The Day After Earth Day
The day after a disappointingly non-eventful Earth Day 2007 I followed a trail of dead birds, and a squirrel and some troubled seals all the way inland to the people who rescue animals.
On April 22,1970 Senator Nelson from Wisconsin called for a day of environmental education in response to the deterioration of the environment. 20 million Americans participated in the celebration and many reforms were made because of the newly increased environmental awareness. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed as an outcome of this first Earth Day Celebration. Now Earth Day is celebrated around the globe by an estimated half billion people.
This year on April 22 I was curious to find what Earth Day happenings were going on in Los Angeles. What I found were a special Earth Day event at the LA Zoo and some organized beach clean-ups in Santa Monica. In other words, not a whole lot was going on. The one thing that I heard most coming from media outlets on this Earth Day 2007 was that if we all start using more efficient light bulbs we will be helping out a lot.
At daybreak on April 23, 2007 I went for a walk on my nearby beach. As I walked on the mile long stretch of sand I was confronted with the carcasses of over 30 sea birds, 2 sick sea lions, a sick elephant seal, a delirious pelican, and several dead fish. This sight prompted me to take a short drive to the California Wildlife Center to find out what was going on.
The California Wildlife Center is a non-profit organization located in Malibu on State Park Property right smack in the middle of the backbone trail. It serves as a hospital and rehab center for injured wildlife. They tend to marine animals and sea birds from Topanga to Pt. Mugu as well as land-based wildlife and birds from all over Los Angeles.
Their mission is rescue, rehab, and release. They have an intensive care unit where injured animals are looked after round the clock. The Center is mostly staffed by volunteers. You must be 18 years of age or older and go through a training session that is held once a month. They have a small number of paid wildlife Veterinarians and marine mammal rescue professionals. Since their goal is to re-release the animals into the wild, they want to keep their contact with humans to a minimum. I felt honored that they allowed me inside the hospital to see and photograph the animals. I was able to convince them that my goal is to inform more local residents of the Center’s existence in the hopes of increasing the number of volunteers or simply educating more people of the impact that we have on the local wildlife.
Since the reason that I was there in the first place was the sick and dead animals that I saw on my beach, I spoke at length with Tristan Joy, the assistant Marine Mammal Coordinator at CWC. She informed me that this incident was a case of domoic acid poisoning, a naturally occurring toxin that comes from a microscopic blue green algae that works its way up the food chain. First, the anchovies and other baitfish eat the algae. Since their nervous systems are simple, the toxin does not affect them. Then they are eaten by sea birds and mammals like sea lions, dolphins, and whales. In these animals it becomes a neurotoxin that causes loss of muscle control, seizures, brain damage, and eventually death.
The CWC got their first call this year on Tuesday April 17 about a seal with domoic acid poisoning. The algal blooms that create the toxin occur when the water is warm, polluted, or stagnant. Scientists first identified domoic acid in 1958. Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” was based on an incident in 1961 of seabirds that had literally gone insane from the neurological effects of the toxin. In recent years incidents of domoic acid poisoning have become an annual occurrence and it is happening earlier and in higher numbers every year. This year so far the cormorant population has been greatly affected, as well as sea lions, pelicans, and other birds and fish. Oddly enough, I also found a dead squirrel on the beach next to a dead cormorant. It is possible that this squirrel’s death was just a coincidence. If its death is related to the domoic acid, it is a first for the squirrel population.
According to Tristan Joy, even a slight increase in water temperature might be the culprit for the increase in incidents of domoic acid poisoning, or it could be run-off from nearby residences and businesses, everything from fertilizer to laundry detergent. Often there is nothing that they can do once the animals become sick from the toxin. The birds tend to die quickly from it. Some of the larger mammals are able to overcome it. If the CWC gets to an animal that is severely sick it can administer liquids to try to flush out the toxins, but this does not always save the animal and often times it is too late.
Needless to say, the incident that brought me to the CWC is not the one that kept me there for an afternoon since virtually none of the animals that I saw sick, dying, or dead on my beach had survived long enough to make it to the wonderfully caring emergency room off Malibu Canyon. Once I was let into the Center I was amazed by the high level of efficiency with which it is run so I took a grand tour of it.
Currently in the Intensive Care Unit were several small birds, squirrels, possums, and ducklings. Some of the smallest birds were victims of a springtime tree trimming. One bird had a broken shoulder from a cat attack. One hummingbird was still in shock from flying into a window. In the larger outdoor enclosures were some ducklings, an owl, and some morning doves that were on their last few days of rehab and observation before being released. The owl had been caught up in a glue trap when he went to get the rat that had been caught in the glue. The ducklings were orphaned and left in a dangerous place. Someone found them and brought them in. The morning doves had come in for various reasons, often from broken wings from animal attacks or from flying into windows. My tour guide was Tim Weis who has been a volunteer at CWC for several years. Many of the animal pens were empty. Tim pointed out to me that they do not have many animals because they try to rehab them and release back into the wild as quickly as possible.
Back in the ICU, Vet tech Lauren Coffield was skillfully directing an intern and a volunteer in the care and feeding of tiny sparrows, hummingbirds, and squirrels, who oddly enough didn’t seem to mind being placed right next to each other. As she was instructing them on which formula to give to which squirrel, she was delicately placing a flower petal over the needle of a syringe before administering the liquid to a hummingbird. The flower is placed over the syringe so that the hummingbird grows accustomed to taking food from a flower. Then she checked on the bird with the broken shoulder and sadly reported that the prognosis might not be good. If the break was further down the wing it might grow back but a break in the shoulder joint often doesn’t. Nonetheless, she will bandage it and wait a few days to see if it gets better.
As for the victims of the domoic acid poisoning, the CWC gathers as many of the dead ones as they can to take tissue samples from them to further the study of domoic acid.
For more information go to http://www.californiawildlifecenter.org
or call 818-222-2658.