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Durban Rehabilitation

What do students do after a Wildlfife course?  

The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:

Frances Bell
Wildlife Student
ACS Distance Education

Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.


"March 2015

So in October 2014 I waved a very cheery goodbye to the UK and couldn’t help a feeling of deep satisfaction as I made my way back to South Africa.  ...


My destination was once again CROW.  This time I followed my mothers’ lead and worked on a need-to-know basis – which meant that the only people at the centre who knew I was going back were the volunteer and primate co-ordinators.  This caused much hilarity since the volunteer co-ordinator got right into the spirit of things, giving me a false identification and a bogus history, as well as a fake passport photo.  My alter ego was at least 10 years older than me, had formerly been in the army, was currently working with children in after care and looked particularly dour – she could not have been further removed from who I really am.  Added to this, a story was spread that I was supposed to have had a nasty experience with a male taxi driver and had requested that a female member of staff pick me up from the airport.   I could hear the grumbles about fussy volunteers from thousands of kilometres away! 


My SA BFF Sue was despatched to pick me up from the airport and I will never forget the priceless look on her face when she saw me.  Even when she recognised me it didn’t twig that I was the mysterious and troublesome “new” volunteer…. I had to keep pointing to the sign and telling her that the woman whose name she had on her little greeting board was me!  The reaction from the rest of the staff during the course of the evening and the next morning was just as precious and within about 2 minutes I really felt that I was home again. 


I wanted more experience with the mammals this time around, and for a little while I did get that.  I had custody for several nights of a gorgeous little genet named Alex when a much smaller, brand new baby genet came in; I helped out with feeding baby dassies, duiker, and tiny baby mongoose; and as time allowed I helped our primate manager feed baby vervets. We had many vervet babies over the season and one of these, little William, was in a very bad way when he came in.  His mum had been hit by a car and William had head injuries.  I was given custody of him overnight while he was touch and go, and needed constant monitoring and fluids.  Happily he made it through the night, and the primate manager was able to get him drinking properly the next day.   Given time he made a full recovery and was placed with the rest of the vervet babies, to grow up in a big troop which will eventually be released together.   


Sad to say my aviary revamp plans hadn’t come to very much at all – all the help CROW had been promised during the winter had evaporated.  But by the end of my stay there this time, we were able to at least get soil into all the aviaries as a much more suitable substrate – and about half the aviaries had been painted.


It wasn’t long before we were inundated with baby birds, with up to 20 or 30 bird admissions alone per day; so bird nurseries once again became my province.  The clinic was short staffed so I was put on the staff roster this time – not that I stuck to staff hours!  Long, long hours… with me typically starting at 5am to get cages disinfected, fresh food made up, meds done, and, if I was lucky, birds moved around, before the first feeds at 7am.  I often worked till 6pm, then sat and caught up with my emails.  It was so uplifting to feel that I really was useful – having been so many times before, and having so much experience by this stage, meant that the clinic manager was perfectly happy to leave me in charge of the whole clinic if necessary, when others were out on rescues or releases.   There were occasions where I had time to assess animals as they came in, and I got to go on the odd release or rescue.   One thing I did do, almost as soon as I got back into the clinic, was to scrub “my” recovery room from top to bottom, until it was spotless again!


We also had a couple of zebra foals come in from the nearby Stainbank reserve, who were only a few days old – just like the foal admitted during my previous visit, they had terrible tick burdens and deformities in their joints.  We tried our best but were unable to save them.  The park rangers were of the opinion that the problems these foals were facing was possibly as a result of inbreeding in the herd, and I’m happy to say that the old stallions have now been replaced with new blood.  Hopefully any new foals won’t suffer the same fate as the two that I saw – but it will require a proper plan to get fresh males into the herd in a more timely manner in future.


One of my most pressing priorities while at CROW was to get my visa extended.  For what I thought would be the sake of convenience I decided to go through an agency rather than do it myself – but in hindsight there was still a lot of stuff I had to attend to, and there was quite a hefty fee.  I won’t be giving agencies any of my money in the future!   I had been told by several people that visa extensions were very difficult to get since the change to immigration laws, but not only was the extension approved, it came through in what surely must have been record time – I actually got the extension a full month before the expiration of my original visa.  This was something of a surprise to everyone, since I’d heard many stories of people not getting an answer one way or the other until almost the expiration date of the 90 day extension!


In addition to this I was studying – again.  Whilst in the UK I had finally passed my IUCN Regional and Global Assessors exam, but never one to sit still, I undertook a basic “understanding CITES” course.  What I ended up understanding from this course is that CITES is basically a toothless tiger, but that’s an argument for another time.  About this time I also started studying to gain my Certified Wildlife Rehabbers qualification.  This was a long, painful process as the exam covered a very broad range of topics, and no online courses were available.  Study was somewhat hit and miss in my choice of online research and texts.  The plus – if you can call it that – was that I was able to take the exam as many times as necessary to pass.  The pass mark didn’t help either – a minimum of 76% was required to gain the certificate.  I sent several emails to the governing body, the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, telling them of my frustrations.


With it being spring and breeding season, there were fun and games to be had with some of the resident birds at CROW.  There are a pair of red-winged starlings, Bonnie and Clyde, who nest every year and they took to dive-bombing everyone but me while they had eggs and then babies.  I took great delight in being able to walk around their nest with impunity but it came back to bite me later – Cheeky, one of our rehabbed hadeda ibis that just never left, also found himself a mate and built a nest, and started launching himself at my head in attack every time he saw me!  His original nest had been blown down with tree attached during a nasty storm one night – I’m sure he blamed me. 


We had lots of very cool birds come into care, many old favourites but also species that I either hadn’t worked with before or had not seen many of – the gorgeous malachite and pygmy kingfishers, woodpeckers, dikkops, plovers, nightjars, a super-cool little southern black tit, collared sunbirds, and even a greater honeyguide. The familiar birds included shrikes, cuckoos, black and dusky flycatchers, mousebirds, manikins, canaries, swifts, swallows, martins, sparrows, weavers, 4 species of barbet, doves, 3 species of starling, hadedas, geese, louries, white-eyes, sunbirds, yellow-billed kites, spotted eagle owls, wood owls, thrushes, drongos, wagtails, robin-chats, rameron pigeons, green pigeons, bulbuls, brown-hooded kingfishers, and a bee-eater.  I also had two gorgeous baby cattle egrets to look after.  Unfortunately the kingfishers, woodpeckers and nightjars seem to be among the more difficult birds to rehabilitate so not many made it to release stage.  Kingfishers in particular get very stressed, and we were constantly trying different arrangements with housing to keep things quieter for them.  The honeyguide did very well indeed, and was ultimately released.  The dikkops and plovers also made it through to release.


I was also thrilled to have temporary care of - bats!  CROW doesn’t rehabilitate bats but is a drop-off point for them – so I had a few hours custody of tiny serotene bats from time to time, while we waited for the carers from the Bat Society to come through and collect them.  Sadly I wasn’t in Durban for a bat care workshop in February – but there are plans to remedy that when I get back to Australia. 


As always the public were a constant source of amusement in their species identification.  I lost track of the number of people who told us they had hadeda babies – that turned out to be baby doves.  The bird of prey babies – that turned out to be hadedas.  The red-chested cuckoo – that turned out to be a thrush covered in mercurochrome. 


As anyone who’s been following my newsletters knows, animal rehab is sometimes very sad work, and there are disasters as well as triumphs.  One such disaster was the case of Amy.  She was a warthog who’d been with us since babyhood.  She needed a bigger enclosure and so had been moved, but one day she got startled and bounced herself off a rock, with the result that one of her back legs was broken and she had to be euthanased.  More disasters happened in baby bird room.  Although staff were quick to tell me that I was managing to pull through a lot more birds than would usually survive, I was devastated by the sheer number of birds who weren’t making it – either those who were injured, or those who came in as nestlings.  I was convinced that there must be a reason for this – there must be something more we could do, or something we needed to do differently.  I got a bee in my bonnet and started reaching out to rehabbers in other parts of the world, picking their brains on housing, diet, drug protocols – anything to improve our success rate.  This became a major part of my after-hours work when I had a whole clutch of white-eared barbets who had to be euthanased because after 3 months of care, they hadn’t grown and still had no feathers.  It was an awful, awful experience but I had to be there with my babies while they were being put to sleep – I’d had custody of them since they were little more than a day old, and to have abandoned them then would have felt just plain wrong.


The other thing that became increasingly difficult for me to wrap my head and heart around, was the policy on non-native birds.  Feral pigeons and mynahs are practically classed as vermin and the rules from KZN Wildlife, the local conservation authority, say that they all have to be euthanased.  I found that really hard to accept...  There is nothing worse than having a perfectly healthy fuzzy little baby bird look up at you with trusting eyes – when you know that it won’t be allowed to survive another day.  It is soul destroying in every way you can think of.  It’s not the bird’s fault it’s in the wrong place – it’s just trying to survive and keep its species going.  As usual, humans introduce animals to places where they are not native.  We are the ones who are to blame for the imbalances in the ecosystem, and for crowding native animals out of their own space.   We should feel extremely guilty and uncomfortable when a little life has to be snuffed out through no fault of its own – but rather because we interfere where we shouldn’t.


Things don’t always go right no matter how hard we try, either.  We had an adult bushbaby caged in our clinic while she was on medication – which is where all of our birds spend time acclimatising to normal day and night-time temperatures before going to outside aviaries.  Unfortunately the cage wasn’t secure enough and she got out one night – and promptly ate one of my baby starlings.  ...  I actually can’t blame the bushbaby – but I was furious about what had happened and not at all impressed that either the bushbaby’s housing wasn’t adequate, or it’s diet was lacking.  To add insult to injury it happened again the following night – after which we moved the bushbaby into a secure transport box in another room until she was off medication and could be transferred to her own enclosure.


I had 15 minutes of fame towards the end of the year when a camera crew came through, working on a series that I think is going to air this year sometime.  Our volunteer co-ordinator asked me if I’d do a short interview on film – the perks, I suppose, of having been back to the same place so many times!  I was asked for comments on volunteering and what people need to look for when choosing a project – oh goody, soap-box time!  I made it very clear that people need to do careful research when thinking about volunteering anywhere with animals.  If you’re going to do it, choose a bona fide rescue and release organisation, and not somewhere that just wants to rip money off you for questionable outcomes, which often support horrific cruelty.


It seemed my time at SANCCOB had made me a kind of authority on rehabbing seabirds as well.  The clinic manager at CROW had been approached by the vet team at Ushaka Aquarium in Durban, asking for training on seabird rehabilitation.  They felt they didn’t have the necessary skills or knowledge but since I was now back…. guess who got asked to do the presentation!  I had a very enjoyable informal lecture with 4 staff from Ushaka, the upshot of which was they decided they didn’t have the facilities to do seabird rehab and wouldn’t take it on until they did!  Not really the outcome I was expecting but I did greatly respect their willingness to get proper facilities in place before they attempted it.


I wish I could have spoken to every vet that sent us animals though – many vets in small animal practice seem to have no idea that outcomes for wildlife have to be assessed very differently than for pets.  A dog might manage quite happily with only 3 legs, but you can’t say the same for a dassie whose foot has been so badly damaged that amputation is the only option.  Dassies need to climb – they need all their feet to do it – and dassies need to be released back to the wild.  Release of a 3-footed dassie is just not a consideration.  Sad to say, I saw more than one wildlife species passed on to us by vets with the assurance that the animal would be OK – while considerations for how it would survive in the wild were totally off the radar.


I left CROW in mid-January for Capetown, leaving at least one good – and I hope, lasting - legacy behind me.  I introduced a new housing protocol for swifts, which meant their feathers were no longer being damaged while they were in care.  I fervently hoped that by the time I came back again, I would have answers to all the questions I was asking of carers in centres overseas, and would be able to leave an even bigger legacy when I finally left South Africa in March. 


The plan for Capetown was not only to pet-sit for friends, but to go in to SANCCOB and work there every day.  While the pet sitting worked perfectly, the same could not be said of SANCCOB.  There were lots of volunteers, interns, staff and vet students – and not many birds. This was due to a huge push to get healthy Christmas chicks, as they’re known, back out to the wild as quickly as possible.  I spent a total of perhaps 4 or 5 days at SANCCOB doing post mortems, working with cormorants, flighted seabirds and penguins.  I also spent one day shadowing the vet, where I got to help with anaesthesia and a few other procedures including checking birds on admission, and assessing them for release.  Instead of working as much with the animals as I’d planned, I spent my time hitting the books and cuddling my feline charge, Champ.  I studied haematology, taught myself to do simple sutures, and did yet more study for the Certified Wildlife Rehabber exam…. which I was determined to pass no matter how much it might end up costing!  What did impress me with SANCCOB was how much the Chick Rearing Unit had changed – from brooders with overhead lights to state of the art human incubators, and off-the-scale hygiene.


From Capetown I caught the bus down to Knysna, where I had a two week placement with a local vet clinic.  This was in compensation for the lousy wildlife “internship” I did in March 2014, about which I bitterly complained.  Mostly I shadowed the vet nurse but there were a couple of days where she was off with a dreadful lurgy.  On those days I subbed for her in a limited way.  Since I’m not qualified as a vet nurse – yet! - I was obviously not able to do the same level of work, but I did get to assist with cool stuff like anaesthesia for dental work, x-rays and ultrasounds.  I was also allowed to be present at consultations and got LOTS of practice restraining cats and dogs for examinations, vaccinations and catheter placement – and I was always called on if a bird came in!  Off my own bat I took care of a Knysna lourie that came in with an eye infection – I believe staff were more than happy to leave me to it, given my prior experience with birds.   In addition, during my second week there I was taught how to do basic preparation of surgical sites on animals who were being spayed, and was allowed to give vaccinations and injectable medications, besides assisting in placing tracheal tubes for anaesthesia.  One of the biggest highlights was assisting at a spay-a-thon, organised by the local Animal Welfare shelter and held in a school gymnasium in one of the townships.  Neutering dogs and cats was done for free and there was also a free vaccination clinic.  It was amazing to see how well it was organised.  There were 6 vets conducting the work and we neutered 84 dogs and 10 cats in a 6 hour session.  There were teams for weighing animals and giving them pre-meds; a team for inducing chemical anaesthesia – my area, though all I did was restrain animals and make sure they were still breathing while they went under; a team who shaved and prepped, and then once surgery was finished, an army of volunteers who monitored each animal and made sure they came out of the anaesthetic without any problems.   This is incredibly important work and I can’t wait to find another one to help with!


Sometimes the days seemed very quiet but when I look back, there was such a lot packed into that two weeks.  The most unusual case we had was of a huge mastiff who came out on the wrong side of an argument with a porcupine.  He had roughly 10cm of quill stuck right into his nasal passage – that needed sedation (not surprisingly) and a hefty yet delicate tug on the forceps to get it out.  How it missed his brain, I’ll never know.  Possibly the saddest case we had was the little poodle who had a problem with dislocated kneecaps which was ignored by her breeder – for 4 years.  The poor little thing couldn’t do much more than drag herself around like a seal and the outcome isn’t expected to be good – however she’s now in the care of an animal physiotherapist, so fingers crossed.  One of the things I couldn’t believe was the number of dogs who had to be sedated to have their claws clipped!  The plus of staying in Knysna was that I got more pet-sitting work – paid, this time - so didn’t have to share accommodation the entire time I was there – I had 5 days looking after two cats, one with an ulcerated cornea who needed drops 4 times a day.  Luckily I had a wifi connection so was able to keep studying for the IWRC exam.  At about this point I was put in touch with the professional wildlife nutritionist who wrote the chapters on feeding in the IWRC wildlife care manual.  From her I learnt so much about nutrition.   She made me a better rehabber, and I made it a plan to review diets once back at CROW.   Before I knew it I was on the bus back to Capetown – a sleepless overnight journey - to pick up a flight to Durban and CROW once more. 


If I thought the height of baby season was over, I needed to think again.  As soon as I arrived at CROW, more baby birds started coming in - someone must have told them I was coming!


My work was cut out for me in more ways than one.  Not only did I go back to my “standard” hours – 5am to around 6pm – but I started work in earnest on trying to increase survival rates of our birds.  This entailed ramping up hygiene, with the introduction of separate syringes and tubes for all doves and native pigeons; the new housing arrangements for swifts; a maximum interval of 1 hour for all bird feeds – even when they were at the stage of fledging; and a standard protocol of antibiotic cover for all suspected dog and cat attacks.  However the biggest challenge, and the single most important factor, was diet.  Thanks to the continued support of Janine, the professional wildlife nutritionist, I now had answers as to why many of our birds weren’t making it.  I started with species where we’d had the most disappointing results - swifts and swallows.  This entailed the simplest change of all – from a formulated diet to a more natural one, and the difference right from the first day of supplying mealworms and crickets rather than an unappetising sludge known as “glop” was dramatic.  We went from perhaps a 20% survival rate to a 100% survival rate with breathtaking speed.  The results encouraged me to move on as quickly as possible to work out better diets for all the birds.  I worked like a woman demented, not just because I wanted to put an end to the miserable survival rates and unnecessary deaths, but because I only had 5 weeks to do it.  Luckily most songbirds are very similar in their needs as babies – there are very few who don’t get insects right up to fledging.  As well as a more natural diet, we increased the variety of food, and introduced measured supplementation for all birds, since deficiencies also cause huge problems in captivity.  Where I’m not entirely sure I won the battle is in changing attitudes of some of the staff, who insisted that birds who beg are just being “naughty”…. Well.  Weaning is a behavioural process that can take weeks to complete, and just because a bird picks up food by itself once, doesn’t mean it’s grown up enough to survive on its own.  A bird that’s begging is doing so for a reason – usually, it’s hungry!  


Days off were almost non-existent, since even though I had time rostered off from the clinic, I was usually up there to use the wifi connection to sort out diets, study and, inevitably, found myself checking on all the babies and helping out with the feeding in the clinic, or dealing with admissions.  However I did get away from the centre on two occasions.  The first was on a day when the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was in town!  I had to queue for two hours to get a tour, but it was well worth it.  If I needed any more inspiration, any more heroes to keep me going in what I feel is my life’s mission, the visit to the Rainbow Warrior, and seeing the dedication of all who sail on her, was it. My second outing was to a medieval fundraiser.  Fancy dress was mandatory and was included in the price of the meal.  A good night was had by all and if you want to see me in my medieval getup, the photos are on CROW’s facebook page  - you might have to hunt a bit for them as they were taken in March this year.   You’ll also have to hunt to find me in the one photo in which I was included!


One special case we had was a gorgeous little broad billed prion with dodgy feathers and needing to be fattened up.   This took a couple of weeks with feeds every couple of hours.  We had one abortive attempt at release conducted by the guys from the Sharks Board, but I’m not sure they knew what they were doing, having never released a prion before.  Since he was “my” baby, I was chosen to conduct another release a week or so later.  We had delays with the weather – every time we wanted to let him go the wind picked up and gave us horrendous seas – but finally we went out to sea with Tom, a wonderful fishing charter owner who only wanted to be allowed to photograph the bird before release and was happy to leave the rest to me.   So, arming myself with a belly full of motion sickness tablets, off we went – the bird, another volunteer, and me.    Predictably, the sea was almost smooth as glass with no swell whatsoever!   The plan was to make our way out beyond the shipping lanes to make sure it was absolutely safe.  However we had only gone 8km offshore – not aided by me being given control of the steering wheel and not necessarily keeping us on track the whole time – before my little guy started vocalising, something he hadn’t done during the whole course of his rehabilitation.  When he did it a third time, I decided he knew where he was and we cut the engine to let him go.  His carrier came up to the front of the boat, I stood on the prow a la Kate Winslet in Titanic, and took him out to let him rest on my hand for a minute.  Tom took the photos he wanted, little bird got his bearings and sorted out wind direction and strength – hmm, well, by then there wasn’t any.   And then in his own time he took off.   He wasn’t far off the surface and I worried at first but he just kept going – he did a circuit of the boat once, which I like to think of as a thank-you. He flew a little further out then made a dip towards the ocean and straight up again – and then I watched until he became an indiscernible speck against the horizon.  So emotional -Tom said he’d never before seen anyone cry at letting a bird go!  After all the worry of whether his feathers would be good enough for him to fly, whether he would fly at all, how the hell I would retrieve him if he just fell into the ocean….. off he went without so much as a by your leave, and that’s the way it should be.  As if that wasn’t satisfying enough, we saw the most amazing thing on the way back – a humungous sea turtle!  I’m still trying to decide what species it was and I think it was a green turtle – but I’m not sure.  Whatever it was, it was beautiful, just floating and maybe resting.  I wondered if there was something wrong with it for a while cos it just hung around in one spot… but Tom took the boat a bit closer so we could have a look, turned off the engines and then he opened his eyes, saw us and dived for cover.   So cool… my first sea turtle sighting in the wild!!!!


As well as my work with the birds, we also had a couple of native mice come in for rehab.  Mice are not always the easiest critters to raise but we were lucky enough to get these ones grown up and out the door… we decided it was time to release them when not only were they fending for themselves, they were biting!  Gratifyingly, there were many swift releases, some of which we did only a day after getting the birds in, if they were in good body condition.  The thing with swifts is that if they land on the ground they can’t get airborne again.  Their cute little feet and legs are just too short and they have to be helped to take off from a height.   ...


I left CROW all too soon – too soon to finish work on manikin and mousebird diets, which needed some tweaking.   But I left a legacy, as I’d hoped to.  We changed housing for seabirds – suspended bedding, which will hopefully reduce the incidence of bumblefoot, a nasty condition starting out much like a bedsore, that can, in the worst cases, end with the bird having to be euthanased.   I left better diets and dramatically improved survival rates behind me for most of the bird species, though I would have liked to have time to also review diets for all the mammals and reptiles also in care.  And I left having had a meeting with the director and all clinic staff, letting them know in no uncertain terms that if they wanted better survival rates for the birds, diet changes would have to be adhered to, and that in my view it would be criminal negligence if they didn’t.

My time had run out – and here I was, faced with leaving Africa to once again brave the not so sunny climes of a UK spring."                                


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