Exotic pet trade sends US bird rescues soaring

2016-06-22 17:34


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Miami - In this small animal hospital perched on Miami's sun-splashed harbour, some of the most exotic creatures fly in and out of Carla Zepeda's life.

From peacocks to pelicans, opossums to owls, Zepeda is part of a six-member staff that cares for both the furry and the feathered at the Pelican Harbour Seabird Station, one of south Florida's oldest wildlife rescue centres.

Though it began in the 1980 as a place for injured wild pelicans, pet birds are increasingly common, like one of the newest arrivals, a fluffy green quaker parakeet.

The bird landed on a man's shoulder, appearing malnourished and with bruises around its beak, so it was brought to the Pelican Harbour Seabird Station for care.

"Here in Miami we deal a lot with the exotic pet trade," says rescue and release co-ordinator Zepeda, 22. "A lot of escaped pets or released pets."

"We now have a very high population of quaker parakeets, which weren't here before and are doing great in the wild."

Also known as monk parrots or quaker parrots, quaker parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) are native to South America, but have established their own wild colonies here, forming loudly chattering flocks that fly over Miami and its mango tree-lined suburbs.

"Now the problem with that is they are not native species and they are taking up nesting space from blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers and even eastern screech owls," says Zepeda.

"Released pets or escaped pets make a big impact on the environment."

Zepeda says the centre will try to find a new caretaker for the recent arrival, whose friendly nature could pose a danger to its survival in the wild.

Record caseload

With more than one thousand patients already this year, the centre is barrelling toward another record, according to executive director Christopher Boykin.

"The number grows every year. We treated 1 968 in 2014 and 2 010 in 2015," he said.

"We anticipate another record breaking year."

More local residents are becoming aware of the rescue facility, which helps drive the numbers, he said. A total of 146 different species came into the centre last year.

Increasing conflicts with humans also bring in many patients, including peacocks that were hit by cars and had to be euthanised due to the severity of their injuries.

For Zepeda, the most surprising arrival was a prairie dog, a rodent native to the grasslands of the midwest.

"Apparently they are part of the pet trade," says Zepeda, who has seen three prairie dogs in the past three years.

The locals need care, too. The clinic is currently housing a handful of tiny baby opossums that need feeding every few hours. They lost their mother somehow, and now cling to a stuffed animal opossum while Zepeda plucks them off, one by one, to feed them formula via a small tube.

Injured ambassadors

Pelicans were once the sole reason for the centre's existence, but now they make up only five to 20% of its patients, depending on the year, says Boykin.

However, they still represent the centre's greatest success. After arriving entangled in fishing lines or with hook injuries, three out of four are released back to the wild after treatment, he says.

On a sunny day in May, Zepeda releases a young pelican that arrived two months earlier with line wrapped around his beak and two hooks embedded in its neck and wing.

The bird flies a short distance, then plunks down in the gentle waves, preferring to bob back to its life in the wild.

Some pelicans never leave the centre, if wing injuries prevent them from flying, or if they are partially blinded and could not hunt on their own.

These and other resident birds, like eastern screech owls, sometimes accompany staff to schools and public events to educate the public about how to deal with wildlife.

Zepeda says one old myth has proven particularly tough to dispel - that a mother bird will not care for her baby bird after a human has touched it.

"That is completely false," she says.

"They have a really poor sense of smell."

If people find a baby bird that seems healthy, they should just put it back in the nest, she says.

Zepeda, who often takes home baby rescue animals and wakes in the middle of the night to feed them, has permanently adopted four creatures that were left at the centre - two cockatiels, a white-bellied caique and a Siberian husky.

She says she once thought she might go into zoo medicine, but that was before she tried wildlife rehabilitation.

"I ended up loving it too much and now I cannot leave."

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