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CROW’s new vet treats wildlife, educates people

By Staff | Mar 29, 2012

Photo by JIM LINETTE Dr. Heather Barron examines a double crested cormorant before injecting fluids assisted by CROW senior staff wildlife rehabber Robin Bast. The cormorant is suffering the effects of red tide poisoning.

Though she has been on the job for only a few months, the patients at the CROW facility seem to approve of the treatment they have received from Dr. Heather Wilson Barron, DVM. If they could speak, of course.

“I’m excited about this facility,” said Dr. Barron, who assumed the position of Clinic Director on Jan. 1. “Wildlife medicine was looked upon for many years as the redheaded stepchild of veterinary medicine. There was not a lot written on wildlife medicine, but I was fortunate to go to the University of Georgia which had an established program, and they taught me well.”

Dr. Barron, who went into private practice in Jupiter for a time, has been all over the world treating, teaching and returning wildlife to their natural habitats after they suffered minor to serious injuries or health issues. She returned to Georgia for a two-year residency program to become an Avian Specialist, one of less than 200 worldwide.

“Wildlife medicine is rapidly expanding with implications for the one health of our planet,” she said. “I see us as the first line of defense against diseases that can be passed from wildlife to humans. Your dog might get sick, or your child from something like West Nile virus.”

In her short time at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) located on San-Cap Road across from the Sanibel Recreation Center, Dr. Barron has begun working with local veterinarians, educating them on wildlife medicine, something not done before her arrival.

“Education is a big part of the CROW mission,” Barron said. “We have 40 to 50 students pass through here each year. They come from undergraduate programs to earn credits toward their degrees, and we will train two veterinarian interns this year.”

CROW can accommodate up to six students at any one time, but currently has just two housed on the campus with one more expected to arrive soon. The facility also utilizes some 400 volunteers to do a lot of the routine tasks ranging from pickup and delivery of injured animals and donated produce from local markets. The public can drop off injured wildlife at a dozen veterinarian offices around Lee County for pickup by CROW volunteers. They even have a volunteer EMT to retrieve animals found in the wild.

“We couldn’t do this without those volunteers,” said Barron.

CROW has had as many as 500 patients at the facility at one time, many of those are babies that need feeding and care every few hours.

“I’ve started a foster program where babies can be taken to homes,” said Barron. “It’s labor intensive for someone to be a foster mom. I have two right now and am licensed for up to 10 if anyone is interested in fostering wildlife babies.”

Dr. Barron also hopes to acquire a sea turtle permit soon. CROW’s previous permit left with the former clinic director last summer.

CROW’s goal is to return each animal to the wild as soon as possible. The average stay for a patient was as much as 15 days, but that has been cut to three days, Dr. Barron said. Of course, not all patients make it out alive.

“Despite treatment about 11 percent die in-house, 33 percent end up being euthanized, 2 percent are dead on arrival,” said Barron. “The other 55 percent are released.”

Dr. Barron said one of the most difficult aspects of the job is finding places to release wild animals. Three area residents have private land and allow animals to be released there, but Dr. Barron wants to find more safe areas to release animals.

“We no longer accept invasive exotic animals not native to this area, such as the Burmese python, muscovy ducks and iguanas,” Barron said. “We are not allowed to return them to the wild by law. If we can’t return animals to the wild 100 percent healthy, then we have to euthanize them. We don’t enjoy euthanizing them, but we see the necessity of it.”

Dr. Barron looks forward to being able to do more education of the public and area trappers as well as obtaining government grands to do more wildlife research. CROW, however, is funded primarily through private donations.

“This place has lived up to its promise,” she said. “I could not be happier with CROW and the community.”