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The Deadly Truth About Trash

HSUS animal caretakers see litter's lethal dangers

All Animals magazine, July/Aug 2009

  • Marine animals can easily become entangled in nets and fishing wire. Enrique Aguirre/Getty

  • Always snip apart six-pack rings before throwing them in the garbage. Jessica Kristie.

  • X-rays often reveal fishing hooks stuck in the bodies of pelicans and other animals. The SPCA Wildlife Care Center

by Ruthanne Johnson

As a wildlife rehabilitator, Renata Schneider has seen a number of trash related injuries—birds poisoned from lead weights, skunks with yogurt containers stuck on their heads, birds’ eyes poked out from fishing hooks. But the worst case she remembers was a raccoon whose paws were stuck in beer cans.

“The cans had been on his limbs for so long that he had tried to learn to walk with them, and both front limbs were completely damaged,” says Schneider, a veterinarian at the SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “We sedated him and took the cans off his hands, which were nothing but raw flesh anymore. There was no fur, no skin, and he was alive and getting around, but thin.”

The animal’s condition was so poor that he had to be euthanized. Though the center’s employees are able to save many of the 14,000 animals admitted annually, most of the raccoons suffering from can injuries or entangled in plastic six-pack rings are not so lucky. “The trash slices them up, and by the time they come in to us the injuries are so advanced that we can’t do much for them,” Schneider says.

The statistic highlights the lethal dangers posed by some of the 250 million tons of trash discarded by Americans every year. While much of this garbage is hauled to landfills, a large amount makes its way into the natural environment. In West Virginia alone, according to the state’s transportation department, a two-mile stretch of highway yields around 32,000 pieces of refuse. Debris also clogs the oceans; the Ocean Conservancy’s 2008 International Coastal Cleanup garnered 3.7 million pounds of trash along 9,000 miles of U.S. shorelines in a single day. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge conglomeration of plastic and other nonbiodegradable flotsam swirling off the California coast, is estimated at anywhere from twice as big as Texas to larger than the U.S.

This ubiquitous trash provides an ample banquet for wild animals displaced into developed areas due to shrinking habitats. Unfortunately, the simple act of satisfying hunger pangs often ends in injury or death.

Plastic items become intestinal blockages; baited fishing lines entangle limbs, hindering movement and causing dismemberment; and aluminum cans with leftover soda or beer turn into razorsharp traps.

Litter is also an indirect killer. Tossed from car windows, it puts curious animals in the path of oncoming vehicles. “The majority of what we see is casual garbage, the things that are cast off on the side of the road—the convenience food, wrappers, and bottles,” says Robbie Fearn, director of The HSUS’s Cape Wildlife Center in Cape Cod, Mass. “For years, I would throw my apple cores and other food out the window of my car, thinking it’s going to compost and go back into the wild, never considering the fact it’s actually drawing animals who might then get hit by a car.” This roadside garbage has a domino effect, Fearn says. “In the case of raptors, the garbage attracts rodents, and then the bird goes after this prey and gets hit by a car.”

Trash can also create conflict between people and hungry wild marauders. In Connecticut, two raccoons scrounging in a garbage bin were cruelly dealt with by the owners of a dry cleaning store, says Laura Simon, field director of The HSUS’s Urban Wildlife Program. “Instead of securing the lid to prevent the animals from getting in, they poured gasoline into the dumpster and lit the raccoons on fire,” she says. “It became a huge animal cruelty case that easily could have been avoided.” The raccoons were euthanized due to the severity of their burns.

Animals injured by trash are regularly admitted at the Fort Lauderdale facility, which will become part of The HSUS’s family of animal care centers when a corporate combination is finalized this year. All bird patients are X-rayed for fishing hooks; young pelicans are especially susceptible because of their curiosity and appetite for an easy meal, says Schneider.“We call them the juvenile delinquents because they get into fishing hooks and lines left on the pier, and they nose through trash. They come in all wrapped up in fishing wire.”

Pelicans typically have a high rehabilitation success rate, but hooks that pierce joints cause untreatable infections. Schneider recently euthanized two young pelicans with such injuries. “This is the beginning of their life and it’s just heartbreaking to have to euthanize a young animal because of fishing line,” she says.

Turtles and birds who ingest hooks also face a grim outcome. On a good day, the hook can be extracted while the animal is under anesthesia. “This kind of procedure is difficult with turtles, though, because it requires deep sedation and surgery,” Schneider says. “If the hook is in the neck, it can get ugly because the turtle will sometimes pull itself back into the shell.”

The exact number of trash-related fatalities among ocean species is anyone’s guess, says Sharon Young, The HSUS’s marine issues field director, but “what is not conjecture is the array of species affected by it.” Stranded whales, turtles, dolphins, and manatees have been found with plastic bags in their stomachs or dead from entanglement. In Hawaii, more than 1,000 small pieces of plastic were found in the stomach of a sea turtle. Perhaps the most famous case involved a pygmy sperm whale stranded off the New Jersey coast in 1993. Inky, as she was called, had 3 square feet of plastic clogging her stomach. She survived, but many do not.

Marine animals even ingest items such as bottle caps and lighters. “Cigarette butts contain nicotine and are toxic if eaten. They also don’t degrade,” says Young. “Animals end up eating a lot of them because they look like fish eggs when the outer wrapping unravels, and they can fill up the animal’s stomach and remain undigested. Birds also feed these items to their young, who often starve to death with their stomachs full of plastic.”

While working on whale watch boats as a naturalist in the 1980s, Young often saw trash even far out to sea. “We’d be 20 miles from shore and find balloons floating out there on the water,” she says, explaining that a floating balloon with streamers looks much like a jellyfish with tentacles. “We used to scoop them up out of the water and had balloons with logos from as far away as Ohio. One time we found 60 balloons from a politician running for office in Connecticut. We called to let her know, and she was incredibly embarrassed about it.”

Young suggests balloon-free celebrations as one way to reduce the toll caused by trash. She also recommends using reusable shopping bags, as well as washing items that are to be recycled and securely storing them so they’re not carried off by the wind—or curious critters. “This is not an academic exercise,” she says. “We have this silent epidemic in terrestrial andmarine wildlife, and this stuff doesn’t just go away.”

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