The rehabbers at Peace River Wildlife Center did an amazing job in 2017. They treated 2,443 injured, ill, or orphaned wild animals—another record for patient intake. Thanks to the support of the community, PRWC has been able to hire a few more part-time employees to help with patient care, but we still rely on our army of volunteers to get us through the day.
The rehabbers are tasked with managing the care of the patients and residents at PRWC. They spend their days tending to the weak and broken. Is it any wonder that their compassion does not extend to people? At least not to me. I’m pretty sure they are trying to get me killed. They often send me on rescues or releases into dubious conditions.
I was recently given a nest box full of baby squirrels that we had raised at PRWC. They had been in home care for weeks, then placed in outdoor habitats back at the Center to get them used to being outside. When the time came for their release back into the wild, we locked them into the nest box in their habitat, reattach it to a tree at a location where at least one of them was originally found, and then open the box to allow them to explore their new (old) home at their leisure.
The directions I was given to find this nirvana seemed fairly straightforward. The homeowners at the given address were out of town for a few days, but gave us permission to return the squirrels. There was no ladder onsite, so I had to bring my own. Not an ideal situation, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
When I got there, the garage door was wide open as were the windows. This was a rural community, but no one is going to leave for a few days and leave everything wide open. I had either been given the wrong address (wouldn’t be the first time) or they hadn’t left yet. I rang the doorbell, and hearing nothing, knocked. At this point I probably should have left the property. I, of course, just started hiking around, looking for a good tree in which to attach the squirrel box.
Around the first corner there was a ladder leaning up against the side of the house. Further proof that I was in the wrong place. But, having found a fun tree to climb, I gathered my equipment and began the task. Balancing a drill and a couple screws, plus the nest box full of juvenile squirrels careening around inside, I climbed up the ladder to a fork in the tree where I could lean the box while attaching it to the trunk.
Mission accomplished, I returned my gear to my car and placed the homeowner’s ladder where I found it. Still no one threatening me with a shotgun. No vicious attack Rottweiler coming at me á la Cujo. I’m still pretty sure I had the wrong place. Won’t these people be surprised when they get home from work and find a weird little wooden box in their tree?
While the rehabbers failed to get me shot or mauled by a guard dog on this adventure, I did get two screws in one tire. So, they did have some satisfaction. Oh, how I love badly rutted dirt roads in my Volt—which was made for minimum wind resistance, not the Baja 1000.
Happy to have provided some entertainment for my overworked staff back at PRWC, I have finished tallying the numbers for 2017. Our patient total of 2,443 reflects an increase of approximately 10% over last year. We had a few more mammals than birds this year, an unusual occurrence. Since PRWC’s educational exhibits include mostly birds, many people thank we treat only avian species. Our 2017 statistics show we treated 44% birds, 48% mammals, and 8% reptiles.
We saw a total of 113 different bird species, 27 different mammals, and 28 different reptiles. The top three types of birds were mourning doves, northern mockingbirds, and common grackles. The three most common mammals seen were eastern cottontails, eastern grey squirrels, and Virginia opossums. Gopher tortoises comprise the vast majority of reptiles we see.
One of the most important figures at year’s end is patient outcome. Overall, PRWC had a positive outcome for 49% of our patients, and a negative outcome for 51%. A positive outcome includes patients that recovered well enough to be released, or were transferred to another facility for continued care or to become an education resident.
It is an unfortunate fact that some patients are dead on arrival, or very nearly so. After removing patients that do not survive the first 24 hours of care, our positive outcome increases to 82%. That number is increased over last year and that is definitely good news.
Thanks to the community that supports us both financially and by volunteering their time, PRWC is able to help the injured, ill, and orphaned wild animals in and around Charlotte County. A huge thanks to our employees who, while being paid to do the job, could be making much more money if employed by a for-profit company. Wildlife rehabilitation is a labour of love and we all love the animals we are able to help and all the other people who assist us in that endeavor.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Eastern Grey Squirrels four weeks old
Baby squirrel weaning
As 2018 dawns, Peace River Wildlife Center is at a crossroads in its existence. Started in 1978 on the lanai of local veterinarian, Dr. Jerry Gingerich, PRWC quickly outgrew those humble beginnings. By 1987 the wildlife rehabilitation facility began its journey to the edge of Ponce de Leon Park, thanks to a generous lease by the City of Punta Gorda.
With a steady annual increase in patient load, PRWC is poised for expansion again. 2017 was another record-breaking year for injured animal intake. We are bursting at the seams and desperately need to increase cage and habitat numbers and sizes. The City of Punta Gorda has once again offered to help us to help the community. If all goes according to plan, we will be breaking ground on our new facility in April of this year.
The new location is mere steps away from our current one, but will consist of an acre—a little more than twice the space we have now. Most of that extra space will be taken up by additional rehab and hospital caging. But with the combination of our many outbuildings into one, we hope to have more display habitats also.
The first thing people will notice when they enter Ponce de Leon Park will be our new building. Designed by ADG architecture, it will incorporate our office, hospital, surgery, laundry room, and gift shop—all of which are now spread out over four separate tiny buildings. The current set-up is a waste of space and energy, having been cobbled together as PRWC grew over the years. It has served us well for over three decades, but is being held together with duct tape and wishes at this point.
The pièce de résistance will be the new educational habitats. Thanks to the pro bono work by engineer Jim Herston, the entire park will be redesigned. PRWC’s space will encompass new habitats for all of our residents and educational birds, where they will live in natural settings indicative of their homes in the wild.
Behind the scenes will be the biggest change for our amazing staff—employees and volunteers alike. We will have more caging in which the injured and orphaned animals will recover and grow up. As always, these patients cannot legally be on display to the public, in an effort to minimize their contact with people and keep them as wild as possible for their imminent release. But we do plan to have video monitors in place, so people can watch what happens during some of the rehab process in the comfort of our new education center.
The gift shop, one of our biggest sources of income, will be enlarged so that we can offer more merchandise and have room for more than three shoppers at a time. If you have ever tried to purchase one of our Luna mugs or Bella t-shirts, you know that the current gift shop can get a little crowded. In addition to a larger brick and mortar gift shop, we are in the process of getting some of our more popular branded products on-line with an e-commerce gift shop. That way people can shop even after they have returned home, whether that home is in PGI, Port Charlotte, or Prague.
The Chinese calendar has declared 2018 the Year of the Dog. I predict that 2018 will be the year of PRWC. I see big things happening for us during the coming months, and want to thank everyone who has helped, is helping, and will help make it happen. Not too long ago the future looked pretty dim for PRWC, but the community rallied around us to make us survivors. The community has spoken…it is time for us to go… on to bigger and better things.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Big things are coming for PRWC this year.
Peace River Wildlife Center has had a tragic influx of patients in the past few weeks. We have taken in over 40 lesser scaups (locally called bluebills by many people), mostly found in the Port Charlotte Beach and Bayshore Park areas. Many of them died in transport or shortly after arrival, and more were found dead on site. It is assumed that red tide is the culprit, and we are treating the surviving patients accordingly—with moderate success if they get into treatment early enough.
Thanks to some alert community members, more birds were brought to us while they still had a chance for recovery. PRWC’s volunteer rescuers Barb and Tom Taylor were instrumental in getting many birds to us. They patrolled the areas where most of the debilitated birds were found numerous times daily, at dawn and during tide changes.
One boater pulled a white pelican out of the water near the mouth of the Myakka River. He then drove his boat to the El Jobean bridge where he met PRWC rescuers Lee and Charlotte Dewitt, who in turn drove the bird to PRWC.
A lady hopped the sea wall, scratching up her legs in the process, to collect a scaup who was drowning on the shore of Charlotte Harbor. A man pulled a scaup out of the water and into his kayak, and then paddled for close to two hours to get the distressed bird to us. Another man jumped the fence at TT’s Tiki Bar to rescue a scaup from the rocks.
The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department Marine Unit patrolled the shores and kept us apprised of what they found. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) also patrolled the areas and helped us with rescues. They also transported the birds that did not survive for necropsy.
Lesser scaups are a medium-sized duck that nests in the boreal forests of Central Alaska and Manitoba. They migrate in late fall, among the last to leave as ponds freeze over. In the winter they can be found in the Gulf region, Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean. Males and non-breeding females head out slightly earlier for southern locales. Breeding females stay with their broods as long as possible before embarking on the chicks’ first journey.
Since the lesser scaup is one of the last species to migrate back up north in the spring to begin breeding, their offspring are quite young during their first fall migration. They are a precocial species, and chicks are hatched with their eyes open, covered in down, and able to move around on their own. The youngsters leave the nest within hours of hatching and feed themselves immediately. They can dive the day they are hatched, but are too buoyant to stay down long. By five to seven weeks, they are capable of diving up to 60 feet and staying down for up to 25 seconds.
A rather distinctive diving duck, the lesser scaup is similar in appearance to the great scaup, which is only slightly larger, but rarely frequents Southwest Florida. The male has a black domed head, neck, and mantle. His irises are a brilliant yellow and his bill is slate blue (hence the colloquial name). The female is a greyish-brown, with olive-green irises and a dark bill with white feathers at the base. Both sexes have white bellies and secondary wing feathers with a dark band at the edge, visible in flight.
The lesser scaup is carnivorous. Its diet is primarily comprised of crustaceans, insects, and mollusks. While it is one of the most widespread ducks in North America, it is not well studied, especially in the Southwest Florida region.
The one positive note of losing all these birds, is that FWC will be able to study the ducks that did not survive and learn more about this species, especially as it pertains to those migrating to and through this area. While routinely a late migrator (September to November), the peak scaup migration usually occurs in mid- to late November. This rather late migration, combined with a local red tide outbreak, may have been too much for the birds. If there are any other factors involved, FWC will find out and notify us. The results of those tests will be invaluable to us in treating the current birds as well as future patients.
PRWC wants to commend the local community members who went out of their way to help us with numerous rescues. We are also grateful to those who donated toward the care of these critically ill birds, which is quite labour-intensive and demands the use of a lot of expensive supplies. Whether you concur with famed elder statesperson Clinton about the necessity of collaboration for childhood upbringing, it does indeed take a village to conserve wildlife, and we are grateful for the support of our village-community.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Lesser scaups recovering in hospital cage
Icarus was a figure in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun, melted his wings, and then fell into the water. Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a bald eagle this week who was apparently acting out this tragedy. It would seem I am not the only one who has been struck by the thespian bug.
Earlier this week, a couple in a PGI neighborhood heard a loud bang. Assuming it was their pool pump, they ran outside to see what had happened. (I wonder what their rascally pool pump has been up to lately for them to have assumed the worst of it.) When they got outside, they saw an eagle swimming in the canal behind their house. They immediately called Peace River Wildlife Center, while their neighbors called the Punta Gorda Police Department.
Luckily for me, I was on desk duty that day. (If you cannot read the sarcasm between those lines, you must be a new reader. And, so, welcome.) PRWC’s office staff member had to leave a few minutes early, so I had agreed to answer the phones for an hour. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, how about an eagle catching on fire?
I gathered up some rescue equipment and flew out the door as quickly as I could. By the time I got there, PGPD Officers Tony Pribble and Joe Farley were already on scene. With the assistance of passing boater Dave Dyke, we were able to corral the bird against the seawall and scoop him out of the canal. We bundled him into a waiting kennel and got him into treatment at PRWC.
FPL and PRWC representatives examined the area the next day and found the pole where the incident likely occurred to document it. The bird appears to have been burned while trying to eat a fish atop a power pole overlooking the canal. There was a large burned area of grass at the base of the pole, where the flaming eagle may have landed after causing a spark when he dropped his wet fish. He then proceeded to flounder into the canal, which likely helped keep him from getting more severe burns.
All of his feathers were singed—head, body, tail, and both wings. There was superficial damage to the skin on his wings and some sloughing of the skin on one of his feet. Otherwise, he appeared to be relatively healthy. There was no singing in the mucous membranes of his nares or throat, so his respiratory system seemed to have been unaffected by the heat and flames. His lungs sounded clear, so it would seem he did not take in any water during his brief swim—thanks to the quick actions of the neighbors who reported him and Officer Pribble who scooped him out of the canal.
Our Icarus unfortunately did have a brood patch on his belly. This is an area of skin on the lower abdomen where the bird has plucked his feathers out in order to pass body heat to his eggs or hatchling chicks. Bald eagle nesting season in southwest Florida is from October to February, so this adult male and his mate could be preparing their nest, laying and sitting on eggs, or even rearing hatchlings already. “Papa” will be out of commission for quite some time while his feathers molt to new, functional ones. Hopefully mom will be able to fend for herself and the new family for a while.
Since birds do not molt all their feathers at the same time, Icarus could be in rehab for an extended period of time. It can take up to three years for a bald eagle to replace every feather on his body. Time will tell if Icarus will be able to return to the wild, but at this time we are cautiously optimistic. While he cannot be on display to the public during his rehab, we will provide periodic updates at the Center, on our web site, and on our Facebook page.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Icarus’ right wing
Icarus’ left wing
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 tortoises attacked by dogs