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July 5, 2011

Safe Harbor: Teaching and Learning

Cape Cod facility cares for ailing and orphaned creatures while helping humans and wildlife live in harmony

All Animals magazine

  • Heather Fone/The HSUS.

In the basement of the main house, veterinary technician Kate Rollenhagen is doing a necropsy on a wild turkey who has just died—standard practice when an animal expires from unknown causes. “You usually get surprised in some way,” Rollenhagen says. The bird was brought in with head trauma after being hit by a car; Aguilar and Rollenhagen treated her injury, but the turkey refused to eat and died after several days. Carefully dissecting the bird’s body and noting the condition of various organs, Rollenhagen finds two old puncture wounds in her shoulders (perhaps a gunshot that passed straight through) and signs of gout. “She’s old, and clearly a lot of things had happened to her. Getting hit by the car probably was the last straw,” Rollenhagen concludes.

Some creatures have seen worse. Aguilar brings up an image on a digital X-ray screen of a Canada goose who harbored three kinds of gunshot: BBs, .22-caliber, and lead buckshot. Most of the pellets were in parts of the bird that did not interfere with organ function, and in fact the goose was treated and survived. But the good news may be short-lived, as one piece of lead shot lodged in a kidney. “You can see that the area is cloudy. That means there’s a lot of circulation around it, so this goose is being slowly poisoned without ever ingesting lead,” Aguilar says, shaking his head.

Beyond treating animals’ immediate needs, the CWC seeks to improve wildlife medicine. “We want to understand why some species seem to be doing well and then crash,” says Aguilar. “Rehabilitation can generate lots of information about injuries and illnesses that are affecting animals. It’s also important to track wildlife illnesses because many zoonotic diseases like Ebola, hantavirus, and West Nile virus have crossed from wildlife to humans.”

Aguilar and Barbo want to develop the center into a veterinary teaching hospital over the next several years. The center already hosts up to 14 interns at a time, mainly in the summer. Some are ecologists or conservation biologists who want to learn about animal medicine; many are veterinary students. “Vet school is an expensive career that tends to push you away from working with wildlife,” says Aguilar. “The typical attitude is that wildlife medicine is an unusual field and you’re likely to end up working at a zoo, but we need more specialists.

“There’s very little funding for wildlife rehabilitation—it’s not supported by government, and most rehabilitated animals don’t have major biological value,” he adds. “But it has major social value.”

Barbo is working to raise the CWC’s local profile and strengthen links with other wildlife agencies and conservation groups; the center is a founding member of the Cape Cod Wildlife Collaborative, a coalition of wildlife protection groups, museums, scientific research centers, and land trusts. The CWC sponsors a popular lecture series on Cape Cod ecology topics like the decline and recovery of ospreys, and Barbo would like to promote more research on environmental threats to the wildlife the center treats, such as red tide outbreaks, which can poison waterbirds.

As they continue to dream about long-term plans, staffers also have more immediate concerns on this April day: the spring rush. “It’s a gift to be here,” says Fone, who started as a volunteer before joining the staff. For emphasis, she points to one of the photographs of former patients that line the walls of the animal ward. It’s a northern gannet, shown at release after being treated for a wing injury. The bird is taking flight from the ocean’s surface, seemingly racing over the water, wings bent to power himself into the air, eyes fixed forward. Fone, who snapped the photo, smiles at the memory: “He just charged off and never looked back.”

Jennifer Weeks is a freelance writer living in Watertown, Mass.

Learn more about the Cape Wildlife Center at humanesociety.org/cape

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