PULLMAN, Wash. — Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital has received two arctic-dwelling snowy owls for treatment thanks to a little luck, the generosity of Barrow, Alaska, citizens and Alaska Airlines.
Both of the majestic white-plumed birds suffered gunshot wounds. These are the first snowy owls WSU has treated in more than six years in its world-renowned exotic animal care service. Both birds arrived in Pullman by Alaska and Horizon Airlines because of a unique cooperative agreement with the carrier that provides free air transportation to and from the veterinary college for injured birds of prey.
Snowy owls commonly live in the open tundra of northernmost Canada and Alaska and can survive nearly ten years in the wild and up to 35 years in captivity.
The first owl, “Jacob,” was hunting the Alaskan tundra some 300 miles from the Artic Circle when he was hit by a gunshot blast. A few days later he was found and taken to veterinarian and WSU alumnus Dr. Gregg Black for treatment.
Black stabilized the bird and arranged to have him flown to the WSU teaching hospital for definitive care.
Arriving at the hospital on June 19, the large, almost pure white owl with piercing yellow eyes was thin, had a destroyed elbow on his left wing from the gunshot, and a deep puncture wound in the left side of his body.
“There were multiple fragments in his elbow, so there was just no way to do surgery to try to repair it,” said Dr. Nickol Finch, head of the exotic animal service at WSU’s teaching hospital.
Finch made small incisions inside the owl’s elbow and abdomen and placed antibiotic-laced beads in the wounds to treat the infections. Oral antibiotics and a restrictive elbow bandage were also used for a few weeks.
“He is going to live,” Finch said. “But he will never fly again and cannot return to the wild.”
Snowy owls generally grow to be about two feet high and have a five-foot wingspan. They prefer open country and perch on the ground or rooftops. Interestingly, they are rarely seen in trees, a fact that has played into Jacob’s recovery. Bandaged as he is, Jacob is learning to rest on an elevated log perch.
“I am hoping that he will be able to learn to compensate with that wing in the fixed position so he can get up on his perch, but right now, we still have to give him a step to get up there,” said Finch. “Otherwise he is eating well, gaining weight and doing really well.”
With his injuries under control, Finch thought her experience with snowy owls would soon be over as she began to look for a permanent home for Jacob.
That thought was short-lived, however. On July 28, the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital received a second snowy owl that had been shot near Barrow, Alaska.
The second owl was found on the tundra by a tourist from Kuwait, said Black, whose clinic was once again called upon to save a snowy owl. This time, the wounds were more serious and there was not enough time to arrange a free airline flight before sending him to WSU. So several people associated with Black’s clinic “out of the goodness of their hearts” pooled about $300 together to send the owl to Pullman themselves, the veterinarian said.
“We thought the best we could do for these birds was to send them to Washington State,” he said.
When “Artie” got to the hospital, Kristi Ilyankoff, a WSU undergraduate in Wildlife Ecology, and president of the Raptor Club at WSU, was volunteering at the exotic ward. She cared for him before veterinarians could assess him.
“I’ve been involved with the club since I was a freshman, and I just always love being in here,” she said. “I volunteer to clean cages and help take care of the residents and they hired me on to help during the weekends, so I got to see the snowy owl come in and be in charge of that.”
“When he first came in, he was really alert and standing up and aggressive. He didn’t have a bandage on or anything because he had torn it off before he got here,” Ilyankoff said.
When Finch examined him, she found that he had a gunshot wound through the tip of his right wing and a rifle slug buried against his pelvis on the opposite side.
“So the bullet went through his wing, and we think it went through part of his thoracic cavity and lodged near his pelvis,” she said, “unless he got shot twice.”
While surgery is an option for Artie, and may be performed when he is off antibiotics, his injuries are severe enough that he, too, will not return to the wild. The end of his wing was shot through the equivalent of the human wrist and has since sloughed off on its own. Artie will never fly again.
As a result, his fate is the same as Jacob’s. Both will never return to the wild, but Finch is determined to find them a good home anyway.
“It has to be somebody that has a permit to have wild animals, so it’s not just anybody off the street,” she said. Currently, she is looking for either wildlife centers or zoos that can handle the treatment and cost of such rare and big birds.
During his past six weeks at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Jacob’s and Artie’s medicine, feed and other expenses have been paid for by the college or from private donations.
“A lot of veterinarians are a little apprehensive about treating wild animals because it’s a lot of time and energy, and the costs of supplies that they put out may not recouped,” Finch explained.
But at WSU, surgeons often donate their time to animals that need surgery, so volunteers like Ilyankoff are a big help, she said.
“We also get donations from people who stop by and leave us $10, $15 or $20 — or whatever they can afford. A few people make sizable personal contributions specifically to the raptor program or to the exotic ward,” Finch said.
“That is why we have got it so good here,” she said. “Animals have a really good chance with us thanks in part to generous donors.”
While Finch would have preferred the birds were never injured, she will be sorry to see at least one of them leave. Jacob, for the short term, will be trained as a presentation bird for the Raptor Club.
For people who wish to donate funds to help Jacob, Artie or other animals in need, contact Lynne Haley or Norma Fuentes at (509) 335-5021 at the WSU Veterinary College or check out the Good Samaritan Fund at www.vetmed.wsu.edu.