It’s baby bird season again here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means lots and lots of cuteness out there in the world. Unfortunately, it also means lots and lots of baby birds unnecessarily “kidnapped” by well-meaning people. My ambulance shifts the last several weeks have been dominated by baby birds, mostly perfectly healthy birds that should never have been taken in the first place.
Here’s the scene: You’re walking along and see a young bird on the ground. The parents are nowhere in sight and as you approach the young bird it does not fly away. Assuming it’s injured or orphaned you can’t bear the thought of leaving the little guy there to his/her fate, so you take it home, put it in a shoebox, feed it bread and water, and call the animal ambulance (or bring it to a vet or shelter).
Here’s the catch: Fledglings (young birds that have already grown flight feathers) often learn to fly from the ground. So once they leave the nest, they can spend several days on the ground or on low branches before they’re truly able to fly. The parents are rarely far away, even if you can’t see them, and will continue to come back and feed the little peepers, but NOT if there are humans close by. If you find a fully feathered young bird on the ground that is not injured the best thing you can do is back away and leave it where it is. If you’re uncertain of the situation, try to observe from a safe distance. You’ll likely see one or both of the parents come back within a few minutes. Once a bird is taken away from its parents, its chances of survival decrease considerably.* If the bird is injured or if you’re sure it’s orphaned (we recently got a whole nest of Blue tits in because the caller’s cat had killed both the parents :?) please don’t attempt to raise or rehabilitate it yourself. Contact a licensed rehabilitator who has the knowledge and experience to tend to the exact needs of each particular bird species.
On a funnier note, yesterday’s shift saw us transporting the Houdini of Hedgehogs in our ambulance. We got a call from a care home for mentally handicapped adults. The receptionist had found a hedgehog curled up on the sidewalk. The fact that the prickly little fellow was out during the day was already a sign to us that something was wrong so we went over to investigate. It was a young hedgie, but presumably old enough to be foraging on its own. It curled up like it was supposed to when I picked it up and a good sniff told us that there was likely nothing seriously wrong with the little guy. He was, however, infested with fleas (as hedgehogs quite often are) and we suspected that because of this was suffering from anemia and just needed to recuperate at the bird sanctuary (the Toevlucht that also rehabs hedgies). We took him in the cardboard box the receptionist had put him in, lined with towels, and put him in the back of the ambulance. Tucking the four corners of the flaps into each other to close the box, I put a roll of bags on top of the box to weigh down the flaps just to be sure.
As we went to pick up another bird that needed to be brought to the bird rehabbers, all’s quiet from behind us as we assume little Harry (as I now call him) is asleep in his bed of towels. But as we get closer to our destination, we start to hear scratching in the back of the vehicle and realize he’s trying to dig his way out of the box. The whole way there, what we hear is *scratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratch* then about 15 seconds of silence followed by *scratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratch*. We joke that we’re going to find a loose hedgie in the back of the ambulance both knowing that there’s no way he’ll get through the thick cardboard during the short drive to the sanctuary.
Never underestimate the cunning of a hedgehog, though. When we got to the Toevlucht, I opened up the back of the ambulance and there, standing next to his cardboard box and sniffing a cat-carrier with a pigeon in it was little Houdini Hedgehog, cute as can be. Laughing, I scooped him up in a towel while my partner gave the box a good looking-over. We were right about one thing; he wasn’t able to dig through the thick cardboard during the short drive. There were no holes in the box. The little bugger (or bug-eater, actually) had somehow pushed his way through the folded, weighed down flaps of the box. The fact that he had the strength and wherewithal to do that gives me hope that a full recovery is on the cards for the little guy. Here’s hoping he’s out in the wild doing his hedgehog thing ASAP.
And since I’m always too busy to take pictures of the cuties we get on board to post here, I leave you with a somewhat related video I took a few years ago on my balcony. Get ready for some hot, young, Great tit action**:
*Although while we’re on the subject, I’d also like to dispel the myth that once a human has touched a baby bird, it will be rejected by the parents. Most bird species don’t have a particularly keen sense of smell and will NOT reject a baby after human intervention. So if for any reason you do have to intervene – say the fledgling is in the middle of the road and need to be moved to a less dangerous spot, or is not feathered (in which case it should be returned to the nest or a surrogate nest if at all possible) – you can do so with a good conscience.
** Shameless attempt to up the google traffic to my blog. 😛
October 4th, aka World Animal Day, saw me riding the ambulance in the company of the ever-cheerful Yvette (who happened to be featured in that day’s Metro newspaper in an article about the work of the Animal Ambulance). It was a lovely summery day, one of the last of the year, and it looked to be a fairly slow one from the get go. The pace in the fall is always less frantic than in the summer, when baby birds seem to fall out of trees like ripe fruit and irresponsible pet owners dump their charges on the street to fend for themselves when they go on vacation. That said, there are always critters in need of some assistance, and today would be no different.
Some days on the ambulance are marked by tragedy. Some days, however, leave you with a smile on your face and a warm, fuzzy feeling in your gut. This would be one of the latter. After a slow start, we got called out to an apartment block where a bird (a Great tit according to the caller) was trapped in a stairwell. Pulling up, we were greeted by the caller, who had been trying for two hours to catch the bird, was already late for work, and was out of both time and ideas. Armed with our trusty net we trooped up the four flights to the attic landing where not a tit but a Starling was perched atop the emergency exit sign. A couple of minutes, a lot of adrenaline, and some handy net work later, and I had the tired, stressed, but luckily perfectly healthy little bird in my hands as we made our way quickly downstairs and out into the fresh air. Seeing the open sky above him, the Startling seemed to revive. I opened my hands and he took to the wing, and in the blink of an eye, he’d disappeared into the trees. It’s rare that we get called out to help a healthy bird and it was a wonderful feeling being able to immediately release this guy where he belonged.
Another call that contributed to the warm fuzzy was from a concrete company, of all places, out in an industrial park. They’d found an abandoned kitten so we went up to retrieve it and bring it to the shelter. We assumed it would be a kitten of at least a few weeks old, but when we got there, the little morsel in the hands of the receptionist couldn’t have been more than four days old. Its little eyes and ears were still closed and it was mewling pathetically for milk. This wasn’t a job for the shelter but for our colleague Alga, who raises orphaned kittens. When they found her under a bush, she’d been cold, but they’d warmed her up and fed her some coffee creamer (not ideal) and she was very active and squirmy. It was hard to pry the little mite out of the protective receptionist’s grip but we convinced her the kitten would be in good hands and she finally let us take her. The poor little thing had to be kept warm, so rather than put her in one of the carriers in the back of the ambulance (which is normal procedure for our charges) I held her against my chest as we drove across town to bring her to Alga. The wee kitteh meowed and squirmed and suckled my fingers, my shirt, and my seatbelt, and then eventually fell asleep in the palm of my hand. Those of you who know me know that I’ve never had a maternal urge in my life, but holding that teeny tiny tabby against my breast almost made my ovaries explode. I understood why the receptionist found it so difficult to hand her over to us, but I knew that she was going to be well cared for with my colleague. Another happy call out.
If I ever needed confirmation that I’ve got a strong enough stomach for this work, Monday provided it.
The call was fairly vague. A dog was bleeding. There was a tumor. There was already an appointment to see the vet later that afternoon, but the bleeding was alarming enough to make it an emergency. Contact was made with the vet to see if they could take the dog right away. We drove to the house not knowing what to expect.
What we found was a very large, very sweet dog (likely a boxer mix), with a huge mammary tumor and a very shaken owner. (Who turned out not to be the owner.) The dog had been biting at the tumor overnight and now it was bleeding. While the bleeding wasn’t life threatening, the dog was clearly suffering, the swelling was infected, and she likely had a high fever. The woman explained the horrible horrible situation to us. The chronology was a bit confusing to me, but it was clear that she and her children were victims of domestic violence. The dog had been her ex’s. She hadn’t seen either of them in almost a year. Recently, ex had shown up again, dropped the dog off with her, then proceeded to smash in a bunch of windows in the house. The police were involved. The woman was alarmed to see the state the dog was in and had immediately made a vet appointment but it clearly couldn’t wait.
WARNING: Squeamish readers should probably skip this next paragraph.
We transported the dog and the women to the vet just a few blocks away. While walking from the ambulance to the office, something happened the sight of which I’ll never forget. A wet clump of tumor the size of an orange dropped from the dog onto the pavement with a sickening splat. Suddenly what had been a relatively modest flow of blood turned into a gushing faucet. I pulled on a pair of latex gloves and picked up the warm bloody tissue while my partner ran ahead into the office to get a plastic bag to contain it. The women went from shaken to distressed. We calmly but urgently led them into the vet’s waiting room where the blood pooled on the linoleum underneath the poor dog and a metallic odor filled the seating area. Needless to say, the vet saw us right away.
The vet confirmed that the dog was running a high fever. We were all amazed considering the fever, the infection, the bleeding, and what must have been a considerable amount of pain, that the dog still remained sweet and affectionate. The doctor said that surgery was possible but it would have to be extensive and include spaying the dog (without which she’d be guaranteed to have a recurrence sooner rather than later). Sadly the cost of surgery plus post-surgery care would come to more than the woman’s monthly income. She had enough love to heal the dog but she just couldn’t afford it. It was heart-wrenching to watch her realize that not only her and her kids had been affected by abuse; this poor dog – a dog that wasn’t even hers but that she clearly cared about – was also a victim. It was decided that the kindest thing would be to put the dog to sleep. Waiving the standard ambulance fee, we left the women there to say goodbye to this sweet animal that clearly deserved a lot better than she’d gotten in life.
We moved on to our next call.
My ambulance training is officially over and I’ve been declared ready to work independently. Today was my first day working in a team of two as a full-fledged “dierenhulpverlener” (animal care worker/first responder). It was, as usual, a day filled with varied experiences, from stray dogs to severed legs (don’t ask) with lots of birds and cats in between.
One of the most special moments came when we were called to come rescue a gull that was trapped on the fire escape of a large office building belonging to a bank. We didn’t know what to expect, having been told that the bird had evaded capture until then, so we grabbed a carrying case and our trusty net and reported at the front desk as instructed. The security guard there led us through the gate, up the elevator to the fourth floor and to another reception desk. Two ladies there told us that the bird had gotten away from them again and was now on the third floor. They joined our convoy as we made our way with our security escort down the central staircase, through an office space full of very curious workers, and onto the third floor fire escape.
There on the landing, just an inch from the ledge, with nothing but some wide-set bars between it and open air, was a not-quite-fledgling Herring gull: about half the size of an adult, mostly fluffy and spotty but with a few flight feathers starting to unfurl on its wings. It was clearly not yet ready to fly but it sure looked ready to jump. Without even thinking, I pounced on the little fluffer before it could make its escape. It was healthy, fat, and absolutely gorgeous! It was also calling loudly for its mother in between trying to bite me and mother was circling overhead calling back in turn.
Lots of gulls nest on the roofs of high office buildings, so we suspected that it had plunged off the ledge of this one. We asked the security guard if we could go up and see if we could find a nest. He hemmed and hawed for a second, but soon agreed. So our motley crew – two ambulance workers, two receptionists, one security guard, and one baby gull in a cat carrier – headed back through the crowded office space, a wake of bored office workers rubbernecking to get a glimpse of the action as we passed down the center aisle. Up two more flights in the lift, through another locked door up onto the roof. It didn’t take long to find the round twiggy nest nestled into the roof gravel. I opened up the carrier, grabbed the little gull, and popped it back on its wooden throne. At which point it stood up and took a runner for the edge of the roof. We all held our hearts, afraid it was going to bolt over the ledge and end up on the fire escape again or worse, plunge six floors to certain death. Thankfully, it stopped just on the edge of the roof, landing in the wide, flat rain gutter just an inch lower. We beat a hasty retreat to allow him the space he needed to gather the courage to wander away from the ledge, and also to allow mom to come back to her babe. We could see through the window in the door that junior had walked back a bit further from the ledge and was calling to mom again.
You can’t help but worry about the babies living such a precarious life. The receptionists were surprised we didn’t take the bird with us, assuming that it would be safer in the care of the local bird sanctuary. But a baby bird is always better off with its parents, and it’s a rare treat for us to be able to reunite them. Too often, they’re snatched away from their parents and can’t be returned for whatever reason. To be able to do so is the best of all possible outcomes. The precariousness of survival on the edge for these little ones is just part and parcel of life in the wild.
As we emerged from the building on the ground floor and walked back to the ambulance with our unused net and empty carrier, we heard gulls calling above. Looking up, we saw an adult Herring gull circle the corner of the building where the juvenile was last seen, once, twice, and then come in for a landing.
A few weeks ago we picked up a dead dog. It was my fourth day of on-the-job training on the animal ambulance and, in what seems to be becoming a pattern on my shifts, all of the calls that we were sent out on were for animals that were already deceased. The dog – a beautiful Irish setter – was the last call of the day and although it was also the toughest (emotionally speaking) it was also the one that left me feeling most hopeful.
To explain why this was, I have to go back a few weeks further and tell the story of another dog. As I already mentioned, I seem to have the “luck” of the draw that when I’m on duty we get dispatched to pick up cadavers: a pigeon that flew into a window, a duck that got hit by a car, a cat that was found floating in the canal…. It’s all part of the job and honestly I really don’t mind doing it. I’m not disturbed by seeing these animals and take heart in knowing that at least they’re not suffering. At the same time, I expressed to Roos that I was hoping for some more calls dealing with live critters. As odd as it sounds, working with live animals is in many ways more challenging than dealing with dead ones and I’d like to experience some more challenging calls while I’m still under the guidance of a patient trainer like Roos.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. After an uneventful day I got my challenge. The last call we got dispatched on that day was for a dog that needed to be taken to the veterinary hospital to be put to sleep. Apparently the owner had himself recently been hospitalized for a stroke and was unable to take the dog himself. I was nervous before we even got there, not knowing what to expect. What kind of condition would the dog be in and how would I deal with the emotions of the owner? I knew if someone were coming to take my dog to be put down I would be a sobbing wreck and I hoped that I could remain unemotional and do my work in the face of such a heartbreaking scene.
As expected, the scene was heartbreaking but not in the way I had anticipated. As Roos and I walked into the living room I stopped short and tried not to betray my shock and disgust. I could hear Roos quietly gasp and when I looked at her face I knew she was just as shocked and trying to remain professional. What we saw there on a blanket in front of the heater was Rambo, a little Yorkshire Terrier, stinking, more dead than alive, unable to move or lift his head. It was only when you went to pet the dog that he showed any sign of life, feebly trying to turn his little head in the direction of the hand, his eyes so deeply sunken in the sockets that you couldn’t see them. There were more disturbing details, but for the sake of any squeamish readers, I won’t go into them. It was obvious that this poor dog had been suffering for quite a while, and anyone with any sense and compassion would have realized that Rambo should have been put down long before we were called in to collect him. And it wasn’t as if the owner saw this but was unable to act due to his health. His stroke had occurred only two days earlier and his dog had clearly been sick for a very long time. In fact, it was the social worker who called on him to see how he was doing after his release from the hospital who called the animal protection league when she saw the state the dog was in. The owner seemed to not even be aware that the poor thing was suffering. Even when we were there, he acted as if it was simply a matter of old age. I heard later from Roos that the people at the Veterinary Hospital where the dog was taken were also shocked at the state of the animal and said that it was definitely borderline cruelty/neglect.
Fast forward a few weeks to the call to come collect the Irish Setter. Again, it was the last call of the day, and again I had no idea what to expect. All we’d heard was that the vet had been to the house and put the dog to sleep. Upon arrival, we were met by a man with red eyes and a tear-stained face. He led us into the living room where we could see the dog, “asleep” on the floor. Two small children, too young to really understand what was going on were running up and down the stairs, but the parents – a young Canadian couple – were comforting each other, and looking lovingly at their recently deceased friend. They told us the story. The dog had been 12 years old, they’d brought him along with several other much loved pets when they moved from Canada to Amsterdam. He had had hip dysplasia and malignant tumors in his neck. They had the tumors removed but they’d come back and were spreading. They wanted to spare their old friend – who had been in their lives longer than their kids – from any further pain. They were so clearly heartbroken to have made this decision, and the tears streamed down their faces as we put their old pup on a stretcher and carried him to the ambulance. I held back tears myself while they said one final goodbye before we closed the doors.
Roos and I both took a deep breath and were quiet for a minute when we drove off. I admitted to her that I had a lump in my throat and had been holding back tears at the scene. She told me she felt the same way. And yet, as heartbreaking a scene as it was, it gave me hope. After the situation with Rambo a few weeks earlier, it was encouraging to realize that there were caring pet owners out there, people who truly loved their animals and wanted the best for them, even if that was death. That image of the little Yorkie had been haunting me and the anger I felt toward his owner had been building up with no outlet. Seeing this family letting go of their beloved pet with so much love gave me hope and helped me to let go of the anger and disgust I had been holding on to for the last couple of weeks. I know I’ll see more scenes that anger and disturb me. I know that’s par for the course. As long as I can hold on to the knowledge that there are people out there who, like this family, love their animals and do right by them, I think I can keep from letting the bad scenes eat away at me.
I haven’t posted in a while because there hasn’t been much exciting to tell. Both the classes and the on-the-job training are continuing. We’ve finished with the introductory course (which is mainly procedural stuff) and have moved onto the meat (excuse the wording) of animal first aid. Last night we covered infectious diseases. Yum.
Tuesday was my second ride-along with trainer Roos. Unfortunately she’s having to fit a lot of new volunteers into her schedule, so the ride-alongs are more widely spaced than one would hope, but she’s hoping to up the frequency for all of the trainees in the coming weeks. This time, we were accompanied by Richard, an eager volunteer who recently finished his training. He had a lot of reassuring words for me about how quickly you pick things up, and how it’s ok to make mistakes. (Which of course I know but it’s nice to be reminded.) I admire his intrepidity. At every call, he was out of the ambulance and at the side of the animal in a flash, even when this involved climbing over a rickety wooden fence and pulling a floundering heron out of the water. (Of all the birds we get called out on, herons are potentially the most dangerous, so I’m quite nervous about the first time I’ll have to handle one.)
Once again, my presence in the ambulance seems to have coincided with what everyone said was an uncharacteristically slow day. (This has happened every time I’ve worked so far.) The calls were mainly bird-related: dead gull, dead swan, injured duck, injured heron (both of which had to be euthanized). One dead cat that had to be fished out of a canal.
Possibly the silliest moment of the day was when we were called to a local high school to pick up a hen that had been roaming in the school yard for several days. Concerned for its welfare, the concierge of the school put the bird in a box and called us to come get it. When we got there and opened the box, we were delighted to discover that the chicken decided to thank the concierge by laying an egg. The poor dear (the hen, not the concierge) seemed fairly healthy if a bit undernourished, so we brought her to the bird sanctuary to be fattened up, and then either brought to a petting zoo or one of the local parks that have free-roaming chicken populations.
The cutest moment came at the end of the day when, after returning to base, Roos and I were sent down to the animal holding area to check on some Guinea pigs that had been picked up by another crew. It was a momma pig and 4-5 baby pigs, and the folks over at the rodent sanctuary that were going to rehome them had asked if we could separate out the boys from the girls. So after a quick lesson in how to sex Cavias, we headed on down to sort the boys from the, well, the not boys. Easier said than done.
After much squealing from the pigs, and what felt like untoward prodding of piggy genitals, we came to the conclusion that they were simply too young to sex. (Mom’s sex characteristics were pretty easy to see, so we knew it wasn’t our technique at fault.) Of course, the only thing to do after upsetting baby peegs is to comfort them, which we handily accomplished by petting them and cooing endearments. They seemed to forgive us for our violations, and the one I was holding ended up happily sitting (and shitting) on my chest. I went home with a spot of pig poo on my shirt, but it was totally worth that last moment of cute contentment.
Since the beginning of March, I’ve started my official training at the animal ambulance service. What this entails is an introductory training course two evenings a week plus the start of on-the-job training. This latter involves riding along with an experienced ambulance crew under the leadership of trainer Roos to practice our newly learned skills in the field. Monday was my first time riding along with Roos and Francisca, the other ambulance personnel for that shift. It looked like it was going to be a fairly quiet day filled with relatively routine calls: a coot with an infected foot, a sick pigeon, a rabbit with myxomatosis, and taking an elderly client with her dog to the vet for a nail trimming. Even on the most routine days, however, the work is quite varied.
Nothing quite demonstrates the varied nature of this work like the two most noteworthy calls we responded to that day. The first was to come and pick up two goldfish – yes, goldfish – that had been found in a filthy aquarium during an eviction process. It did my heart good to know that the bailiff actually went to the trouble of contacting us to remove the fish rather than flushing his fishy “problem” down the drain. They had been placed in clean water in a glass bowl, inside a large plastic bag, inside a bucket. They looked (as far as I could tell) like happy and healthy little fishies and we brought them back to headquarters and fed them while dispatch tried to find a shelter willing to take them in.
The second call was out to a house where a snake had apparently been spotted in the back yard. This was exciting. We had no idea what would be awaiting us at this house. Would it be the harmless native Grass snake, the not-so-harmless but rarely seen native Adder, or an escaped exotic (which could be either venomous or non-venomous)? What had seemed like it was shaping up to be a day of routine runs was suddenly tinged with the thrill of the unusual and the unknown. It was with bated breath that we drove out to the neighborhood of duplexes where the snake had been spotted. At the door of the address we’d been given we were greeted by a woman in a state of near hysterical panic. “Where did you see the snake?” she was asked. In bits and pieces the story unfolded. She’d seen the “huge” (demonstrated by her taking two big steps to indicate its length) creature in her garden. Five days ago. It had not been seen since then.
We took a look around her garden, checked along the sides of the house outside the garden fence, and even emptied her (very cluttered) shed to make sure the offending critter was gone. We allowed her to look into every corner with a flashlight to reassure her that the snake had well and truly departed the scene.
Rather than being comforted by this, her panic escalated. Because her door had been open around that time, she was afraid it might have slipped into her house unnoticed. She had heard some noises in one of her cupboards and as evidence of the animal’s presence in her house she showed us the toe of a slipper and some plastic bags that had holes chewed into them.
Roos tried to assure her that snakes eat neither cloth nor plastic, and that perhaps what she had heard and what had caused the damage was something more in the order of rodentia (ie. mice), but seeing as this was “nieuwbouw” (a relatively recently built house), the panicked homeowner waved this off as an impossibility. Wanting to reassure her further, Francisca asked her from which cupboard these sounds had emanated. It was the closet near the front door. So, with the woman gasping with fear and running into the other room, Francisca opened the door and handed years’ worth of collected clutter to Roos and myself so that she could show the frightened woman that there was no snake hiding in her front closet. Thinking this would satisfy her, we suggested that the serpent – having last been seen five days earlier – was long departed from the scene and that if she were to see it again that she should call us right away. What we hadn’t counted on was how this woman’s friends and family had been feeding her fear. She had spent the intervening nights sleeping at a friend’s house where the flames of her panic were fanned by her friends and her daughter who suggested that perhaps the offending reptile had since found its way into the walls of the house and would be waiting for her to drop her guard so it could come out and attack her in her sleep.
We then proceeded, with Francisca maintaining the patience of a saint and Roos and I trying to contain both our frustration and mirth about the situation, to follow the woman around her three-story house, divesting every closet and cupboard of its dusty contents (where we encountered further evidence of the presence of the suspected muridae), moving every piece of furniture away from the wall, and looking under every piece of clutter in every room (including her teenage daughter’s room and the attic) to assure her that Elvis had truly left the building (and likely had never entered it in the first place).
When we were back in the car, all we could do was laugh. We were all somewhat disappointed that the offending reptile was no longer anywhere to be found; snake calls are not common and it would have been an exciting call to be part of. We had been there for an hour on a wild-snake chase, but at least we had a good story to tell. And on the bright side, we’d helped the customer on her way to some much-needed spring cleaning.