Sunday, April 22, 2018 is Earth Day, the 48th anniversary of the celebration. In 1970 the event was first observed by 20 million Americans, mostly students. Today over one billion people in 192 countries from all walks of life participate in Earth Day events, making it the largest secular observance in the world.
The goal of Earth Day is to educate people about the importance of environmental protection. Whether you believe Global Climate Change is a figment of Al Gore’s imagination or a viable threat to the future of all life on Earth, it is hard to argue that treating the planet with a little respect is a bad idea.
The theme of this year’s event aims to educate about plastic pollution. Single-use plastic items are one of the biggest threats to our environment. Plastic grocery bags, water bottles, and straws are some of the most common litter seen strewn about any neighborhood, and are especially dangerous in an area that’s surrounded by water like Southwest Florida.
Petroleum-based plastics never biodegrade by breaking down into innocuous, component atoms. Over time, plastics exposed to air and sunlight get brittle and break apart into smaller and smaller pieces until you would need a microscope to see them. Plastics that end up in an ocean or lake take even longer to break apart.
These tiny microplastic particles (less than 5mm) can be primary (the tiny beads in your toothpaste that helps whiten your teeth) or secondary (plastic fibers released every time you launder a garment made of synthetic fabric.) Often these microplastic particulates end up in the ocean and can cause harm to the creatures living there as the animals ingest the plastics, causing irritation to the digestive system, obstruction, or a satiated feeling when no nutritional substance has been eaten—leading to starvation. They also contain harmful chemicals and collect toxins that are ingested by aquatic animals.
The three R’s of the 70’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) have been updated: Reduce new plastic purchases. Many plastics cannot be recycled, and recycled plastics cannot be recycled a second time. Refuse plastic drinking straws and grocery bags, bringing your own paper or cloth versions if needed. Reuse plastic containers you already have for takeout and bring your own refillable water bottle. Recycle properly for your area. Not all programs are the same—check with your local authorities. Recycling wrong is almost the same as not recycling at all. Remove and properly dispose of litter, or support organizations that do.
There are several websites and agencies working toward decreasing plastic pollution in our area and around the world. Florida Sea Grant, a program of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Services (UF IFAS), is a university-based program that supports research, education and extension to conserve coastal resources and enhance economic opportunities for the people of Florida. Check them out at www.FLSeaGrant.org.
The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project (FMAP) is a citizen-science project that was funded in 2015 by an outreach and education grant from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. They are attempting to educate people about the causes of pollution in our oceans and how we can help at a grassroots level. Learn more at www.PlasticAware.org.
Peace River Wildlife Center celebrates the principles of Earth Day every day. Our primary goal is to assist injured, orphaned or ill native Florida wildlife and get the healthy individuals back out into the wild where they belong.
Most of the harm we see is due to some sort of human-animal conflict. It may be an opossum that has been hit by a car, leaving her babies orphaned. Sometimes it is a red-shouldered hawk or screech owl hatchling that has had its nest destroyed when a tree was trimmed. It can even be the consequences of habitat loss forcing more animals into unnaturally close proximity and increased encounters with humans and their pets and cars.
PRWC will be at the Englewood Earth Day Festival on Sunday, April 22, 2018 from 11a.m. to 4p.m. at Buchans Park, 1390 Old Englewood Road, Englewood.
This Earth Day let’s all do something totally subversive–let’s try to appreciate Mother Earth. She is pretty special. And she’s the only planet we have. For now.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Peace River Wildlife Center is a wildlife rehabilitation facility. Our primary mission is to treat and release injured and orphaned wildlife. Secondarily, we strive to educate people about native Florida wildlife. Animals that will be released are not legally permitted to be on display to the public, but there are those that come in too severely injured to ever be placed back into the wild. Missing a wing or an eye, these individuals would not be able to care for themselves and so are provided a permanent home, in educational habitats, where they are on display to visitors.
We see over 2,000 injured and orphaned birds, mammals, and reptiles every year. Our resident numbers vary somewhat as we transfer to and from other facilities, but average well over 100. None of these residents is more unique and iconic than Luna the white eastern screech owl. We often describe Luna as leucistic, or in simpler terms that most people have heard previously, albino.
An albino has a lack of melanin, the pigment that appears as black/brown colour—although the cells that produce it, called melanocytes, are still present. Some albino animals (snakes, fish, turtles, etc.) are pale yellow or orange because they still have other pigments being produced by their melanocytes besides black and brown.
Leucistic individuals lack the cells themselves that make all pigment, because they are all derived from a single source in embryonic development. Hence, these individuals have no colour at all. This lack of pigment can occur throughout the body or may be localized, occurring in patches, also known as pied or piebald.
An albino’s eyes will appear pink or red due to the lack of pigment in the iris. The blood vessels behind the eye are usually masked by the coloured iris, but their reddish hue is seen behind the colourless iris in an albino. A leucistic animal will usually have normally coloured eyes because the pigment cells in the iris are derived from a different progenitor cell, directly within the eye.
In the case of screech owls, the normal eye colour is bright yellow. Luna’s eyes are as unique as he is. While there is no bright yellow colour in his irises, his eyes appear dark. When seen in direct sunlight, his eyes are deep red due to the visibility of the blood vessels at the back of his eyes.
The prevalence of albinism has been estimated in some species at 1 in 20,000. The chances of complete leucism are estimated at more like 1 in 100,000. It is difficult to ascertain the number of wild animals with these conditions because the usually do not survive long.
Back in April of 2013 when the white screech owl nestling originally presented, PRWC rehabilitators tried to find his nest in order to return him to it. We went back out to the Charlotte Harbour Environmental Center (CHEC) where he was found on the ground behind the visitor’s center. There was no evidence of a screech owl’s nest anywhere in the vicinity.
He may have fluttered out of the nest as fledglings often do when they are first stretching their growing wings. It is even possible that the parents and maybe even the siblings of this bird intentionally kicked him out of the nest to prevent him from drawing attention to the young family. Being such a tiny bird of prey, the screech owl’s main advantage is its camouflage. Their bark-coloured feathers allow them to blend into the tree in which they are perching.
As he grew and started to perch on the edge of the nest, he was a beckoning white flag waving to nearby predators, “We surrender! Come eat us!” This little marshmallow would quickly become the component of some predator’s s’more if left on his own.
Since this little guy’s chances of long-term survival in the wild were slim, he became an education ambassador at PRWC. Education ambassadors are permanent resident animals, those with injuries so severe they cannot be released back into the wild. They go to classrooms, festivals, and other venues to give people a hint at what happens at PRWC, and to provide an up-close experience with some of the beautiful wildlife we have in southwest Florida.
Since his birthday of April 1st falls on Easter this year, we will be celebrating Luna’s 5th birthday on Saturday, April 7th with a party in his honour at the Center. If you would like to bring a gift, he requests items for his “brothers and sisters” like raw eggs and shelled walnuts. With baby squirrel season in full swing, PRWC is seeing an abundance of young squirrels and one of the first things they start to eat when weaning is walnuts. We use cooked and raw eggs in many different diets for our residents and patients, including shorebirds, songbirds, raccoons, and opossums.
If you are lucky enough to be in the area, stop by to wish Luna a happy birthday. If you are not near-by and want to send a gift, check out the PRWC web site or our Amazon Smile wish list for direct links to much-needed supplies.
Visit Peace River Wildlife Center on April 7st to wish Mother Nature’s April Fool’s gift to us a happy birthday. Or check us out any day from 11am to 4pm, when our talented tour guides can show you around and introduce you to all our residents. If you’re not careful, you may learn something new.
Last week’s unfortunate encounter between kayakers and a river otter on Braden River, where a woman got scratched when an otter jumped into her kayak, was an anomaly. Their whimsical antics make otters a popular attraction wherever they are on display to the public. In the wild they are seldom seen, as they are naturally shy and avoid people. But as a rabies-vector species, they should always be treated with cautious respect when they are encountered.
Peace River Wildlife Center had the privilege of treating a juvenile river otter over the weekend. It had been found loping along beside a busy road with no mother in sight. The rescuer was careful not to handle the suspected orphan with his bare hands. He corralled the otter into a kennel and brought her to PRWC where we treated her for dehydration.
River otters are found throughout Florida except for the Keys. These animals have a huge range, and are indigenous from Mexico to Alaska. They are especially abundant in Canada. Otters are a member of the mustelid family, which includes other carnivorous mammals like weasels and skunks. They have thick, luxurious, water-repellant coats that help insulate them from heat loss while spending most of their time in and around the water. Their fur density has been estimated to be 58,000 hairs per square centimeter. An average human’s head has 100 hairs per square centimeter.
Their long, slender bodies and short legs with webbed toes make otters adept swimmers. Under water they have been clocked at 4 miles per hour, while they can swim up to 6 miles per hour on the surface. Adults weigh 10-30 pounds, with the males being slightly larger. The average lifespan in the wild is around 8 years, bit they can live over 20 years in captivity.
River otters prefer fresh water, although they can be found in brackish water and are often seen in local canals—and even sometimes in the shallows of Charlotte Harbor. Their diet consists predominately of fish, crayfish, crustaceans, and turtles. Their teeth are remarkably strong, enabling them to crunch through the shells of invertebrates.
Their high metabolic rate helps maintain their body temperature in an aquatic environment, but there’s a trade-off—they must eat 15% of their body weight every day. That is the equivalent of a 200-pound person eating 30 pounds of food daily. While that might not be much of a stretch for some people, I’d hate to have to pay the bill for that steak at Outback.
In Florida, otters give birth during the fall and winter, although mating activities may occur anytime. The embryos develop over 8 weeks, but gestation can take up to 11 months. This incongruity is the result of delayed implantation. The fertilized egg can wait many months in a state delayed development, before seasonal changes trigger the implanting in the female’s uterus and continuation of the pregnancy.
Otters den in river banks, usually taking over a burrow made by another animal or a natural hollow formed by a fallen tree or root system. One to three pups are born fully furred, but blind and toothless. Their eyes open at four weeks and the babies are weaned by three months. The pups remain in a group with their mother for a year. They are social animals and are notorious for their playful antics as they learn how to hunt.
It is important to raise juveniles with others of their own species so that they learn appropriate behaviour, ensuring a full and happy life once released back into the wild. Wildlife Center of Venice has two other young otters and better facilities for raising this species than PRWC, so our baby was transferred there.
Wildlife Center of Venice has undergone a transformation in the past few months. They have purchased property near their old facility and are in the process of moving their operation there. Not having educational displays is both a blessing and a curse for them. They have more room to dedicate to rehabilitation caging and habitats, but without public visitations, it is more difficult to raise money. WCV, like PRWC, receives no federal or state funding, and relies solely on the support of donors to provide services to the public.
Pam DeFouw is the new director of operations at WCV, and she will be sharing this column with me going forward. She has been with WCV since 2012 and is looking forward to taking the organization in a bold new direction. “We will really miss co-founder Kevin Barton as he leaves to pursue other interests, but our goal is to continue the work he so tirelessly started. We want to make him proud.” I’m sure they will.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Bottle-feeding a baby otter
An otter heads toward a backyard creek
We often talk about the number of animals we see at Peace River Wildlife Center. Let’s look at the number of people that impact and are impacted by PRWC.
By rough estimate, we have approximately 100,000 visitors each year coming to the Center to tour our permanent residents’ habitats and learn more about native Florida wildlife. Other people that we see are a result of outreach programs at schools, civic organizations, and community events.
PRWC’s mission is to rehabilitate orphaned, injured, and ill native Florida wildlife and get the healthy individuals back out into the wild. Our secondary mission is to educate the people living in and visiting this area how to peacefully coexist with the abundance of wildlife with which we are fortunate enough to share this little corner of paradise.
While the rehab staff consists of a few highly trained (if not-so-highly paid) rehabbers and technicians, the rest of PRWC’s staff comprises volunteers from all walks of life. More than 100 people a year give their time, their hearts, and often their own money to help keep PRWC open, clean, and operating smoothly. Even our paid staff members can be considered volunteers if one realizes that they could be making significantly more money in the private sector than working for a small non-profit.
This past Wednesday, we celebrated and thanked our staff (both volunteers and employees) with a special dinner in their honour, immediately after our annual membership meeting. Held at Laishley Crab House, the event was well-attended and a huge success.
We are grateful for our volunteers at PRWC. We appreciate their hard work as they clean each cage and habitat every day. They scrub, scoop, and rake. They chop food, wash laundry, and sweep floors. They provide tours, man the gift shop, and answer phones. They are hospital aides, tour guides, gift shop clerks, maintenance engineers, cleaners, board members, office staffers, rescuers, outreach reps, and home care techs. They rescue injured animals, pick up donated items, go to outreach events, and cobble our crumbling facilities together with duct tape and promises of the future.
This amazing little army keeps PRWC running and has been responsible for most of the major changes and improvements over the years. Without them we could not function on a daily basis and could not provide the level of care that we do to our patients and resident animals.
The Annual State of the Organization Address was extremely positive. Adequate funds have been raised for the online gift shop start-up. We are close to 80% of our goal towards our capital campaign. We have had an infusion of fresh blood into our board and the seasoned members taking over new positions as officers are excited to carry on the legacy of their successful predecessors.
Thanks to our staff of volunteers and employees, Trip Advisor has rated PRWC as the #1 Thing To Do in Punta Gorda. We get visitors from all over the county, state, country, and world. Many of them come to see our star attraction, Luna, the leucistic (albino) owl.
Speaking of Luna, PRWC is having our second annual bluegrass celebration as a fundraiser this weekend. LunaTunes will be Saturday, March 3, starting at 1p.m. at Florida SouthWestern State College Campus (26300 Airport Road, Punta Gorda.) We had such a great response last year, we sold out of tickets and had to move to a larger venue.
Featuring three well-known area bluegrass bands—Southwind Bluegrass Band, The Bugtussle Ramblers, and The Sawgrass Drifters— LunaFest tickets are only $10 each and available at PRWC’s office or online at www.prwc.rocks . Food and drinks will be available onsite (Big John’s amazing barbeque) so no coolers, please. You are encouraged to bring your own chairs. For more information go to www.peaceriverwildlifecenter.org or call 941-637-3830. Tickets may be available at the gate.
by – Robin Jenkins, DVM
Luna Tunes 2018 poster
In early January 2018, Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a bald eagle that had been burned by a power pole discharge. While it isn’t a common injury for us to treat, an electrical shock is not unheard of. When we do have an incident like this, Florida Power & Light is extremely responsive. They investigate and repair the pole (and numerous poles on either side of it) to make sure the poles are safe going forward, for both the wildlife and workers who may encounter it.
The word “electrocution” was first used in the late 1880’s in the United States to describe a new form of electrical execution via the electric chair, which was invented by a dentist, who apparently was no longer content to just torture patients in his dental chair. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who was a patient of Dr. Goldy, the pediatric dentist I was sentenced to as a child.)
Originally it referred only to death by that method, but quickly caught on as a term to describe accidental death by shock since no word for that existed. Electrocution is now also used to describe serious but non-fatal injuries due to electric shock, the results of which may vary depending on the strength of current and length of exposure.
When an electrical current passes through the body, it can cause immediate death by stopping the heart or respiration. It can also cause more insidious damage when the current flows in one part of the body and out another. Quite often those relatively minor-looking injuries will become life-threatening over the course of the next few days. The tissues—nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and organs—between the entrance and exit wounds can become necrotic, leading to the eventual death of the victim.
Luckily for the eagle, we believe our patient had been burned rather than shocked. (If you can consider being burned all over your body a stroke of luck.) The bird had just landed atop the power pole with a fish he caught in a nearby canal. According to one witness, a large spark arced from the line next to the eagle into the ground a few feet away. Our patient was burned by the heat emanating from that arc. He was blown or jumped into the canal, which seems like adding insult to injury, but may have helped save his life. The intense heat on his feathers and skin was immediately quenched by the cool water.
When he got to PRWC, the eagle’s prognosis was guarded. He could have inhaled the heat or water, causing damage to his lung tissue or pneumonia. He could have broken bones in his wings or legs when he fell. The delicate tissue of his eyes could have been destroyed. A serious incident like this can have long-lasting repercussions.
We dubbed the eagle Icarus, after the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea. Whether it was hubris or hunger that initiated the event, our Icarus didn’t drown, and he is now recovering nicely from his injuries. He suffered burns on most of the feathers all over his body, head, and wings. The skin on his face and feet were singed. But the sensitive tissues of his eyes and respiratory systems seem to have been spared. He has no broken bones and with a recent development of his predilection to perch on top of a doorway, we have reason to believe he may be able to fly again someday.
The skin on his feet and face is healing well and his appetite is good. He will be placed in our 100-foot flight cage soon while the rest of his feathers molt. It can take up to three years for an eagle to molt every feather on his body, and Icarus had almost all his feathers affected. With the damage that was done to his skin, we are cautiously optimistic that his body will go into overdrive and replace the seared feathers more quickly.
In the meantime, we will continue to care for this decrepit soul until he is once again the majestic bird he once was—and will be again, thanks to the community’s support.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Icarus getting feisty.
Icarus perching atop the door.