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Second Chance for Wildlife

Cape Wildlife Center strives to rehab and release

The Humane Society of the United States / The Fund for Animals

  • This Northern Fulmar, blown off-course by a storm, was found on a Mass. street. Vern Laux and Cape Wildlife Center were called in on the case. Laux/Linda Loring Nature Foundation

  • This beautiful mute swan was a recent patient at Cape Wildlife Center. He's now back in his habitat. Heather Fone/HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

Flapping his wings against cold winds thick with stinging sand, the Northern Fulmar must have flown with all his might. Thwomp, thwomp, thwomp sounded his wings as he torpedoed over the ocean during a severe nor’easter that had hit the Atlantic Ocean.

These deadly storms have taken many a pelagic bird stronger than he—petrels, shearwaters, gannets, and others like him who live almost entirely at sea, except to raise their young on cliffs.

Barely able to see in front of him, the fulmar probably relied on intuition and sheer determination as his guide.

In the daylight hours sometime after the storm had passed, the fulmar was spotted on the coast of Nantucket, a small island near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He was weak and in poor condition, but still alive.

To the rescue

Luckily, the people who found him called renowned birder Vern Laux, who knew that a fulmar on terra firma could only mean one thing—the bird was in serious trouble.

Laux rushed the sea bird to the local airport, where a plane was waiting to transport him to the Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable Village. “He came in exhausted,” said Dr. Roberto Aguilar, veterinarian and interim director of the wildlife center.

Aguilar explained that fulmars typically migrate through the Arctic Circle to the coast of Scotland and Ireland. “They are great fliers who rarely come into the Cape, unless they are blown onto shore by a storm or if they get really tired.”

Challenges ahead

Because of their waterproofing, fulmars are extremely difficult birds to rehabilitate, Aguilar said. “Any amount of oil—even the small amount on human hands—can break their waterproofing and the birds are pretty much condemned.”

Without waterproofing, the cold penetrates their feathers and they can easily die. Fulmars also need salt water in their diet to stimulate the salt gland in their beak that secretes their natural waterproofing, Aguilar said—a difficult feat in a rehabilitation facility on dry land.

Upon the bird’s arrival, the team at the center went to work warming and giving him fluids. When Aguilar examined Freddie, named so by his finders, he noticed the bird’s corneas had been damaged, most likely from sand scratching his eyes as he flew in the storm. He knew a blind or even partially blind bird could never fly free and the team began administering ointment to Freddie’s eyes.

“We were worried about his sight for a while, but were finally able to confirm he could see,” Aguilar said. The CWC team also added salt to his diet and let Freddie bathe in the facility’s saltwater tanks to make sure his waterproofing remained unspoiled.

Over the course of his stay, Freddie’s eating and strength increased. After about a month, he was flown back to Nantucket for release. “He flew straight to the water and then short distances at first, flying and then landing on the water,” Aguilar said. “He was even able to fend off a seagull who got too close.”

Freddie was followed by his releasers for about an hour before he flew unerringly toward the horizon, free once again to live on his own terms.

Save and Rehabilitate

For employees and volunteers at the CWC, a program of The Fund for Animals in partnership with The Humane Society of the United States, Freddie the Fulmar’s story is one of many, and their mission is always the same when it comes to the wildlife that comes through their door: To save and rehabilitate the animals and return them to the wild.

In 2008, they assisted almost 2,000 injured, orphaned, and sick animals—from birds and turtles entangled in fishing line to orphaned raccoons and skunks, to sick swans and opossums.

“Most animals we receive have been injured or affected by human activity—a road where there was no road before or a housing complex where there wasn’t one,” Aguilar said. “It may be from our trash or wanting to get rid of pest animals—poisons, lead, pollution. Our presence has changed things for these animals, dramatically.”  

A History of Helping Wildlife

Since 1995, the CWC has provided care for the area’s unique wildlife community. In any given year, they have helped as many as 130 different species, with birds topping the list due to the Cape’s location along an important migratory route. The staff’s dedication and expertise in wildlife care translate to a success rate of about 70 percent of the animals who survive the first 24 hours after their admittance.

Before 1995, the wildlife center operated as Orenda Wildlife Trust, a land trust started by Barbara and Dave Birdsey in 1986 to provide open space for wildlife habitat. Orenda soon expanded its work to include a grass-roots rehabilitation program for orphaned and injured animals on the Cape. The facility was open year round and began offering a wildlife-care training program for wildlife rehabilitators.

In 1995, the Birdseys donated the animal care facility and five acres of the preserve to The HSUS.

Broadening the Horizons

Under The HSUS leadership, services were expanded to a wildlife hotline to help Cape Cod residents and visitors humanely resolve conflicts with their wild neighbors. The CWC has continued the student externship program, which provides training for undergraduates and veterinary and veterinary technology students.

Many of these externs have since become ambassadors for wildlife, simply by having understood the gentleness of an opossum, the power of a barn owl, or the sensitive nature of a rabbit. 
Animal patients admitted to the CWC include wildlife injured from cat or dog attacks or those who have had run-ins with cars, trash, mowers, and boats. Migrating birds sometimes get blown off course by storms and become fatigued and confused, making them especially vulnerable to cat or dog attack or to flying into objects such as windows. 

Animal babies are sometimes brought in to the center by concerned citizens who wrongly assume the animals are orphaned.
“People mean well, but we get a lot of animals in who they believe are orphaned,” Aguilar said, “such as birds in the fledgling stage, when they typically leave the nest and their parents are taking care of them and getting them to fly stronger and stronger. People think they need to bring them and we ask them to leave them there, as long as they can, and make sure the parents come back.”  

When animals are brought in who may not have been orphaned, renesting is typically the most successful option.

Bird renesting expert Norman Smith from National Audubon Society—whose research on raptors has been published in National Geographic and National Wildlife, among others—works closely with the CWC to renest young raptors such as hawks and owls brought into the center.

Other orphaned animals include baby rabbits, squirrels, and raccoons. In 2008, a litter of otter pups were reunited with their mom after getting separated along the way. Those who cannot be renested or reunited with their parents are cared for at the center until they can make it on their own in the wild.

For Aguilar, no matter the animal or situation, keeping wildlife populations healthy is of the utmost importance for the ecosystem.

“There is a great deal of satisfaction in giving these individual animals a second chance, but you also learn a lot about what is going on in the environment,” he said. “These animals can warn us if there is something wrong, and they teach us a lot about ourselves.”

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