Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Heartbreak of Caring

Marge Gibson and Pip!
Marge Gibson with my dog Pip
My treasured friend Marge Gibson, the founder and director of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. in Antigo, Wisconsin, has been facing a lot of heartbreak lately. Even as she grieves the death of her beloved husband, a few weeks ago, Marge received a female Trumpeter Swan that had been run down by a snowmobile in Portage County—the driver actually seems to have cut off the bird's thick plastic neck collar as a trophy! The swan suffered such extreme liver damage on top of all its other injuries that it died. 

Marge is also treating a Canada goose with a clipped wing—the bird had obviously been held in captivity. That poor thing was captured last week near a school in Kellner, WI—it had been beaten on the head and body, and suffering a level of starvation so acute that so far it can’t even digest liquid food. It’s still in critical condition.

And last week Marge had to drive through a snowstorm to pick up an adult female Bald Eagle that had been shot. Despite everything Marge’s professional team could do, the eagle died. Another bald eagle died the week previous after being shot and hit by a vehicle.

Marge told me that REGI treated 24 patients that were shot last year, including three eagles, two loons, and 2 Trumpeter swans. This is above and beyond the birds she’s dealt with that were suffering from lead poisoning after scavenging on carcasses shot with lead ammo, or waterfowl and loons picking up lead shot or lead fishing tackle from lake bottoms. Marge Gibson told me that ¼ of all of the hundred or so eagles she takes in each year are suffering from lead poisoning. That’s on top of the many loons, Trumpeter swans, vultures, and other raptors that have lead poisoning. REGI had to buy their own lead analyzer because they treat so many. After testing positive, the drugs essential for chelation to get the lead out of each and every victim costs between $500 and $1000, and that’s not counting any of that bird's care, housing, and food for the minimum of six months recovery.

We have known for generations how dangerous lead is. Indeed, we know the meat from deer shot with lead bullets can be contaminated by virtually invisible lead particles when bullets fragment in what’s called a “snowstorm,” endangering the families of hunters as well as the hunters themselves. Gut piles the hunters leave behind, if they contain any lead shot or bullet fragments, will poison scavengers (such as Bald Eagles) that eat them. And we know that waterfowl and loons pick up lead sinkers and other tackle that ends up in the water.

Yet even though it affects the hunting and fishing communities' families as well as their own health and that of wildlife, hunters and anglers insist they have the right to keep using these toxic substances, both on public and private lands. In 1991, following a bitter two-decade battle, lead shot was finally banned for waterfowl hunting, but deer, small game, and upland game birds can still be legally hunted with lead in most places, and anglers still use lead tackle. Right now, the Madison, Wisconsin, police department is pleading with local anglers to stop using lead tackle after rescuers picked up one lead-poisoned swan in January 2019 and another in February 2020 on Lake Mendota. And right now, the Minnesota DNR is asking anglers to please use non-lead tackle, so they won’t poison so much wildlife. They've been asking this politely for decades. Meanwhile, the loss of loons and other birds continues unabated. The loss of wildlife is unconscionable, and the expense—financial and emotional—that rehabbers and rescuers pay is enormous.

It’s selfish negligence on the part of hunters and anglers who keep adding more lead to the natural environment. But many of the cases Marge Gibson has been dealing with lately are even more sinister. Shooting eagles is not the kind of thing hunters do—this wanton destruction is egregiously illegal. And the bizarre cruelty involved in not just running down a swan on a snowmobile but slicing off its neckband, or beating a goose on the head and body, is sociopathic.

Reconciling the pain and suffering birds go through with how very preventable most of their situations are is what makes wildlife rehab so frustrating and heartbreaking. And when it’s outright, pathological cruelty—so much extreme suffering witnessed far too often by the people who give their heart and soul trying to salvage what they can, it reaches a level beyond heartbreaking.

Imagine dealing with these tragedies day after day, week after week, month after month. REGI cares for 900–1000 birds a year, a hundred of them Bald Eagles. I lasted little more than a decade as a wildlife rehabber before burning out, while Marge Gibson has been at it her whole adult life. Fortunately, she has the expertise, commitment, facility, and staff at the Raptor Education Group to enjoy a very high a success rate. I read about the releases when Marge sends a Bald Eagle or Trumpeter Swan flying high in the sky once again. A week ago at the Buena Vista Marsh, Marge released a Snowy Owl and two Rough-legged Hawks back into the wild. Those successes are of course why she does it. But the suffering she witnesses, the birds who can’t be restored to life—those tragedies take a toll. The people saving pennies on lead ammo and fishing tackle have no clue what is involved in cleaning up their messes. And the disgusting sociopaths who shoot protected birds, or beat them, or run them down in snowmobiles—as Mark Twain put it, they’re enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.

Both the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs have TIP lines if you have any information on the shooting of native/protected wildlife. You can remain anonymous, though providing your name can be helpful in the successful prosecution of offenders.

Minnesota Turn in Poachers (TIP): 800-652-9093
Wisconsin DNR Hotline 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367

And please consider supporting the work REGI does.