Monday, March 8, 2010

Hoots, Howls, and Hollers 03/08/2010

Condor 133 is in our care because she ingested lead from a carcass that she fed on. How does this happen and what does it mean? Many have asked the questions over the past few weeks, “What’s the deal with lead?”

The deal is that lead is toxic to all living things. Years ago lead was removed from pipes, gasoline, paint, and solder in tin cans—all things that negatively impacted humans. But, unfortunately it wasn’t outlawed in ammunition, lead fishing weights, and lead sinkers—basically only problems for wildlife. However, the truth is that lead is just as deadly, if not more deadly, to animals.

Here’s why.

Lead doesn’t naturally exist in any living creatures. The poisoning doesn’t occur because the animal is shot in a muscle or bone. It happens when the lead is ingested or ends up in the stomach of an animal. Because many raptors and condors opportunistically feed on animals that have been shot or on the gut piles of deer or mammals that have been shot with lead shot and cleaned in the field, the lead and/or the fine fragments of lead enter the digestive system. There the trouble begins. The digestive juices, acids and such, cause the lead to dissolve and move into the bloodstream of the animal. Lead is considered to be a heavy metal along with calcium and iron, which occur naturally and are needed by the body. When it enters the bloodstream, being heavier than calcium or iron, it is able to displace these less heavy metals. If it replaces enough calcium it impacts the nerves and muscle contraction which is the case with Condor 133. If it displaces iron it causes anemia, and in both cases it results ultimately in death in the animal if it is left untreated. The bottom line is that wherever heavy metals are involved and lead is introduced, the lead causes the other function to be disrupted.

The good news is that if the lead poisoning is caught in time, there is a treatment. First, it must be diagnosed. If the lead shot is large enough (not always the case) x rays will pick it up, and it can be encouraged through the digestive tract using something as simple as Metamusal. Unfortunately, lead shatters into tiny, tiny fragments and while these can show up on radiographs they are more difficult to deal with. Also, because of the shattering characteristic of lead, it can disperse over a large part of the carcass and be eaten by a group of communally feeding animals like vultures--deadly to a large number of animals instead of just one.

The treatment for Condor 133 is the use of Calcium EDTA which is a painful injection given twice a day (meaning that you have to catch the bird, stress it and you) twice a day for 5 days. This procedure is repeated until the lead in the blood is excreted leaving lead levels at a minimum. In Condor 133 the levels were off the chart requiring many repetitions of chelation therapy to encourage the crop to start working again enabling the food to move into the intestines and ultimately provide the necessary nutrition to keep the bird alive. If the crop doesn’t work, the food will sit in the crop becoming putrid and has to be surgically removed….and among other things this is not a pretty picture.

This is a fairly simplified view of what we know about the workings of lead. If it all sounds pretty dismal, it is because it is. But, we have had our successes over the years. A recent one has caused much jubilation at Liberty. We were notified by the Game and Fish representatives of the Bald Eagle Management Program that a new Bald Eagle territory has been located in the Tres Rios area. The cool part of the story is that they identified the papa at the nest as a four year old who had been treated at Liberty. He was brought in as a fledgling that either bailed from the nest too early or was seemingly having issues after fledging normally. Upon examination he was found to have high levels of lead and was treated with chelation therapy. When he was cleared for release they put him at nest site that had another fledgling because his original nest wasn’t accessible.

Happily he successfully fledged and disappeared with the rest of the juvenile bald eagles for three years awaiting a territory of their own. He passed all of the tests and made it until, at four years old, (precocious since they are really considered adults at 5 years) he has acquired not only a territory and a mate, but has a baby in the nest. These are the kinds of things that make us squeal with joy at Liberty Wildlife. There is no telling how many babies he can put back into the environment….all because of the intervention of the Bald Eagle Management Program and Liberty Wildlife.

This is what a second chance is all about. Now let’s get the lead out for animals as well as humans so this won’t continue to be an issue.

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