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Treating the wildlife in our midst

Veterinary caseloads grow as human, animal habitats intersect

Dr. Flo Tseng assessed the flight of a snowy owl being nursed back to health at Tufts Wildlife Clinic after being injured by an airplane.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Dr. Flo Tseng assessed the flight of a snowy owl being nursed back to health at Tufts Wildlife Clinic after the bird was injured by a plane.

NORTH GRAFTON — The snowy owl had been clobbered by the downdraft of a jet departing Logan International Airport. A rescuer with the Massachusetts Audubon Society rushed the stricken raptor to the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, where it was admitted as patient W140218.

X-rays showed a proximal humeral fracture — a wing broken close to the shoulder joint. It’s a deadly injury in the wild for a predator that depends on aerial agility for survival.

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But the veterinarians at Tufts — often forced to choose between risky, long-shot treatment for a terribly wounded creature, or gently putting the animal to sleep — were determined not to lose the magnificent snowy. This owl was going to be saved. Staff veterinarian Maureen Murray was already reaching for her surgical kit.

Admissions to the clinic, part of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, have risen 41 percent in little more than a decade, driven by the dramatic increase in proximity between humans and wildlife across New England.

The trend can be marked by mounting numbers of raptors poisoned by rodenticide, bunnies bashed off the fenders of cars, perching birds mauled by domestic cats, raccoons stuck in chimney flues, turtles run over by golf carts, snakes flayed by weed whackers, and even hawks entangled in soccer nets.

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“Wildlife is an amazing bellwether of what’s happening in the world,’’ said Dr. Flo Tseng, director of the clinic and a wildlife veterinarian. “Our admissions keep increasing, and the huge majority of what we see is trauma secondary to an encounter with humans.’’

The feathery intruder from Arctic Canada known as W140218, one of scores of snowy owls that hunkered at the airport over the winter, was anesthetized and ready for the scalpel.

‘We’re after the best achievable medical and surgical outcome for the animal itself.’

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Murray bent to the delicate wing surgery, using three tiny pins to precisely attach a metal bar to keep the bone rigid while the fracture healed. The surgery would last an hour.

“The goal is get this animal back to nature,’’ said Murray. “For some species, you need almost 100 percent healing. You can’t return a crooked-flying owl or wobbly peregrine [falcon] to the wild. These are creatures whose survival depends on absolute natural precision: stealth, speed, sight.’’

In New England, wildlife populations are expanding with startling rapidity. Many suddenly all-too-common species, from hawks to wild turkeys to bears, are thriving in almost surreal abundance in the faux forests of suburbia and the recovering woodlands of the region.

“More animals are moving where people are,’’ said Tseng. “And people keep moving into places where animals live. This is happening around the world . . . [but] New England is an almost extreme example.’’

Deer density in Massachusetts, for example, is heavier inside Interstate 495 — 25 whitetails per square mile, on average — than in rural areas to the west. Deer, hunted down to a few hundred animals by the early 1900s, today number about 90,000 statewide.

“Massachusetts has 6 million people sharing 5 million acres with vast numbers of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians,’’ said Marion E. Larson, chief of education for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Last year, the Tufts clinic treated 1,994 injured animals from across New England: 1,241 birds, 596 mammals, and 157 reptiles, mainly turtles. The list includes at least 60 rare or threatened species, including Blanding’s turtles, Canada lynx (injured in Maine), and five little brown bats.

Cases of poisoning from lead and commercial rodenticide are on an upswing. A recent postmortem study by Murray of 161 hawks and owls found that 86 percent had livers substantially contaminated by anticoagulant rat poison. The pesticide kills by thinning the blood to the point where the tiniest scratch can cause a creature to bleed to death.

Among the suspected casualties: Ruby, the red-tailed hawk whose high-flapping antics long dazzled bird-watchers near Fresh Pond in Cambridge. Ruby’s body was discovered last month near her nesting tree. The suspicion is she ate too many mice that had wriggled outdoors after ingesting rodenticide applied in shops, factories, or homes.

Only a generation or two ago, there was little concept of wildlife medicine as a stand-alone specialty. “Some kindly vet or student might patch up the odd hawk or squirrel, but there was also an attitude ‘nature takes care of its own,’ ” Tseng said, recalling her days at Cornell University’s veterinary school, from which she graduated in 1981.

But the burgeoning environmental movement was drawing young veterinarians eager to help animals mauled by civilization. They included Tseng, who after a few years as a “pet vet,’’ joined the International Bird Rescue Center in California, turning her skills to saving wild creatures caught in oil spills. She came to Tufts in 2000.

Tufts is one of only a few veterinary schools that require students to train in the treatment of wild animals. Graduates describe it as often weird and wooly work.

Oregon state veterinarian Colin Gillin, a Tufts graduate and native of Shirley, collaborates with a program drawing urine from sea lions, checking for leptospira, bacteria that cause disease in humans and animals.

So how do you calm a feisty 700-pound sea lion enough to insert a plastic tube into its bladder?

“Start with Valium — for the animal, that is,’’ Gillin said. “Then pump anesthetic [past its jaws] through an inverted traffic cone. It’s seat-of-the-pants medicine.’’

As is putting satellite collars on gigantic bats with wing spans that can top 5 feet. Or taking nasal swabs from vile-tempered camels.

Jonathan H. Epstein has gently drawn blood and tissue samples from the Asian megabats known as flying foxes and gingerly swabbed the nostrils of Saudi camels as part of his tracking of deadly viruses that can leap from wildlife to humans.

The Tufts-trained veterinarian, raised in Sudbury, serves as conservation epidemiologist with the EcoHealth Alliance, a group that researches global disease outbreaks caused by infectious micro-organisms “spilling’’ from wild animals to people, often by way of poultry or pigs.

“With 75 percent of emerging infectious disease originating in wildlife, it is critical we [better understand] the importance of relationships between humans, livestock, wildlife, and our environment,’’ Epstein said.

One of the fundamental distinctions of wildlife medicine is that it is driven neither by the harsh dollars-and-cents calculus of treating livestock nor the high human emotion of treating pets.

“We’re after the best achievable medical and surgical outcome for the animal itself,’’ said Tseng. “The idea is that animals belonging to nobody still have value in and of themselves.’’

The long days at the clinic are marked by triumphs and tragedies. Some cases combine both.

Turtle egg-laying season is getting underway. A pregnant female will arrive at the clinic too badly crushed by misadventure to save, but Murray strips the eggs from the carcass and incubates them in soil-like substance in a warm room. Voila: A “nest’’ full of hatchlings.

“My record number of saving eggs from one snapping turtle was 80,” she said.

Last week, a Canada goose was brought from Somerville with feet entangled by monofilament fishing line. The line was removed. The goose had a swollen ankle and a limp but was OK, floating in the clinic’s bird pool.

There was an emaciated bald eagle found wandering in Tyngsborough, begging for food scraps. It had a fractured right leg too far gone for surgery and healing in a crooked sort of way.

“We’ll move it to a larger cage outside and evaluate how it uses the leg,’’ said Tseng.

Meanwhile, snowy owl W140218 came through surgery with flying colors. But it proved a poor patient. Frightened, confused, the intensely peering bird huddled in a corner of its container, refusing to eat.

The medical team decided to tube-feed the raptor a slurry of high-calorie dog food and water. In a few weeks, the creature had bounced back — swooping raucously around a big “flyway’’ barn.

There was hope the owl might be released Monday on Plum Island. But plans remained up in the air and subject to last-minute assessment of weather conditions and the owl’s strength and agility. Time is drawing short; the weather is fast warming and the window during which the cold-weather bird might return to its Arctic homeland is fast closing.

“We’re coming down to the wire,’’ Murray said. “The alternative is that he would have to spend another winter in captivity. That’s not ideal. A wild bird needs to be wild.”

Colin Nickerson can reached at nickerson.colin@gmail.com.
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