What is Involved in an Animal’s Stay?

Stories of wildlife rehabilitation through the lens of veterinary medicine told by Dr. Claire Peterson

With all this hard work and dedication our staff, interns, and volunteers put into each and every soul that enters our facility, we absolutely celebrate every single one of them that makes it to release. We try our best to return Oregon’s wildlife back to where it was meant to be – in the wild!

Many people wonder what goes on behind the scenes at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and that’s understandable since we can’t showcase our patients to the public during their stay. Not only do we need to limit their contact with people as much as possible to help keep these patients wild and to decrease their stress, but it’s also a legal requirement! As good as these policies are for the animals, it leaves a lot of what we do hidden behind a seemingly mysterious veil. 

Recently, someone brought us an owl who sustained wing and foot injuries after becoming entangled in some netting. The good Samaritans who rescued this very lucky bird later asked if it would be ready to go the same day. To us, knowing all that is involved with the rehabilitation process, this seemed impossible! But to the usual onlooker, it’s a completely understandable question. 

We call ourselves a wildlife hospital, which can lead people to equate the animal’s care to what they might experience in a human hospital. In some ways, it is similar; patients have treatment plans, medication regimens, and their vitals are monitored. In other ways it is very different! If you went to urgent care with a foot injury, you likely wouldn’t have to stay there a month! But that’s exactly what our owl in question needed prior to his eventual release.

First, let’s talk some numbers: The average days in care at our facility is around 40 days (using data from 2021, the mean was 43 days and the median 40). Stays for wildlife patients varied between a minimum of 0 days (I’ll explain this in a second) to a maximum of 201 days. So what in the world is each patient doing during that time?

First, a patient arrives, usually in a cardboard box or some kind of crate. We recommend anything that will safely contain the animal so it can’t slip out on the car ride, and something that can be draped with a towel to keep things dark and soothing for the stressed wildlife patient. These patients often are experiencing the worst day of their lives – and I don’t mean that hyperbolically. I mean, quite literally, they’ve been successfully evading the dangers of living in the wild successfully until, on this day, they finally got attacked by a cat, hit by a car, poisoned by rodenticides, electrocuted on a power pole, or their nest tree destroyed (and then had a long fall to the ground). 

“We get animals in for many reasons, but they usually involve traumatic injuries of some form or another. We see broken bones, internal bleeding, animals with diseases like salmonella bacteria or pox virus, or other traumatic injuries. To us, another hawk with a broken wing may be a regular Tuesday, but to that hawk, it was a death sentence until it was rescued and brought to us.”

Most of these animals come in, understandably, in shock. They’ve lost blood or have spent days becoming weaker and more dehydrated, or are suffering from life-threatening injuries. For these patients, our quick skills at triaging them are essential. To triage means to prioritize patients or their care in a quick manner. Such as at a human hospital emergency room, people who are actively in danger of dying (such as with bleeding wounds etc.) are triaged to the front of the line and taken in first. For us, it is a little bit different. When an animal that comes to our door is in shock, one of the most vitally important things for us to do for it is to give it a calm, warm, dark place to rest. Any further stimuli or trying to clean or bandage wounds too early, can sometimes push a patient over the edge. It seems counterintuitive, but for a wild patient who doesn’t understand we’re there to help, giving them some quiet space is crucial. During that time, we’ll be actively warming them with heat and warming up fluids to administer to help increase their blood pressure and correct dehydration. We’re making treatment plans depending on what we see, which often includes antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, anti-fungals, pain medications, and parasite medications. Wounds are then cleaned, sutured, or bandaged. Broken bones are set, splinted, or surgically pinned under anesthesia. Mouths are checked for parasitic or fungal plaques, eyes are examined for injuries or infection or loss of eye sight. Every feather, every toe, is checked as quickly as possible to look for injuries, parasites, or diseases we may need to treat.

From there, a patient is set up in our ICU room. This room has rows of kennels with solid plastic doors and visual barriers so patients can recuperate with seeing as little of their human caretakers as possible. Any talking that has to happen in this room is done in whispers. There are incubators and heating pads, and each animal is set up specifically with an environment best suited for its recovery. For example, if an eagle comes in so weak it is unable to stand, we’ll roll towels and sheets into a U-shaped bed for them so they can rest on their bellies (the easiest way for a bird to breathe is upright) with their head resting on top like a pillow. Food would be elevated within reach of their face so if they are hungry, they wouldn’t need to move to grab it. If a patient isn’t eating or is so thin it can’t process solid food, then they are gavaged (tube-fed) with electrolytes and a liquid diet multiple times a day.

If a patient comes in emaciated and needs tube-feeding and medication, we can expect them to be in our ICU for at least 2 to 3 weeks. We try to make the stay as short as possible, but things like antibiotics, once started, must be completed in a full course. After treating things like internal parasites, we will recheck a fecal sample in our tiny lab and if the parasites are still persisting, they’ll need to go through another round of treatment. This may involve the same medication as before, or a different one if the original wasn’t working. All of these things to take time. If a patient starts out on tube-feeding, they have to start on a mostly clear electrolyte solution that is very easy to digest. We then slowly work them up to a thicker slurry as their system can handle it. Sometimes they can’t, and they regurgitate (or vomit), and we have to backtrack to the clear liquid diet again. We may need to change their medications as well if they aren’t improving. Slowly, they will be worked back onto solid foods. Once back on solid foods, we have to watch the raptors to make sure they are casting appropriately. Many people know that owls cough up pellets of all the undigestible material they eat (mouse hair, bones, feathers, etc.), but many do not know that all birds of prey do this! Many people also do not know that if a sick bird isn’t pelleting, this can be very dangerous for its health. So all birds of prey on solid food are monitored for how often they are pelleting to ensure they are digesting their solid diets of mice and quail appropriately.

Once a bird is off of all medications, eating solid food, strong enough to perch on its own, and it has been checked one last time and is clear from parasites, only then are they approved to move up to a larger enclosure. These tend to be intermediate enclosures, set up to help a bird slowly gain its strength back and give them a temperature in between the warm hospital ICU and the potentially cold winter weather of the outdoors. Birds here can stretch their wings, hop from perch to perch, and do short flights. These birds don’t have the muscle or stamina yet for our large flight cages, but slowly build up to it over a week or longer. Everything is dependent on the individual patient, and how fast they can build muscle and move through all of these stages. We monitor the birds at least twice daily, and evaluate their strength of flight and ability to make it up to higher perches.

Once they can navigate their small room well, they can be transferred to one of our large flight enclosures. These enclosures are mostly open to the weather, and are as big as 30 feet wide by 80 feet long. One of our flight cages has an arena where live prey (mice) can be mobile on gravel but are still contained within wooden walls about 2 feet high. Hawks and owls out here can practice capturing and eating live mice without the chance of the mice escaping out of the flight cage. This is especially important for young birds who may never have learned how to properly hunt before coming in, or birds recovering from certain injuries such as eye injuries or wing injuries that affect their flight. According to guidelines written by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC), all animals that have been in care for over a week must be re-acclimated to outdoor temperatures and weather prior to release. How long we need to acclimate them for depends on the time of year and how long they were in care. These flight enclosures give birds a chance to fatten up a bit more, build their flying strength again, and practice their landings and hunting skills. 

It also gives us an opportunity to see birds fly for longer distances to better judge if they are back to 100% and ready to be released, or if they still need more time to recuperate from an injury. If a bird isn’t exercising a particular injury on their own, then they may have to go through further physical therapy to stretch out a wing that has become tight and inflexible, or build strength in a leg that was injured and weakened. During all this time their weight is being monitored, and if they are still gaining weight and hunting their own mice, and their feathers have regained their species level of water-proofing for the weather, then we complete one last exam before they are officially checked off for release.

Once a patient is ready for release, our team carefully checks our records to see where they came from, and if that exact location is an appropriate spot to be released. If a bird came in from the shoulder of highway 99 for example, we wouldn’t want to re-release exactly in that spot! However, we do need to release them as close to that location as possible, so that whatever territory or mate they left behind they can easily find again. If a patient can’t be released near where it was found, then we have to work closely with our ODFW biologist to find another appropriate place instead.

So now that you know all of that, our average stay of 40 days seems much more reasonable! In fact, it’s pretty short, as we like to try to move patients through each stage as quickly as possible to get them back to the wild. Unlike when a cat, dog, or human has to be hospitalized, they can go home once stable enough to take pills and get around a bit on their own. But for wildlife, they have to be back to 100% condition to be released. There’s no one waiting outside of our facility with a cup of tea and a protective barrier against predators – the second they leave us, they’ll have to face all of the dangers they faced before, and often the same dangers that brought them to us to begin with.

Sometimes patients get lucky, and their stays are not so long. These tend to be patients who bonked into a window and only need 3 to 5 days of anti-inflammatories to get their head on straight again. Sometimes when a baby falls out of the nest and looks in good condition (we can tell if their belly is full or empty, suggesting whether the patient has been taking care of it not) and we can place them back in the original nest or in a substitute nest nearby. As long as the parent can find the baby bird in its new nest location (which may be a human-made basket), they’ll continue to care for the baby there. These are the patients who get that lucky number of 0 days in care. This isn’t very common, as for raptor nestlings we often need a certified tree climber to get them back up to a nest or a safe height for an artificial nest to be placed.

Then there are the patients who are in our care for much, much longer. Take that patient who was in care for 201 days prior to release in 2021. I don’t even have to look back to the record to know who that was, because we put so much time and intensive care into healing that patient. Those patients are not the typical, but they tend to be the miracle. Those are the patients we fought so hard for – who came in with barely a sliver of a chance, but one of our kind-hearted staff members decided to give them a chance and try anyway. These patients tend to be the ones who had at least one broken bone and needed at least one surgery. After each surgery, a patient can expect at least 2 weeks of recuperation in the ICU for sutures to come out. For bone surgeries, it may be a couple months before a bone is healed enough for a surgical pin to come out. Medications for pain and infection are often continued even after the surgical pins have been removed. And during all that time and for months afterwards, some of those birds need frequent physical therapy and monitoring as they slowly gain back strength and function.

That patient in 2021 who was in our care 201 days before release? That patient was the only, and let me guarantee you the ONLY, electrocution patient we have EVER saved in my career. Hawks or eagles who are electrocuted on power poles receive deep and persistent internal trauma, which often isn’t apparent until days after the event happened, because it takes time for those electrified tissues to slowly die. It is painful to watch, and must be even more horrendous to experience. But with this hawk, she had an attitude that filled a room, so we gave her a chance. She was one huge miracle, and deserves a blog post all her own. Stay tuned.

Hopefully this helps to illuminate a bit more of what goes on behind the scenes at our wildlife rehabilitation hospital. It’s not just what we think of as the “hospitalization” part of an injury or illness, but we encompass the entire recovery of an animal before release. With all this hard work and dedication our staff, interns, and volunteers put into each and every soul that enters our facility, we absolutely celebrate every single one of them that makes it to release. We try our best to return Oregon’s wildlife back to where it was meant to be – in the wild! Thank you so much for supporting us in this journey.

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