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Seabird Rescue

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 2014

So I’ve been reading back over my diaries since the last newsletter and it seems I rather foolishly thought I’d be spending more time in the last few months of my SANCCOB internship in the main centre – oh yeah, like that was ever going to happen!  What really happened was that we had CRU interns pull the pin, and then there was an oil spill down near our Cape St Francis facility.  Half the SANCCOB staff went off to respond, leaving the centre in Capetown in the hands of just a few, which left me as the most experienced CRU person in the entire centre!

Accommodation improved – well, it couldn’t get any worse – and I was mercifully busy with housesitting for the last 6 months of my stay.  It was nice to get back to “normal”.  I never thought I’d enjoy doing my own washing, cooking and cleaning but being in complete control of my life once again was like a breath of fresh air.  I kind of overdid the petsitting at one point – one weekend I was looking after 3 cats in one place, one cat in another and two dogs somewhere else – now that’s crazy!

CRU hours were ridiculous as usual.  We continued the morning and afternoon shifts but there were some days where I had no help with laundry or making formula – always on a weekend – and they were just manic.  There was more than one occasion where I didn’t finish till midnight and on top of that, I was finishing my final project for the wildlife management course and revising for exams.

We had two new vets start during the second half of the year which was a real bonus.  One of them was an avian specialist and his knowledge was invaluable in decreasing the number of babies lost to various infections.  It was never too late at night or early in the morning to call him and say I was worried about a bird, and treatment was always started immediately.  Hygiene was also stepped up by a factor of at least 100%, as was controlling the temperature of the incubators and brooders.  I thought I knew about barrier nursing and keeping things clean, but newly implemented regimes took things to a whole new level.

He was also very helpful with post mortems and except when he specifically wanted to see what was going on with chicks, allowed me to virtually take over the whole post mortem side of things.  I necropsied almost 200 birds whilst at SANCCOB, most of them seabirds but there were a few odd-bods.  We had a blue crane come in from the public, poor thing died before we could move him on to a wildlife carer so I did the post mortem with him; also had a cape fur seal pup come in.  People somehow mistook SEABIRD rescue centre for SEAL rescue centre – still not sure how that works!  He had to be euthanased so I also got to do the post mortem on him – my first pm on a marine mammal and it was absolutely fascinating.  I wouldn’t say I became the autopsy guru but the vets were more than happy to send me interns who had to observe a pm as part of their training plan.

New vets meant lots of change – the avian vet wanted an onsite theatre so I got to be involved in a lot more clinical things than I had originally expected.  After the new vets were employed we did a lot more xrays on birds – which meant a trip to the local vet hospital since we didn’t have our own equipment.  I was seconded to assist on several occasions – so cool as I not only handled the birds while they were being sedated for xray, but also got to hold the bird in position for the radiologist and to monitor birds coming out of the anaesthetic.  On one occasion I went with the vet to monitor anaesthesia while he pinned a broken leg – another first and great experience.  With the advent of an avian specialist who insisted on an operating theatre onsite, we did a lot more procedures such as amputation and pinning broken legs.  We were also able to debride wounds under anaesthesia which is a lot less stressful for the animal.  I for one was more than happy to see birds with broken legs to have a second chance at recovery and life back in the wild.

I also – finally! – got to hold an oiled bird whilst it was washed.  I asked lots of questions and was given a lot of reading material so with any luck, should I ever come across oiled birds in the future, I know what to do.  I look forward to being able to go to different places and assist in the event of birds being affected by oil spills.

The internship officially finished at the end of October.  Originally I had been asked to go down to Port Elizabeth and “babysit” a centre that SANCCOB is taking over; however plans didn’t quite come together and in the end I was asked to stay longer in Capetown to help them cope with the Xmas chick influx.  After a little umming and aahing I took them up on it; I’m sure my being there was appreciated as we had close to 500 chicks admitted between the middle of November and the end of December!  The centre was pretty well packed with chicks of various ages and it was impossible for them all to come into the chick rearing unit; we had to make a decision as to which chicks would go into CRU and which would go downstairs.  In the end, any chick under 1kg went to the CRU and those over 1kg went into increasingly crowded pens downstairs.  By the time I left, the early admissions had their blue feathers, were waterproof and healthy, and were starting to be released.  We had a few chicks with avian pox come in during this time and at times that was very hard to deal with – in some cases it had got into their eyes and the birds went blind as a result.  Once that happens there’s no choice but to euthanase the bird as without sight it can’t feed itself, or even move around much without the risk of serious injury.

Due to the amount of time I was spending in CRU, I didn’t get to go to many more releases but I was lucky enough that one of my off days fell on the day of the Penguin Festival on 13 October, where we did a mass release at Boulders Beach.  We released 47 birds that day…. I hung around with a couple of staff members to make sure that all the birds were OK and that the public kept their distance.  Not all the chicks were at all sure about that wet boisterous thing called the ocean, and in the end we had to carry about 10 of them out to a big rock.  The weather was miserable and I really wasn’t planning to get wet that day; however I waded out in thigh deep water to take the chicks to where they had no choice but to get in the water if they wanted to get off the rock, and counted myself privileged to have been part of the whole thing.  One chick steadfastly refused to go anywhere despite this so I was given the box and took him round to our normal release site on Boulders Beach.  He toddled out of the box and stood looking round a bit uncertainly for a minute – then the wind picked up a bit and started blowing feathers everywhere so off he went chasing them.  As always, very emotional – there was one adult we called the Admiral who’d been in rehab for a while, recovering from seal bite wounds, and about half the others were my babies from CRU.   I can’t tell you how special it was that the staff allowed me to do that single release by myself and to say my last goodbyes to that precious little baby.   

The day had other highlights as well – I had to help man the SANCCOB stall but that was only for an hour, and I was then free to wander round and do what I liked.  What I liked was to watch the raptor demonstration by the guys from Eagle Encounters down at Spier, and I had a good chat to them afterwards while holding Leo, the African Black eagle.  This made up in some small measure for not being able to get down to Spier again to volunteer with the guys for a day – as always I was working most Saturdays and just didn’t have time.

Besides the penguin chicks I also got to raise 5 baby cape cormorants – already 500g but just little cute black balls of fluff, so gorgeous and so hungry!  They took to being hand fed really well, and it wasn’t long before they were downstairs in the aviary during the day and back up in CRU for the evenings.  They make such cute sounds and I tried to get that with the video function on my camera. Someone told me they look like dinosaurs but I’ve seen a heap of birds since that really do look like dinosaurs – baby hadedas!

I finally completed all the exams for my wildlife management certificate at the end of October and then celebrated by having a massage.  I did well in each of the exams although I found my marks for the ornithology unit disappointing – I only got 85% but then, considering that I totally misconstrued the meaning of one of the questions and got it horribly wrong, I suppose I can’t complain.  89% for all the rest, and I finally broke the 90% barrier with the final two exams – 95% for one and 96% for the other.  You better believe I was bouncing off walls when I got those results in.   The certificate took a while to reach me and it wasn’t until the last week in February that it finally turned up in Durban.  I’m so glad that’s over and done with – it was a hard slog at times and now I can move onto something else!

Other highlights – I finally got to work properly in admissions though this took some head-butting with my mentor, who for some reason decided to try to make my life hell in my final month.  Kind of felt like being right back at the start of my internship at times!  I also got to go with Nola, who left the bird work to the two new vets and focused on research.  I went with her to Robben Island (yes! – I braved a boat ride!) to do a moult count in my last week at SANCCOB, very nice day, good to spend time with her just discussing various aspects of her penguin research, and I didn’t even get seasick… well OK, I cheated and took a pill.  Awesome to see the birds in the wild as well, and besides the African penguins I saw hundreds of swift terns and reed cormorants all over the beaches and jetties.  I’m glad I didn’t do the tourist thing to Robben Island – all you are allowed to do on that is get on a bus and see the old prison whereas by going with Nola, I was able to wander the island, see the stunning coastline and the even more stunning birds.

My last month was spent basically in the intensive care unit where it’s all go, go, go…. Lots of treatments, lots of meds, lots of fluids and in between that, two fish feeds, and trying to get the birds into the pool for a swim twice a day.  Normal hours just didn’t eventuate, we had up to 50 birds in ICU and so as to get everything prepped and first treatments and fluids started at 8am, I was going in at 7am and not finishing till 7pm most evenings – then I still had to do all the record keeping for the day so it was usually more like 9pm by the time I left and one evening it was after 10.  I wasn’t the only person doing it – by that stage all the downstairs pens were full to capacity and most of the supervisors were staying behind to make sure everything was done for the day.  About that stage I sometimes started to envy normal 6 week volunteers – most of them buzzed off home at 5pm when their shift officially finished, although there were one or two stars who always came in early and stayed behind to help out.

I also had a weekend away at the CEO’s farm… no electricity and no mobile signal so I was forced to down tools as far as revising for exams went.  I saw malachite sunbirds, picked a lot of proteas and spent almost an entire day watching male cape weavers building nests – and slept!!

My very last day at SANCCOB was spent in the pre-release pen and I got 21 birds ready for release that day.  Most of them were ex-CRU babies so it was pretty special and a fitting end to my time there.  What wasn’t so fitting was that the day I went to Durban, 2nd January, I had a call from the CEO to say that some drunken scumbag had kicked one of our released chicks and it resulted in the birds death.  I won’t tell you how angry and upset I still am about that, and what I’d like to do to the sub-human organism who thought it’d be a good laugh.  When I think of how trusting those babies are and how abusive people are, I despair for homo sapiens.  I’m with Agent Smith in The Matrix when he describes people as a virus.

It was quite a wrench to leave SANCCOB and all those babies.  I got wound up even leaving them for the evening sometimes… one night I felt so bad about leaving them that I ended up bawling my eyes out and wondering if I should go back after I’d had dinner – at midnight! – just to check that they were all OK.  It was also incredibly difficult to leave Winston, one of the education birds who just loves everyone.  I spent as much time as I could with him cuddled on my lap.  There’s nothing quite like being preened by an African Penguin. 

I still miss my chickies and am very envious reading the website, where they say they’re inundated with chicks and have put out an urgent call for CRU interns.  I’m almost tempted to go back there…. I will definitely be going back to visit once the new centre is up and running, and as I’ll have my vet nursing qualification by then I might ask for a job.  It’s not often I go back to somewhere but those chicks have really got a hold on me, and since the CEO kept saying I wasn’t allowed to leave; and that she’d make a position in CRU specially for me, going back to work permanently there is definitely on the radar.  As long as I wouldn’t have to run the centre on weekends or deal with training loads and loads of people!  If I can’t do that I might just have to find other penguin species around the world to save – I’d love to work with the Little Blues in Oz, and I think it’d be a real challenge to raise a 3 metre tall King or Emperor penguin chick!

However, there were new babies of many species waiting for me in Durban… stay tuned for my adventures there..."




[01/07/2022 20:30:13]

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