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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Animal ER

Air Date: Week of

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Reporter Vicki Croke visits the New England Wildlife Center in Massachusetts which houses an emergency room for animals.


CURWOOD: If you're injured in an accident, someone can dial 911 for help. But where do wild animals go for care? There are hundreds of wildlife clinics and thousands of licensed rehabilitators around the country who treat squirrels with broken legs, pigeons who can't fly, and owls with vision problems. Cars injure the majority of animals carted in by Good Samaritans and animal control officers. Many of these ERs operate on a shoestring, caring for animals with donated supplies and a volunteer work force. Vicki Croke visited one animal ER in Massachusetts.

(Animal calls)

MERTZ: All right. Take care. Good to see you. Bye-bye.

CROKE: Its name is practically bigger than the place itself. The New England Wildlife Center is headquartered in a squat and scrunched little building that once served as a storage area for Navy explosives. Today, it's teeming with songbirds and snakes, raccoons and rabbits. Turtles lounge in their bubbling spas, while volunteers and students in shorts and scrubs dance around each other, feeding and medicating all the patients. The space is choked with medical equipment, feed bags, and supplies. In the center of it all, wearing his trademark baseball cap and jeans, is the director, veterinarian Greg Mertz.

(To Mertz) What have you got in your hand?

MERTZ: I have a black racer snake, and he was hit by a car. And you see that he's sustained a fair amount of damage to his right eye.

CROKE: An anonymous Good Samaritan, charmed by the sick snake, carried him in from a nearby street.

MERTZ: The interpretation is that it was hit on the road. It could be something else. We never know for sure.

CROKE: I wonder how a person knows that a snake is in distress. Just because it's not moving?

MERTZ: I'll show you. If I leave go of this snake, he will tilt to his left.

CROKE: This isn't just a sanctuary for snakes. All animals are welcome here and no creature is turned away, no matter what its HMO. Last year alone, 4,000 animals were treated. Everything from pigeons, geese, and squirrels, to Arctic fox, weasels, falcons, and owls. As Greg says, the staff is non-species-ist.

MERTZ: The common animals are more commonly brought to our hospital, and we treat them, first because it's a humane thing to do, and second, if not more important, each and every one of these animals is a learning laboratory. And, you know, teaching somebody how to care for a pigeon is as valuable as teaching somebody how to care for a peregrine falcon or an eagle or an Arctic fox.

CROKE: From the patients, though, there isn't always a lot of gratitude. And that's fine by Greg. He's not in it for the thank-yous. Take his favorite bird, the cormorant. It's probably the least likely creature to ever show affection.

MERTZ: Yeah, I've learned my lesson the hard way, actually. I had a cormorant one time grab me between my eyes, and grab me by the nose, and was literally hanging off of my nose. And it hurts.

CROKE: And you're thinking, I love this bird.

MERTZ: Yeah, I just love this. (Laughs)

CROKE: Like any emergency room, this one practices all kinds of medicine on the fly: setting legs, cleaning infections. And, often enough, operating on wounds. Today, though, we're here on a more delicate mission. It's not quite a heist of a coyote's family jewels, it's more like a restringing. Our patient is a young orphaned coyote, who looks like any other pup. Soft brown fur, rounded belly, and enormous ears he hasn't grown into yet. The eight-week-old is going to live in a nearby zoo with a mate. Zoo officials want him to act like a normal, virile coyote husband. But they don't want him to reproduce. So Greg is giving him a vasectomy that will leave his hormones and his hubris intact.

(A shaver runs)

CROKE: We prepare for the operation by shaving the puppy fuzz off his belly and groin and laying out sterile surgical equipment. The whole operation should take about 20 minutes.

(To Mertz) Are you making progress, Greg?

MERTZ: I am making progress. It's slow right now because what we're trying to isolate is on the order of the thickness of -- certainly maybe half the size of a pencil lead.

CROKE: Greg hones in on his target. It's a white, threadlike duct.

MERTZ: And there it is.

CROKE: Since I'm already scrubbed, masked, and gloved, I am recruited as a surgical assistant.

MERTZ: All right. Now, Vicki, right beside you is a blue-handled instrument. It's a hemaclip holder.

CROKE: We are using what appears to be tiny surgical staples known as hemaclip. My job is to remove the staples from a plastic dispenser and hand them over to Greg. He attaches two tiny staples along the length of the duct.

MERTZ: Now, what I do is I'm going to go between the two clips and I am going to clip the ductus. Now the ductus is in half.

CROKE: It's ductus interruptus.

MERTZ: It is ductus interruptus.

CROKE: The little coyote has a groggy but uneventful afternoon ahead of him. And within a few weeks, he'll be off to his enclosure at the zoo. Most animals here, however, those who make it, are released back into the wild.


CROKE: Wow, kind of looks like a golf course with all these Canada geese.

(Geese honking)

MERTZ: The golf course with all the Canada geese. You can see how beat down a waterfowl enclosure gets. It's amazing. Their feet, they're constantly busy padding around and picking at whatever they can find in the enclosure.

CROKE: The Canada geese are kept in an outside pen and are free to fly away as soon as they're willing and able. And like all the animals the center releases, once they're back in nature, they're on their own. At the edge of the woods that surround the center, a pile of feathers is mute testimony to that.

MERTZ: Now here's not a good sign. (Laughs) This is not a good sign at all.

CROKE: Outside the center, predators such as hawks and owls make it a bird-eat-bird world. The feathers probably belong to a pigeon.

MERTZ: As I said, we don't take care of, or we don't protect the animals once they are released, except as we need to. And here's a pile of feathers that indicates that some predator has come through and, I think, probably killed and eaten a pigeon. It's part of the belief in what we do, is that natural cycles are good cycles. And we cannot take care of every individual animal out there. And here's evidence that we can't and we don't.

CROKE: Maybe the care here is a little like an HMO after all.

(Honking geese)

CROKE: For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Croke in Hingham, Massachusetts.

(More honking)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under" Update Theme & Stings")



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