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Many Happy Returns

At The HSUS's newest care center, rehabilitated wildlife can indeed go home again.

All Animals magazine, Jan/Feb 2010

by Alan Green

The first patients ushered through the intake and examination areas on this autumn Sunday represent nothing out of the ordinary for veterinarian Stefan Harsch: There’s a parrot with a separated shoulder, a duck unable to waddle, and a hobbled juvenile squirrel with a severely sprained leg. In the nearby triage area is a shoebox full of ducklings whose mother was found dead near their nesting site. Among yesterday’s late arrivals requiring follow-up care are two with fractured limbs: a raccoon and a long-legged water bird. And the worried phone calls besieging the admissions staff foretell what else the day may bring: A woman fears that a snarling opossum in her backyard shed may be rabid; a dove has flown into a window on a seventh-story balcony; a kayaker has spotted an injured wading bird futilely struggling to reach the nearby shoreline.

These are familiar challenges for Harsch, a thoughtful and engaging German expatriate who practices his uncommon brand of veterinary medicine with nonchalant confidence. In fact, over the last few days he’s treated only the sort of illnesses and injuries that he’s grown all too accustomed to seeing during his five years at the SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: the raccoon with distemper, the warbler with a possible concussion, the screech owl with a broken wing, the opossum with a busted leg, the migrating songbird mauled by a cat, the rabbit with a nasty case of ear mites.

And there was the inevitable procession of Muscovy ducks, with problems ranging from predator-inflicted injuries and botulism to 15 inches of fishing line dangling from one bird’s beak—a telltale sign of a fish hook embedded somewhere in his gullet or stomach. After administering anesthesia, Harsch probed deep inside the duck’s throat until finally locating the hook. He pushed upward with a finger until the point and barb emerged through the swollen tissue, then sheared them with wire cutters. “I once took 13 hooks out of a pelican in one session,” he said while gingerly removing the neutered steel shank.

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