The OSU Small Animal Hospital treats cats and dogs only. They don’t treat birds. That is, unless a national symbol of freedom shows up.
In March, the Chintimini Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (CWC) north of Corvallis, received a badly injured bald eagle whose wing had suffered multiple fractures. Jeff Picton, CWC director, contacted OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital and orthopedic surgeon Jennifer Warnock agreed to do the delicate surgery.
Bird bones are radically different than dog and cat bones. “The avian humerus is pneumatic, meaning it is connected with the respiratory system making the bird lighter for flight and keeping them cool,” says Warnock. Her experience at UC Davis’ Avian Exotics Service and other wildlife medical services enabled her to tackle the tricky case. “Bird bone is particularly thin and brittle, making implant placement a delicate affair: pins placed in bird bone can easily strip out or further fracture the bone,” says Warnock. Another concern in repairing the broken wing was putting it back together without shortening it so much that the eagle couldn’t fly well. They used a minimally invasive procedure to place an external metal fixator with nine pins through tiny incisions into the good bone.
The eagle came through the two-hour surgery well. In fact, immediately upon waking up from anesthesia, he bit Picton and drew blood. “We were all saying, “Oh great, he’s fast! That is a good sign,” laughs Claire Peterson, veterinary student and regular volunteer at CWC. “The bald eagle surgery was so cool to observe. I have not got to see an orthopedic surgery where they put in so many pins and construct the whole external fixture.”
The jury is still out on whether the bald eagle will recover well enough to be released. According to Peterson, he has a better chance of returning to the wild than other raptors. “If it were a falcon, it would be unlikely,” says Peterson. “They are the athletes of the bird world. They are hunting ducks and songbirds so they need to be able to fly really well. Eagles can scavenge and they can catch fish. He doesn’t need to be an athlete; he just needs to be able to get along. We’re hoping that it’s enough.”
August 2012 Update: Recent news from the CWC is good. As part of her rehabilitation, volunteers have been chasing the eagle around her 80′ pen trying to force her to fly as much as possible. She has been steadily improving and now is flying so well, center director Jeff Picton is sending her to to another wildlife center with a bigger flight cage where she can get really good workouts. “She really needs something huge to practice in,” says Warnock. The ultimate goal of all this activity is to strengthen her wing enough to return her to the wild.