By Kavitha Cardoza
Dr. Elizabeth Daut waits as a red shouldered hawk is taken out of his cage. And this Red Shouldered Hawk isn't shy about letting his feelings be known. She examines him with a pediatric stethoscope.
"It's perfect for our small patients," says Daut.
Daut's gentle brown eyes look anxious as she continues her examination, from the bird's beak to what she calls it's "vent." She gently extends the bird’s wings and palpates its flesh with her small fingers, nimbly steering clear of it's sharp talons.
"So what we're going to do now is take him into radiology, sedate him, do a full ophthalmic exam, take some blood, take some X-rays, try to find out what's going on and start making a plan for him," she says.
Daut sees dozens of birds like this one, which have flown into buildings, presented with head trauma, fractured beaks and eye injuries.
Ed Clark, who founded the center, says they see animals affected by human behavior every day. Orphaned bear cubs whose mother was hit by a car, an eagle covered in thick black tar and all kinds of scavenger animals poisoned by lead pellets left behind by hunters.
"We have adulterated nature in such a way that the habitat that is left is so small that we have artificially forced these animals into smaller confined spaces," says Clark. "So in a sense it’s a product of human development."
The center has trained wildlife rehabilitators from all 50 states and 32 countries.
Katie Delk is from Atlanta. She says the center has given her the opportunity to see cases she normally wouldn't, such as an American Toad that needed portions of its lung removed, the mouse that needed an emergency Cesarean section or the owl whose eye was removed and eyelid sutured shut.
Delk shows off x-rays of her most memorable case.
"This is the snapping turtle that came in this summer," says Delk. "You can see her eggs, they look like golf balls. She was hit by a car, her face was fractured and part of her shell was broken." "We took an X-ray and she had 19 eggs inside. So we gave her medication that makes her lay her eggs and then made a little nest for them, then incubated them, then they hatched."
What happened to the mother?
"She had to be put down," she says, "she couldn't breathe and her face was really painful but a lot of her babies made it so she's still out there!"
You might not call a snapping turtle cute, but some of the animals at the center are. Still, Ed Clark says the staff takes care not to bond with them.
"We don't give our patients cute little names, you will see signs that say 'no baby talk,' says Clark. "They are often shielded even from the staff caring for them; for example, deer fawn that are brought in would be immediately blindfolded so it can't see people."
He says all this is part of the center’s "treat to release" philosophy.
"We have to teach them to drink milk from a bottle, but we want them to associate the experience with the milk and not the human hand that holds the bottle," he says. "To tame the animal is to kill it indirectly. You may mean them no harm, but the next hand they approach may be holding a gun or may be on the arm of someone who's afraid of animals."
Dr. Daut continues her rounds, checking on pain medication, bed sores and MRIs. She holds a peregrine falcon that has undergone weeks of physical therapy and is almost ready to be discharged. Daut says it's not easy to return the animals to the wild.
"I cried hysterically when I released my first patient!" she exclaims. "The first patient I released was a Cooper’s Hawk, he had a humeral fracture. We took him to the Blue Ridge Parkway on a beautiful sunny day and let him go. And, bawled like a baby!"
But, she says they weren’t tears of sadness.
"Crying for happiness, because that is the ultimate success, releasing a patient back to the wild," says Daut. "You can tell it’s ecstatic to be out and just away from us."
For Daut, never seeing her patients again is the ultimate thank you. She says it doesn't get any better than that.