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CROW clinic works to save wildlife amid growth and rough economy

By Staff | Apr 3, 2009

On a recent sunny morning, Dr. PJ Deitschel, Clinic Director and Staff Veterinarian, and Dr. Amber McNamara, Staff Veterinarian at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Inc. (CROW), tended to an injured gull out of their Intensive Care Unit.

The less than a pound feathered critter suffered a fractured wing with complications after most likely being hit with a golf ball. The injured gull was discovered at a golf course and CROW subsequently contacted.

The snow white bird’s brown eyes gazed at his caretakers as they cleaned his wound and changed his bright blue bandage for another equally vibrant one. McNamara mixed a batch of medicine made of Asian herbs and Western antibiotics.

The tiny fowl sat motionless and let the doctors administer the medicine that would soon help him take to the skies and beaches again.

“Gulls are one of our more common patients,” Deitschel noted.

CROW patients

Approximately 70 percent of CROW’s uninsured, helpless wildlife they care for is birds, explained Deitschel.

CROW, the area’s only comprehensive wildlife clinic, is working to grow with an ever-increasing patient load during a rough economic climate.

When the hospital opened 25 years ago, they took in about 500 animals. This past year, they cared for more than 4,000 creatures.

Of the patients CROW cares for, 70 percent are birds, 20 percent are mammals – such as opossums, raccoons and bobcats – and 10 percent are reptiles such as gopher tortoises.

CROW has experienced a surge in eagle cases and, more recently, sea turtles from the east coast suffering from some unknown illness. Last month, three eagles came to the clinic, Deitschel added.

The patients might come in all shapes, sizes and locations: a bobcat from Alva, a gull from a local golf course and sea turtles from the east coast. But one thing they share in common is they come without money or insurance – simply the desire to survive.

Their care can, in some cases, amount to extensive stays and medicines. But no one at CROW is turned away for in ability to pay or any other reason.

“They don’t have anywhere to go,” said Deitschel.

Growth and an increased patient load

The gull recuperating from the broken wing is likely the result of being hit with a golf ball. Ninety-five percent of the illnesses and injuries CROW staff see are directly related to humans, Deitschel said. For instance, 90 percent of all pelicans seen at the clinic are due to fishing injuries.

Wildlife injuries as a result of cars is the number one reason injured wildlife are brought to CROW, fishing line injuries take the number two spot and babies hurt from events such as domestic pets and tree trimming snag the number three spot on the injury list at CROW.

With more people living where wildlife dwells, such as in rural areas like Alva and Buckingham, there is greater chance for injuries.

Fishing lines that get tangled and left in the water pose a great threat to birds such as pelicans that dive for food and subsequently get snagged on the discarded lines.

“We are the major predator on this planet,” Deitschel said. “We are visitors in their homes. We are not as respectful as we can be.”

In some cases, people view wildlife as a nuisance. For instance, calls about raccoons raiding garbage cans are common. But often times, simple things such as tying down garbage lids can remedy the problem.

“It’s a matter of learning to live with the animals,” Deitschel said.

However, most of the patients – 85 percent – come from off-island. Growth in Lee County often times encroaches on wildlife habitat. Bonita, Buckingham and Alva – some of the last remaining areas with wildlife – are some of the hot spots for injured patients.

On a positive note, CROW staffers reported that their patient load is also up because more people are aware that the clinic exists.

As harmful as the two-legged creatures can be to wildlife, so can they be helpful. CROW has over 200 volunteers who give of their time, knowledge and resources to help wildlife. They clean cages, answer phones, transport sick or injured wildlife at all hours and raise vital dollars for running the CROW clinic.

Deitschel pointed out that when people learn about the individual patient and can put a face to them, they begin to care.

“You have to be able to relate to that life form,” she said.

Some residents like artist Myra Roberts are touched by their experiences with wildlife. A few months ago, Roberts took part in trying to help a bobcat injured by a car. Though the animal did not live, she painted a portrait of the large cat.

“I think it’s a gift to live on an island that we share with so many species of animal life,” Roberts said. “To me, they are are sacred and spiritual and deserve our utmost respect and protection.”

New hospital, Education Center

An increase in patient load has resulted in CROW building a new state-of-the-art wildlife hospital. The hospital, which will allow more space for wildlife, is slated to open up in late April or early May, Deitschel said. During “moving month,” as it has been dubbed by staff, patients in the old hospital will be brought to the new facility in carriers.

Staff considers the recently-opened Visitors Education Center a vital source for teaching people about wildlife. The new building, located on the CROW campus off of Sanibel-Captiva Road, features pictures and descriptions of patients, interactive and user friendly computers for learning about wildlife and trained staff to talk about CROW and answer questions. There is also a gift shop for souvenirs. All proceeds from the gift shop are used for the injured wildlife’s care.

Donations are needed

Caring for wildlife unfortunately comes with a price tag. Each patient costs the clinic money to care for their needs and stay. The clinic does not receive any funding from the government. The clinic depends on private donations to keep their operation going. And in these times, seeking money can be challenging.

“I think we always have to be cognizant of the economy,” Deitschel said.

Though the agency holds several fundraisers a year, the need is great and because of the depressed economy, CROW canceled one of its larger fundraisers, the popular Taste of the Islands event.

“We are dependent on donors and companies,” said Development Director Jennifer Roberts. “We need money to do what it is we do.”

Roberts said that she is grateful for the ongoing generosity of the community in keeping the agency running.

Along with their need for dollars for the care of the wildlife patients, CROW is seeking money to replace old cages with stainless steel ones. They cost between $2,000 to $10,000 per cage.

If extra monies were made available, CROW would like to provide additional services such as overnight staff.

In the meantime, CROW is working to continue reaching people about the value of co-exisiting with wildlife and caring for its growing patient load.

Added Deitschel, “There’s a lot to be done.”