The healing of Hope

Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center volunteer Doug

Hope, a red-tailed hawk found in Hollister with injuries
resulting from a shotgun blast, proved she was a fighter soon after
she was brought to a treatment and rehabilitation center for native
wild animals in west Morgan Hill in December.
Hope, a red-tailed hawk found in Hollister with injuries resulting from a shotgun blast, proved she was a fighter soon after she was brought to a treatment and rehabilitation center for native wild animals in west Morgan Hill in December.

“When we first got her, she couldn’t eat,” said Sue Howell, director of the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center. However, the bird who suffered a broken wing and puncture wounds from the buckshot that is still lodged in her wing, neck and beak, is gaining strength rapidly. Howell hopes that Hope, like most birds brought to WERC, will be able to fly again so that she can be released back into the wild.

Her cuts and bruises have mostly healed and she no longer requires the heavy bandages she needed the first few days. She gets her exercise in the wire enclosure she occupies at the facility, and while her wing is not yet at full strength, Hope is getting stronger.

But it may take longer than anticipated to get the hawk back into the sky where she belongs. X-rays taken by veterinarian Laura Bellinghausen at a followup exam at Western Career College in San Jose last Tuesday showed that Hope’s broken wing bone was damaged more than initially thought. The two broken pieces have begun to fuse together at a slightly crooked angle, which could limit the wing’s use if left untreated. Those X-rays show about six pieces of buckshot, showing up as white dots, in Hope’s wing, neck and beak that cannot be removed.

In response to the vet’s update, Howell said she will likely have to move Hope to a smaller pen so that she won’t be able to put too much pressure on the injury. After a couple more weeks, Howell said more X-rays will show if the bone will require surgically placed pins to set it properly.

As part of Hope’s treatment and rehabilitation, her handlers at WERC have routinely stretched her wing by hand to ensure it heals as straight as possible and so she doesn’t lose a lot of strength and flexibility. That will be put on hold while Hope is in the smaller enclosure.

“She’s able to move around, but she can’t fly and exercise like she could before,” Howell said. “It’s safer (for her injury) because she can’t move around as much.”

Eventually, Hope will be moved into the biggest flight pen in Santa Clara County, a 100-foot-long enclosure at the WERC facility. After enough time to fully stretch out and strengthen her wing muscles, Hope will undergo a “flight test” to prove her ability to fly normally before being released into the wild.

And she is eager for that release. Howell said she has exhibited “bashing,” minor scrapes and bruises on her beak from trying to get out of the pen she has been in since she came to WERC. But she said those injuries will heal, and are common when wild animals are suddenly enclosed.

“She has a lot of spirit,” Howell said. “When you have a bird that is so used to freedom and all of sudden they’re put in an enclosure that is close to the ground, it’s very difficult for them. They’re used to being high in the sky.”

Red-tailed hawks, which are native to California, are common in South Santa Clara County. Like all native species, they are protected by federal law, and Hope’s shooter could have been prosecuted if identified.

The bird was found in rural Hollister, unable to move. She was turned over to WERC, a private nonprofit organization that has treated sick, orphaned and injured wild animals found all over California for more than 25 years. When it was started, rehabilitation of wildlife was a “fairly new field,” Howell said.

Howell is a founding member of WERC, whose headquarters are set up on property she owns. The facility consists of a couple dozen wire enclosures of varying sizes clinging to the side of a canyon in west Morgan Hill. A peregrine falcon, a great horned owl, a bobcat and two turkey vultures are among the wild animals currently recovering at WERC.

While WERC’s goal is to release every animal it treats back into the wild, some cannot reach that goal. Orion, a golden eagle found on a golf course in Gilroy, was brought to the facility with a broken leg that was injured so badly that, even after surgery, the animal is unable to fly as well as it would need to survive in the wild. In a few weeks Orion will be sent to a facility in South Carolina for injured birds of prey, which has more room and is better equipped to take permanent custody of the bird.

While Howell said WERC’s education and rehabilitation programs are “completely separate,” she and WERC coordinator Colleen Grzan were able to accomplish both goals at Hope’s followup exam at Western Career College.

Her treatment and X-rays were part of the day’s lesson for a class of about 30 veterinary students. Bellinghausen showed the vets-to-be how to safely handle the bird, put her to sleep with anesthesia, and pin her wings back for the X-rays. Howell comfortably answered the students’ questions about how to treat wild animals.

WERC’s three staff members and a handful of volunteers also organize programs for children at local schools to teach them about wild animals. Some of the animals living at WERC, like a pocket gopher and a 25-year-old gopher snake, are “education animals” who could not be released back into the wild.

The facility and its programs are run entirely on donations which pay for all of the expenses associated with treatment, including the antibiotics that Hope currently requires and costs $87 for a small bottle.

Veterinary specialists often donate their time to treat animals that are brought to WERC. Bellinghausen said she began treating Howell’s animals when she worked at a facility in Morgan Hill that volunteered time to WERC. She still treats the gopher and bobcat that live there.

“I have a lot of respect for these animals, and they have taught us a lot about how they behave,” Howell said.