Road trip; sans wings

Before the Covid-thing, my beloved and I went on a road trip, where we learned a lot of things. We travelled most of the length of the country, from Dunedin to Auckland, visiting wildlife hospitals and bird rescue centres. We were inspired by the good work that Karen Saunders does on Waiheke in this regard, which readers of Gulf News will well know of. Our trip was for a three-part series of articles in the Forest & Bird magazine. I asked the dumb questions and did the writing; Lesley took the photos. The first installment is in the winter edition.

Along the way, we discovered that the recovery rate for birds brought in, is not that high. On average, around 40- 50 per cent of the patients don’t make it out alive. This is mainly because by the time the birds make it to the hospitals, they have already suffered too much. A bird injured enough to be easily captured by amateur bird handlers is already in dire straits.

We learned that wildlife is a specialised part of veterinary science, and in each hospital we visited, we encountered individual vets, nurses and volunteers who are at the forefront of knowledge about the often endangered species they care for. We found a close network of inspirational people who work interactively to provide the best care for their patients. Advice is freely sought and given. Often it’s a local ‘ordinary’ vet who provides the first care for an injured animal, which is stabilised (under phone supervision from a vet at one of the wildlife hospitals), then transported to the nearest wildlife hospital. Just like it happens with Karen’s operation on Waiheke. But the time lag down south can be crucial. There is no wildlife hospital on the West Coast. So, the Christchurch Wildlife Hospital covers those cases, as well as everything from South Canterbury to Marlborough. There was a one-person bird rescue operating at Kaikoura, but that has since stopped.

We were also introduced to diverging approaches to endangered species management, with some contested areas. We learned a bit about the politics of conservation – which like politics in every sphere, can be fraught. But that’s another story.

We found the expert vets’ and nurses’ courage – yes, I use that word advisedly – in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, quite astonishing. All those working with hoiho yellow-eyed penguins reckon that, at current population trajectory, the species is doomed to extinction. Hoiho are suffering from increasing rates of diphtheria; and the survival of chicks in the nest is a worry. Yet they persist. And they come up with clever solutions – like how Rosalie Goldsworthy, who manages the penguin rescue trust at Moeraki, takes the dominant hoiho chick from a nest, and places it in the care of a nearby gay couple. Who do just fine as foster parents, leaving the smaller chick with the undivided attention of its own Ma and Pa. For now, the outlook for hoiho looks grim. Perhaps, something will change in the future. It must.

As it did for kākāpō, our version of ‘charismatic megafauna.’ Kākāpō had an extraordinary breeding season in the summer of 2018/2019. Eighty-six chicks were hatched in an overall population of only 148 birds. A more than fifty percent population increase in one swoop! But soon after, an epidemic of aspergillosis (a fungal disease) threatened both the new chicks and adult birds. Many were airlifted to hospitals – Auckland, Palmerston North, Dunedin – for long periods of care. Volunteer caregivers were called in from far and wide. Some even came from overseas. In the end, 15 chicks and six adults were lost, and the population was stabilised at 213 individuals. This saving of the kākāpō population would not have been possible without the wildlife hospitals. It was their own Covid crisis, and they responded magnificently.

One curious thing was that at the hospitals at the zoos in Wellington and Auckland, surgery performed by vets is a part of the interpretive experience. The operating rooms have huge windows, so zoo visitors can watch. And they do – in droves. At Wellington, there’s even an intercom and the vet is miked up, so folks can ask questions as it all happens. Strange how surgery is such a private affair for humans, but not so for our endangered birds. The vets are cool with this; they see their educational role as vitally important too.

Our road trip was a stimulating and scary experience – uplifting to learn of the dedicated level of expertise the wildlife hospitals offer, and unnerving to learn how fragile the population dynamics of many of our endangered species are. But most of all, we learned of the value of good scientific expertise. And of not giving up. Ever.