Tape these broken wings

At the Four Lakes Wildlife Center, injured animals get a fighting chance.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Sporting heavy gloves and a wire-mesh facemask for protection, Erin Lemley, 31, approaches the bald eagle sideways, careful not to look directly in its eyes. In her hands she carries a plateful of the bird’s daily sustenance — two venison steaks and one bluegill totaling about 1.3 pounds.

This is a part of the Dane County Humane Society the public rarely sees. As the wildlife rehabilitation coordinator at Four Lakes Wildlife Center, Lemley is one of four year-round staff members aided by a host of volunteers who care for injured or sick wild animals reported by the general public.

These are not pets nor will they ever be. “Our goal is to make animals healthy so they can be released into the wild,” Lemley says.

Often they are successful; sometimes they are not.

One of the two steaks has already been injected with medicines and vitamins designed to aid in the bird’s recovery from suspected rodenticide toxicity likely caused by eating a mouse or rat that had been poisoned, Lemley explains.

This eagle was admitted on Nov. 11. “A farmer found her just standing in the field and she didn’t fly away,” Lemley says. “She came in and her red blood cell count was really low, and she was very weak.”

In this outdoor, 60-foot-long “flight” structure behind the Humane Society’s main building, the eagle is the sole occupant. Lemley entices the bird by placing one steak and the fish on the perch. It works. Then, crouching directly underneath, she offers the medicated steak up to the bird using a large tweezers. The wary eagle takes the bait.

On to the next animal.

While rodenticide toxicity cases are not uncommon in eagles, their greatest threat, Lemley notes, is lead poisoning.

“Eagles eat mostly venison in the winter,” she explains, “and if hunters use lead bullets or leave gut piles in the woods, chances are the eagle will ingest the lead and over time develop lead poisoning. We recommend deer hunters use copper bullets.”

Any donated venison used in feeding is X-rayed first to rule out any presence of lead prior to administering. Lead affects other animals, as well. One poisoned duck was recently released from the wildlife center after nine months of rehab. “That’s the longest stay we’ve ever had,” Lemley says. Unfortunately, waterways often contain years and years of lead sinkers and shot. “It’s a bigger problem up north with loons because they tend to ingest fishing tackle which usually requires surgery.”

This is the slow season. The wildlife center has 19 animals in its care, a fraction of the more than 3,200 animals the center has admitted through the end of November. In addition to the eagle there’s a Cooper’s hawk, two great horned owls, three red-tail hawks, three squirrels, two rabbits, five house finches, a robin, and a pigeon.

Staff is expecting its 20th patient later on this afternoon — an owl that was hit by a car overnight. The man who struck the bird near Dodgeville was able to contain it in the back of his truck and Lemley has arranged for its retrieval. “With owls, we worry most about their eyes. They are enormous and don’t get much protection from the head. That’s the first thing we’ll check,” she notes.

Often, staff knows absolutely nothing about an animal’s injuries. “Why was this animal in that situation in the first place? Was there something else that caused them to have trouble? We do a lot of diagnostics to try to find out exactly what’s wrong,” Lemley notes.



Hawkish behavior

Continuing her morning rounds, she heads into another flight building occupied by a great horned owl and three red-tailed hawks that share a tree branch at the back of the 50-foot long enclosure.

The youngest hawk arrived with a lopsided flight and a highly contagious avian pox on his feet. He was quarantined until yesterday, and it’s time for his medication. Lemley grabs a large net and approaches the birds. “This part always looks a little scary,” she forewarns.

As she moves forward with the net held high, the owl swoops and the hawks fly, but Lemley successfully scoops the young one right out of the air. With a volunteer’s help, she lowers it to the ground and wraps it gently in a towel, grabbing its feet to secure it. Medication is squeezed directly into the bird’s mouth. “He’s not happy,” she observes. His teal-painted beak is wide open and his tongue protrudes in defiance. Staff has painted his beak and talons to distinguish him from others.

One of the adult hawks has a fractured ulna resulting in a drooping wing while the other is recovering from the West Nile virus. The great horned owl is being treated for spinal trauma and an oral infection.

Animals admitted to the facility begin their treatment indoors. Those in outdoor enclosures are likely at the tail end of their treatment, getting exercise, building muscle mass, and acclimating to the climate before they are deemed ready for release.

“At some point, you have to weigh the expense of saving an animal,” acknowledges Lemley. “Is the cost of captivity going to be too much for this bird? What is our space and time availability like? How much of our resources can we donate to the animal at this time, and what is the prognosis that we’ll get a releasable bird at the end of the day? Those are the things we have to think about.”

Inside the main Humane Society building, songbirds such as finches often get treated for conjunctivitis of the eye. Meanwhile, a wild rabbit — patient number 3,201 in 2016 — is in dire straits. “Someone accidentally caught it in a live trap,” Lemley notes. “It has a very large wound on its head and probably a skull fracture and is on a whole bunch of medication.” The rabbit arrived three days ago but is eating, which is a positive sign.

She secures it in a towel, weighs it, and then injects an electrolyte fluid just under the skin on its back. When she turns the animal around to reveal its face, a gaping chunk of the animal’s forehead is exposed. “This looks pretty bad,” Lemley remarks, gently blotting iodine onto the wound followed by an antibiotic ointment. She then treats a corneal ulcer on its eye before presenting a sweet-tasting medical brew that the rabbit laps up quickly.

“A lot of the animals we see are here because of something humans have either done to the animals or to the environment.” Cars, windows, and fishing lines are often the culprits.

Fawning over the fauna

Founded in 2002, the Four Lakes Wildlife Center is the only large center of its kind in the area and is funded entirely by donations. Annual expenses are approaching $181,000, with food being the costliest line item after staff salaries. Fundraising is currently underway to remodel the nonprofit center as phase II of a three-part plan.

Saving wildlife was never an aspiration of Lemley’s. A UW–Madison graduate with degrees in Spanish and Japanese, it was a volunteer position at the Humane Society that led her down this track. Now she has a state wildlife rehabilitation license, a vet tech degree from Madison College, and she’s never regretted her career change. “I have the best job in the world,” she smiles.

Does she get attached to the animals? “Those you treat the longest are the ones you like the best. For me, the best thing that can happen is that an animal gets released,” Lemley states.

“That’s a good day.”

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