Since PRWC was on the land when the developer purchased it, I would think having us anywhere else would increase the value of his property, not decrease it.  But then, I may be a bit partial.  I think having a wildlife rehabilitation facility on a piece of property is a boon—for the residents or tenants, the owner, and the community at large.  But what do I know?

Actually what I do know, is that PRWC is looking even further into the future.  We have been honoured to have been selected as one of four local nonprofits (out of more than 100 that applied) to work with No Margin, No Mission, a consulting firm that helps figure out how to raise their own funds, on an earned income initiative.  The premise is that a nonprofit must earn money, or it cannot fulfill its mission.  In order to sustain our wildlife rehabilitation efforts into the future, we have embarked on an endeavor to develop an online gift shop.

With no federal or state funding available to us, PRWC depends on donations to support its mission.  Our main revenue streams are the gift shop, the entrance donation jug, memberships and general donations.  When something as fickle as the weather can dictate how many people are coming through our gates, we need a more reliable means of support.

Anyone who has visited PRWC and gone into our on-site gift shop knows that it can get ridiculously crowded at times.  It is a small building, crammed with a wonderful assortment of t-shirts, mugs, toys, books, jewelry, and all kinds of memorabilia to commemorate a trip to PRWC.  Our branded merchandise is especially popular—Luna and Bella grace a wide variety of products.  But all too often, people become frustrated by the lack of space, and leave before getting the chance to make purchases.

After returning home to Poughkeepsie, Peoria, or Prague; grandpa may wish he had gotten a toy for Timmy.  Or Ethel is telling her neighbor Lucy about the cute little white owl she saw, and Lucy just has to have that t-shirt too.  Now (OK, soon!), everyone can shop PRWC’s gift shop from the comfort of his or her own home.

With the help of the No Margin, No Mission team, we are being be led from the planning phase through the implementation phase.  We have anticipated that it will cost us approximately $70,000 to bring this plan to fruition.  Now through the end of January, all money raised for this effort will be matched by The Patterson Foundation, up to $35,000.

We know that the proceeds from our current brick-and-mortar gift shop yield approximately 20 percent of our annual operating budget.  While the store in the new building will be larger, it will still have some limitations.  With the addition of an online gift shop and a streamlined checkout system, we believe we can double or triple the income from that source within a few short years.

The generosity of The Patterson Foundation is evident in their support of the annual Giving Challenge, which has been invaluable to PRWC over the years.  This is a step for us toward even greater autonomy, in that we will no longer be as dependent on admission donations, but will be able to earn an income to help us fulfill our mission.  If you would like to join us in this effort, please contact PRWC and donate to the “online gift shop” initiative, with the chance of having your donation amount doubled.

Selling t-shirts is not our business.  Our business is rescuing injured and orphaned wildlife.  And we cannot do it without your help.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

No Margin, No Mission first Fast Pitch to potential donors raised over $20,000!

No Margin, No Mission first Fast Pitch to potential donors raised over $20,000!

Growing up eagle

Growing up eagle

If Benjamin Franklin had gotten his way, the national emblem of the United States might have been the wild turkey.  Franklin thought the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character” who “does not get his living honestly.”  He based that opinion on the fact that eagles will often steal fish from ospreys and other birds rather than catch their own.

Last week, we followed the nesting bald eagles from site selection to nest building to hatching and brooding the eggs and chicks.  Regardless of the morality of the method by which the parents acquire meals, the hatchlings grow quickly.  By three months, they are ready to leave the relative safety of the nest.

Most fledglings leave the nest at around 11 weeks of age.  Sometimes initial attempts at flight are unsuccessful, and the youngsters may end up on the ground.  If uninjured, the juveniles can be left on the ground and the parents will continue to provide food to them until they are able to fly.  Attempts to replace the grounded pre-fledgling back into the nest can frighten the sibling, resulting with both youngsters on the ground.  Once fledged, the young will often fly back to the nest for supplemental feeding by the parents for an additional six weeks or more until their foraging skills are more adept.

Although the babies grow quickly, bald eagles are large birds and take a long time to reach maturity.  The characteristic plumage—white head and tail, with dark feathers on the rest of the body—does not show up until the bird is more than five years old.  During the first four years of their lives, the immature eagles participate in an avian Rumspringa, exploring vast territories and traveling up to hundreds of miles a day.  During the fifth year they will select a breeding territory and settle down.  Florida adult resident bald eagles usually do not migrate, but spend their lives within a ten mile radius of their nesting site(s).

Some notable differences in appearance during the first five years of their lives helps to determine a sub-adult eagle’s age:

 

Age (yrs)              Head                     Body/Wings                       Tail                        Bill                         Eyes_________

1                      dark brown           dark brown                        dark brown           dark grey               dark brown

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

2                      brown                  mottled with white              mottled                  little yellow            light brown

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

3                      whitish chin         mottled                               mottled                 grey on                 paler with

and neck                                                                                     tip   only               eye stripe

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

4                      mostly white        mostly dark                        more white          dull yellow            pale yellow

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

5                      white                   dark brown                        white                    bright yellow         pale yellow, almost white

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Ideally these birds should be left alone, but our fascination with them unwittingly results in human-bird encounters that often end up causing harm to the bird.  Hordes of people flock around a nesting site to watch and photograph each stage of the birds’ progress.  Every attempt should be made to observe from an undetected distance, make no loud noises, and use no flash photography or artificial light.

Florida is second only to Alaska in the number of resident bald eagles within the state.  Eagles are opportunistic foragers and will scavenge carrion whenever available.  One of the best places to see them is around a landfill, especially at dawn or dusk.

Bald eagles live quite a long time.  A bird from New York was 38 at the time of its death in 2015.  PRWC’s resident bald eagles, Arthur and Bilfred, are not quite that old, but they are getting up there in the years.  You can see them every day from 11a.m. to 4p.m., even on holidays like Thanksgiving.

I wonder if Ben Franklin had prevailed if we would be carving the holiday eagle at dinner time today?  Best not to contemplate that.  Enjoy the yams, squash, potatoes, and green bean casserole—I know I will!

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Juvenile and adult bald eagles in rehab.

Juvenile and adult bald eagles in rehab.

Bald eagle breeding season

Bald eagle breeding season

The bald eagle has been the national symbol of the United States since 1782.  It is North America’s second largest bird of prey—only the California condor is larger.  With bald eagle breeding season well under way here in Southwest Florida, let’s take a closer look at these regal birds.

Mated pairs may begin selecting sites and nest building or reconstruction as early as late September.  A bald eagle nest can be quite massive.  Often returning to the same nest each year, the birds may add to it annually until the weight of the nest is more than the tree can support and the nest—or sometimes the entire tree—falls.  Typical nests average 5 feet in diameter and 3 feet tall.  The largest nest on record, in St. Petersburg, Florida was 9.5 feet in diameter and over 20 feet tall.

Constructed near, but not at, the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity, the nest affords the birds shade from the sun and a good vantage point to monitor activity in the area.  Nest shape depends on the tree in which it is located and can be flat, conical, or cylindrical.  The eagles often have an alternative nest sight within their territory of approximately one square mile.  They may switch sites if they have an unsuccessful season due to too much noise and commotion or too many predators.

While most bald eagles return to the same nest site and mate each year, if either is no longer available, the survivor will find a new mate and, if necessary, build a new nest or steal one from another large bird (typically, a great horned owl.)  In Florida’s subtropical climate, the eagle’s breeding season can range from October to April, but most clutches are laid during December and January. 

The average clutch size is two eggs and incubation generally takes about 35 days.  Incubation begins as soon as the first egg is laid, so the eggs may hatch one or two days apart.  This is in contrast to other bird species that lay an egg a day over a period of time and do not begin incubation until the last one is laid, ensuring that most of the offspring hatch at approximately the same time.  Due to the rapid growth of the eaglets, the difference in size during the first few weeks can be a determining factor in the welfare of the chicks.

The parents will usually feed the oldest chick at every feeding.  If there is enough food after that baby is full, then they will feed the second.  So not only has the first-born started out larger, but has the advantage of better nutrition.  In this manner, the birds help to ensure they can successfully raise at least one chick even in times when food is scarce.

During the first two weeks, the male provides most of the food, while the female tends to the young.  At three to four weeks, the female brings as much food as the male, with the young pecking at the food, but relying on parents to tear the meat into edible portions.  By six weeks, the eaglets are able to self-feed when supplied fish and rodents by the parents.

As the hatchings grow, the competition for food and attention from the parents can get brutal.  The smaller sibling can be bumped from the nest by a larger more aggressive nestling.  While many people may find this practice unpleasant, it is vital for the natural selection process to ensure the long-term health of the species.  The strong survive.

Next week:  Bald eagles, part deux.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Bald eagle nest, photo courtesty of USFWS

Bald eagle nest, photo courtesy of USFWS

Blessing or curse?

Blessing or curse?

A long time ago in a land far away, I was cursed by an evil witch. My best friend, Karen, used to babysit the child of a family friend and offered me the job one night when she had a date. It was the first time I had ever met the lady, and I’m pretty sure she knew nothing about me.

A few weeks after watching her child (during which nothing memorable happened), I heard that she had told someone I would never stick with anything. That I would flit about from job to job and never amount to a hill of beans. At the time I thought nothing of it because we were practically strangers to each other.  I had no idea on what she based this prognostication and I was determined not to lose any sleep over her low opinion of me.

Through the years, as I flitted from job to job, I began to fear her words were more of a curse than a prediction. I began working at the tender age of five in a relative’s restaurant, washing dishes and peeling potatoes while I stood on a chair to reach the sink. Since then I have been a night auditor, a cashier, a bartender and a phlebotomist. I have cleaned bed pans in a nursing home, detailed automobiles for auction, sliced lunch meat in a deli, and waited tables (for which I proudly hold the title of World’s Worst Waitress!)

Labouring at each of these jobs, sometimes two or three at a time, often while putting myself through school and supporting my elderly mother, I worried that Brenda was right. It wasn’t that I was never happy with where I was, but that each position was a step toward a loftier goal.
Having volunteered at Peace River Wildlife Center for 9 years (and been on the payroll for more than four now), it seems my meandering path through life has stalled a bit.  But I still can’t seem to stick to doing just one job.

At PRWC, the only thing more varied than the number of different species we see every day is the reason they are here. A mourning dove with a broken wing from a cat attack. An osprey that has been shot because it was perching atop a sailboat.  Raccoons suffering from distemper and gopher tortoises with shells crushed by cars. For some of our patients, the only thing we can do is ease their suffering. Many others we are able to provide medication, support, and nutrition as we wait to see if their damaged bodies will heal.

Among this week’s admissions were two hawks that had wing fractures. X-rays showed that both had been shot. A red-shouldered hawk had a pellet lodged at the fracture site of her left humerus. With no other injuries, she appears to have been shot while on the ground. Her injuries were so old and debilitating that we had no choice but to humanely euthanize her to end her suffering.

The other bird, a red-tailed hawk had a scattering of bird shot in his right side. He was probably shot out of the air and fell on his left wing, fracturing the ulna in two places when he crash-landed. This injury was also fairly old, as evidenced by the healing of the bone already taking place on the x-ray. This bird was in much better shape than the poor red-shouldered, but it is unknown if he will ever be able to fly again.

According to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is a federal offense to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or possess…any migratory bird…or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” This is not exactly a new rule. 1918, folks. That was one year after my mother was born, and I’m pretty sure she rode a dinosaur to work like Fred Flintstone. While I’m no lawyer, and sometimes have trouble discerning what all the gobbledygook means in those “lawyer-speak” rules and regulations, I’m pretty sure shooting a hawk is frowned upon. Is there anyone who doesn’t get that? Obviously there are at least two people.

I realize now that all of those seemingly unrelated jobs I have had in my lifetime so far were adding skills that make my current position as director of veterinary services at PRWC so rewarding. On any given day, I go from folding laundry to triaging incoming patients, from public relations appearances to performing surgery. I now merrily flit from one job to the next, and often don’t have to leave the room to do it.

So perhaps Brenda’s warning was more of a blessing than a curse. I suppose it all depends on making the best hand with the cards you are dealt. What may be a detriment in one field can be an asset in another. You just have to find the right place to be, and I think I have.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

Red-shouldered hawk x-ray

Red-shouldered hawk x-ray

Juvenile red-tailed hawk with a wing fracture.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk with a wing fracture.

Red-tailed hawk x-ray

Red-tailed hawk x-ray