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Teaching/Equipping Local Vets to Treat Wildlife

By Dr. Scott Ford

In recent months, I’ve been helping Pine View Wildlife and Best Friends Vet with a few owl cases. It’s been fun and I’m happy to be helping other veterinarians grow their skills and do great things for wildlife.

I started my professional career by treating wildlife. For those that cherish wild birds, no matter their experience level or background, it’s a great way to see amazing birds up close, learn more about them, and, best yet, relieve their suffering and contribute to their conservation. Over the years, I’ve gotten busier and I’ve relocated to areas where having a direct, daily connection with bird treatment is difficult. I miss it, which is why when local veterinarians contact me for help, especially my surgical expertise, I’m usually happy to run off and do what I consider one of the most fun parts of treating wildlife.

But I can’t do it every time. Which is why I love it when local veterinarians, like Dr. Nan Boss at Best Friends Veterinary Center, show a bona fide interest in doing what’s necessary for sick and injured wildlife. She is one of the veterinarians on record for Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center. Every wildlife center is required to have a veterinarian pledged to provide support and usually that support is completely pro bono, so it’s a serious commitment.

Dr. Nan Boss takes it seriously too. You may recall that I assisted her last fall with orthopedic surgery on an owl at Best Friends. Well, I was recently called on to help again. Nan worked alongside me to repair a combination ulna/radial fracture in a great horned owl. Fractures of both bones simultaneously are challenging but I’m happy to say that surgery was successful.

The left radius and ulna were fractured mid-shaft

We placed intramedullary (IM) pins into the ulna and radius separately. These are pins that run down the center of the bone. The centers of the bones are hollow although these particular bones contain marrow instead of the air we encounter in the humerus or femur (first bones in the wings and legs, respectively). The pins exited at the wrist (for the radius) and elbow (for the ulna) and were bent around to the upper side of the wing. Then we placed cross pins, bent them so that they overlapped the external portion of the IM pins, and bonded it all together with epoxy putty in a slim bar.

After such surgeries, patients have a wing wrap and receive pain medications, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory drugs for about a week. Then they enter a phase of light physical therapy and gradually increase use of their wings until they are flying again. After 3-4 weeks, hardware is completely removed, usually in a staged process, and the birds enter a period of heavier physical conditioning, leading up to release at 8-12 weeks post-op if all goes well.

Because of the COVID-19 partial shutdown (Best Friend’s is open for essential services only), Dr. Boss and her staff were more available to fully participate in the surgery and aftercare. You can read about orthopedic surgery but in my experience, it’s a lot better to learn on a case alongside an experienced surgeon. It was the strongest part of how I learned– attending externships with Dr. Pat Redig at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, among other opportunities.

As a testament to how well this process works, I’d like to mention that Dr. Boss took on another owl case, this time a young barred owl, with a similar fracture. I was unable to join her this time so she had to fly solo. But I provided encouragement and advice remotely and from what I see, she did a wonderful job! With ongoing care by Pine View, I expect the bird to gain flight and be releasable.

It feels good to see birds get the care they deserve and to know that I’m contributing to the future of their care. Thank you to Dr. Boss and Pine View for the opportunity. I also appreciate how Dr. Boss has used the recent lockdown as an opportunity for her and her staff to grow professionally.

If you have a positive wildlife and COVID-19 story to share, please let me know in the comments below. It’s a challenging time for wildlife rehabilitation and some centers are really struggling for personnel and financial support. We hear every day about human health professionals responding (and their contributions cannot be undersung), but I’d love to hear more about wildlife care professionals and volunteers too.

2-weeks post-op. You can see bridging bulges of healing bone tissue. The wires and dense irregular shape in the lower left are the hardware and epoxy putty applied during surgery.

In closing, I want to thank Dr. Boss and Pine View for the opportunity to help and to teach. And to everyone else, stay safe. We’ll get through this soon.

One thought on “Teaching/Equipping Local Vets to Treat Wildlife

  1. Hey Scott, the staff at the raptor center and fortress of the bear have been busy providing 100% of the care for their charges since early March, as no volunteers are allowed on site (except brief visits). The raptor center staff has been staggering their hours to have fewer folks on premises at the same time. We had to euthanize one of the oldest brown bears, my dear sweet friend Killisnoo, last Thursday. He started going downhill in Feb when he awoke from hibernation, with balance issues and then inability to move his back legs. He was safely secured in a den by himself to avoid injury in the uneven ground and trip & water hazards in the enclosure he shared with 3 other brown bears. He had care provided remotely by the Yukon Vet who met him several years ago, and other large mammal specialists. They tried several course of steroids, antibiotics, etc with no improvement. He started having respiratory problems but was acting understandable withdrawn and depressed, so I got called to go out and see him a week before he was put down, and he responded to my voice, ate some hard boiled eggs from my fingers and sucked and licked all of my fingers. He was my favorite bear, always responded to my voice, loved to share apples with my and loved for me to scratch his back and ears! That’s what’s going on in Sitka. We are hoping a thorough necropsy will show us the cause of his demise. ADF&W was awesome in their support and assistance with this. Hugs from me! Miss you and thanks for sharing your skills with others, and telling your stories.

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