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Lead Often Deadly for Wildlife

Cape Wildlife Center treats wildlife with lead poisoning--teaches about dangers

  • A Canada goose recovers from lead poisoning at Cape Wildlife Center. Deborah Millman/Cape Wildlife Center

  • Veterinary technician Brittany Griffin examines the goose upon arrival at the center. Deborah Millman/Cape Wildlife Center

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 10 to 20 million animals from more than 130 species die from lead poisoning each year in the United States, including thousands in Massachusetts. These animals suffer silently after ingesting tainted prey, who may have been killed with lead ammunition and discarded or who died of lead poisoning themselves. Other times, animals ingest discarded ammunition or lead sinkers after mistaking them for food.

An animal with lead poisoning experiences neurological issues, muscle weakness, and eventually, death. For birds, this can be a particularly slow process. According to Cape Wildlife Center Veterinarian Roberto Aguilar, their digestive tracts grind the lead item, slowly releasing the toxins into their bloodstreams. It affects the oxygen levels of their red blood cells and slowly permeates other tissues, primarily their livers and bones. Even if a poisoned animal is rescued, the poisoning is often too advanced to be cured. For those who are rescued in time, treatment is lengthy. As lead is removed from the animal's bloodstream, lead from the animal's tissues seeps back into the bloodstream, which brings another spike in toxin levels.

Therefore, even with advanced veterinary medicine, treatment of lead poisoning requires several rounds over a long period of time to ensure that an animal is truly toxin-free and capable of surviving on its own in the wild. One current patient at Cape Wildlife Center, a Canada Goose, is one of the lucky ones. He joins the many other species including hawks, swans, and owls who receive treatment for lead poisoning at the Center each year.

When the goose was found, he was unable to stand, walk, or lift his head to eat. After undergoing a time-intensive and grueling five days of treatment to remove lead toxins from his body, he was able to walk more steadily on his feet and could forage for his own food in his enclosure. "Our most interesting observation is that the bird is now able to fly somewhat—he needs a long run up and cannot get high or sustain flight, but that is a vast improvement," says Cape Wildlife Center Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation Lynn Miller. Treatment will continue until all traces of lead have been removed. Miller says, "It is impossible to overstate the devastating effect lead has on wildlife – lead poisoning is always painful and, far too often, fatal."

Watch his progress after just one round of treatment for lead poisoning:

One way to combat the widespread poisoning and subsequent death of wildlife is for states to require the use of non-lead ammunition in hunting. Massachusetts already prohibits the use of lead fishing sinker weighing less than one ounce. However, larger sinkers are still allowed, and most states have no regulations at all. Thankfully, one state is leading the charge on prohibiting the use of lead ammunition. Read about efforts to prohibit lead ammunition in California»

“Using lead-free ammunition and sinkers would save millions of animals annually without impacting peoples’ activities,” says Cape Wildlife Center Director Deborah Robbins Millman. “It’s rare that something so easy to do has such a profoundly positive effect. We encourage people to make this life-saving choice.”

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