The work of being a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator is, at times, rewarding, fun and exhilarating, while at others, devastating, exhausting, and frustrating. Over the last twenty-eight years I have worked with creatures as small as hummingbirds, as large as bears, and as common as cottontails. There are only a handful that change your life, and one very special Bald Eagle became one of these.
In November of 2006, the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center received a call to rescue an adult Bald Eagle found unable to walk, stand or fly, from the middle of an icy stream less than a mile from the Center. Volunteers Nancie Schoeneberger and Shamus Keeler responded to the site and gently wrapped the large bird in a warm, dry blanket. The nearly three-foot tall bird barely struggled, and began to have seizures and so was immediately delivered to Wright Veterinary Hospital in Bethlehem, where anti-seizure medicine was administered. Examination of the bird found the eagle to be in a weakened condition, having lost a third of its body weight and producing very green bile-stained excrement. The head was down, the bird sat on its “heels” and the wings drooped. I remembered learning about the symptoms of lead poisoning from Dr. Jane Huffman, a professor at East Stroudsburg University, under whom I earned my Master’s degree. An x-ray and blood tests confirmed the initial diagnosis and treatment for acute lead poisoning commenced.
Lead poisoning, also called plumbism, is caused when an animal ingests lead. Raptors, including eagles and hawks, feed on animals that may have lead pellets from a shotgun in the flesh, weakening or killing that creature. The predator then eats the prey, ingesting the pellets along with the meat. Waterfowl ingest lead sinkers and sunken shotgun pellets along with gravel, or “grit” which helps them grind and begin the digestive process.
The Bald Eagle had a mere two pieces of lead shot in its digestive tract, yet its blood lead level was four times the amount that can cause death. Hawks and eagles have extremely acidic digestive systems, designed to break down nearly every part of its prey to obtain maximum nutrition. Unfortunately, the acid also extracts large amounts of lead quickly when ingested, resulting in the death of the bird. In most other animals, including people, the lead passes through the digestive system and only a small amount is absorbed. If this happens repeatedly, chronic lead poisoning results, which is the concern of which we are so aware these days when children put lead-based paint from toys in their mouths.
Lead poisoning affects the kidneys (causing renal failure and hypertension), bone marrow (anemia), and nervous system problems. In the brain, lead disrupts the blood-brain barrier and can cause problems in memory, balance, and vision. Seizures may occur as well.
This very sick eagle happened to be admitted on the very day that Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles football team was injured and the eagle was named “Donovan”.
Treating a lead-poisoned Bald Eagle requires many treatments performed simultaneously. Valium was administered to control seizures, copious quantities of fluids were provided subcutaneously (under the skin) to ease the load on the kidneys and flush toxins, and a chemical called Calcium EDTA was provided that binds to the lead and escorts it from the body. Antibiotics were given to counteract infections the bird might have due to its diminished immune system. In three days, Donovan was strong enough to be discharged from Dr. Wright’s care and continue his treatment at the wildlife center.
In addition to continuing the medications started at the hospital, the eagle was provided with a vitamin B complex, which helps restore the nervous system and appetite, Zinc to help with the immune system and because zinc is removed from the body with the lead because they are chemically similar metals. On top of all this, Donovan was not strong enough to eat on its own and weighed three pounds less than he should when admitted. Handling this large, increasingly strong and angry patient made for some tense moments that tested my husband Eric’s and my abilities, as well as, at times, our marriage (only kidding!).
Within two weeks Donovan could stand, bite, and began to look more normal. Biting and lunging with talons ready demonstrated that the battle against permanent brain injury was being won. Grabbing this now nine-pound bird became a twice-a-day battle, prepared for diligently and executed with care. A tube was placed down the throat to administer all oral medications with the fluids. Large chunks of food (fish, venison, etc) were stuffed down by hand (really fun!) Injectable medications were given next, and the bird was quickly placed back in a clean crate. Weekly blood tests measured blood lead levels which dropped dramatically then more slowly but consistently. Within two months the blood lead level dropped from an initial 426 parts to 4 parts, well below the level of 10 considered safe. A Bald Eagle can exert 1000 pounds of pressure per square inch from each talon and the beak is no less of a weapon.
Donovan was well enough to be placed in an outside enclosure large enough to begin gaining back some of the muscle mass lost from lack of exercise for three weeks. A large heated bath pan and perches were provided, as well as fresh trout from Cherry Valley Trout Hatchery, our next-door neighbors. Appetite and self-feeding increased and treatments were reduced to once per day, then once every three days, a relief to the bird, and his tired and punctured handlers.
East Stroudsburg University’s Wildlife DNA Laboratory performed another test on Donovan, this one to determine the bird’s sex. Donovan was a girl! A local Lenni-Lenape group had come one evening to the wildlife center to perform a ceremony for the restoration of the health of one of their most revered symbols, and from their language came the eagle’s more appropriate and permanent name, Woapalanne.
For Woapalanne, her near-death experience is over. Sadly, she lost the very end of her wing when she fell into the creek where she was found, grounding her for life. The Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center awaits permission from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to allow her to remain with us as a member of our education crew of nonreleasable animals that allow all of us to come closer to the natural world by seeing these wonderful creatures up close and personal. This noble, powerful, bold bird tested my abilities, knowledge and strength and the qualities she possesses deepen my understanding about why they are our national symbol.
Let’s get the lead out of ammunition and angling!