At South Florida Wildlife Center, staff rehabilitate pelicans, other wildlife hurt and orphaned by human actions
I was at the South Florida Wildlife Center yesterday when workers there released six pelicans back into the wild. The birds, who can be found wintering in South Florida this time of year, had all been brought in last month with injuries that need never have happened: they had each been hurt by fish hooks discarded in the sea. Some of the pelicans had swallowed the hooks, others had the hooks embedded in their wings, and some even had them stuck deep in their mouths, making eating, drinking and even flying nearly impossible.
The amazing staff at the wildlife center, which is an affiliate of the Humane Society of the United States and one of the nation’s highest volume wildlife trauma hospitals, spent weeks treating and rehabilitating the injured animals. They performed surgery, treated gaping wounds, manually removed snared hooks and then cared for the birds at the wildlife center’s state-of-the-art treatment facility as they recuperated, before getting them ready to return to the wild, where they belong.
When our staff brought the carriers out yesterday to release them, the birds at first just poked their heads out to look around before tentatively flapping out of their carriers. It was inspiring to watch as their natural instincts kicked in, and seconds later they were off and flying high together around the beach before disappearing. Onlookers who had crowded the beach cheered and clapped. But no sooner had we released the pelicans, than we got word that there was another injured bird on the pier who needed our help. This one had a fishing hook sticking out of her abdomen.
Each year, our South Florida Wildlife Center treats around 150 birds for fishhook injuries. The birds we find or who are brought here are the lucky ones; many pelicans and sea birds injured by trash discarded in the ocean will die a painful death that could easily be avoided by the proper disposal of fishing equipment.
During my visit to the wildlife center, I also got to meet many other patients under the excellent care of the team here. I watched as they mended and healed animals, including a tortoise, squirrel and a possum. I even got to bottle-feed a baby raccoon and a baby squirrel who was yet to even open her eyes for the first time.
The need to help orphaned and injured animals like these in South Florida is critical. Wildlife here is being displaced by a growing population and encroaching development, causing large numbers of animal injuries and deaths. The staff at the center provides emergency rescue, veterinary treatment and rehabilitative care to more than 350 wild species, and helps more than 12,000 injured, orphaned and imperiled animals each year. They have been doing this for a long time now: the center was founded in 1969 and will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary.
But this is not all they do. With so many experts on the staff, the wildlife center also functions as a teaching facility in wildlife veterinary medicine and rehabilitation. And because 90 percent of the animals seen here, like the pelicans, get here because of negative interactions with people, staff at the center work to educate the community about wildlife and peacefully coexisting with wild neighbors.
After releasing the pelicans, we returned to the wildlife center yesterday not with six empty carriers, as we had hoped, but five. It was a reminder that these problems are not likely to end any time soon. But as the experts at the South Florida Wildlife Center took her into their capable hands, it was heartening to know that we would be making all the difference in the world for this bird with the fish hook stuck in her belly, who would otherwise have had no hope.