Gulliver’s chances didn’t seem high when a caring person saw him fall from a tree and called animal control. A beautiful bald eagle, Gulliver was the victim of acute lead poisoning. Gulliver couldn’t stand or even hold his head up. His bloodwork showed a lead level of 94.2, startlingly higher than the normal level of 6-12 μg/dL (micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood).
After active treatment for these elevated levels of lead in his system, Gulliver is now on the mend thanks to the caring staff and veterinarians at Chadwell Animal Hospital, and will eventually be released. I was glad that The HSUS, through the Sparrow Fund (a special project my wife Lisa and I started three years ago to provide emergency care for critically wounded wildlife and homeless pets), will help offset the cost of Gulliver’s rehabilitation. We named our project after a passage in the Bible, Matthew 10:29, that tells us that not a sparrow falls without his Maker knowing. The Sparrow Fund is devoted to that ideal—that every animal’s life matters.
While each life matters, we know that even if we expand the Sparrow Fund, it will not solve the problems that so many animals face. In addition to making grants through the Sparrow Fund and other channels, we at The HSUS and all of us who work in the animal protection field have a duty to address the systemic issues that cause animals to get into situations of distress in the first place. The best outcome is that we prevent animals from getting hurt or ill, so that no active human intervention is needed.
This week, The Guardian reported on the Blue Mountain Wildlife Center in Oregon, which has treated a series of eagles suffering from lead poisoning. “They eat things that have been shot, whether it’s big game like deer or elk or coyotes or ground squirrels,” said Lynn Tompkins of the center.
Lead is a deadly toxin—one we’ve known about for ages—and it’s killing eagles around the nation. It’s well documented that it’s been the number one source of human-caused mortality for the endangered California condor. Yet, even though our government and the private sector have worked to get lead out of a range of products—removing it from gasoline, paint, and our water supply—it’s still widely used in modern wildlife management.
Scientists call lead ammunition the “greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States.” Because bullets often shatter into fragments upon impact, lead makes its way into the food chain as animals feed off carcasses left in the field by hunters.
The toll is staggering—between 10 and 20 million birds and other animals from more than 130 species die each year from lead poisoning. The real shame is that it’s wholly preventable. Lead alternatives are widespread. Comparably-priced copper and steel ammunition outperform lead and do not keep killing days, weeks, and months after leaving the gun. Hunters who use it say they like it, in terms of the ballistic properties.
In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a new policy to phase out the use of lead ammo and fishing tackle on more than 150 million acres of national wildlife refuges and other agency lands and waterways.
The new Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, nullified that policy on his first day.
Zinke talked about process and involving key stakeholders. We have no objections to that, but the science of the issue isn’t in dispute. Lead kills wildlife. And in terms of the technology and affordability of alternatives, they exist. Sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and make a change.
As I write this, the EPA has announced its plans to spend $100 million to get the lead out of Flint, Michigan’s water supply. Getting it out of the country’s ammunition supply won’t cost the federal government a dime, and is therefore far easier to achieve. We as a nation should get on with the transition away from lead. Gulliver reminds us of what’s at stake.