Animal Ambassador Stories

Goodbye, Eddie Munster

The Wildlife Connections department is sad to announce the passing of our last Mexican free-tailed bat, Eddie Munster. Eddie Munster came to the Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital in March 2018 after being caught in a sticky trap located outside an office building in Livermore. After careful examination it was determined that because of his injuries, Eddie Munster could not fly well enough to return to the wild. He joined our animal ambassador program in September 2018 along with another Mexican free-tailed bat Uncle Fester (who passed earlier this year in May).

During his time at Lindsay, Eddie was often considered one of our more shy ambassadors. Over the years, Eddie lived with numerous bat “roommates,” including other Mexican free-tailed bats, and Lindsay’s resident pallid bat, Vesper. He was often found cuddling next to the other bats, sometimes on top of or underneath the group. Over the years, Eddie became more comfortable being handled for his weekly health checks and teeth cleanings, and at the end, he was eagerly accepting tweezer-fed wax worms and mealworms. While crickets were never his top choice of insects, he would quietly eat any that were left in his enclosure overnight – and would carefully leave all the small cricket legs behind. Eddie also participated in many programs during his time at Lindsay, especially Howl-ooo-ween and Lindsay in the Classroom, and helped dispel some of the myths and fears that surround bats.

Eddie Munster passed away peacefully in his enclosure on June 23, 2021. Necropsy results did not reveal anything remarkable about his passing, such as illness or an injury. These results are typical for this species, and because of that, we have decided to no longer use Mexican free-tailed bats as ambassadors at Lindsay Wildlife. When an animal passes at Lindsay, we always take a look at their case and use any information we find to help animals in the future. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get any information from these small mammals after they pass, because the only information we receive from the necropsy is that they did not have rabies. When alive, Mexican free-tailed bats are too small for many diagnostic tests, which severely limits our caregiving abilities. Moving forward, we would like to only accept larger bat species and have started looking for additional pallid bats that cannot return to the wild. Our hope is to find a bat that can live with Vesper, our current pallid bat animal ambassador. 

Caretakers and visitors will miss the lovable noises Eddie Munster made while munching on his insects, his large ears, and his curious eyes that warmed the  heart of any animal lover.

In Memory of Kaiju, the Desert Iguana

Animal Encounters is devastated to be sharing the news of the sudden passing of one of our desert iguanas, Kaiju.

Kaiju and his house mate, Godzilla, were legally collected out of the wild to be part of studies  for thermoregulation in desert iguanas. Researchers were testing the preferred temperature range of iguanas in a safe, comfortable setting. After the study was done, the facility housing Kaiju and Godzilla asked if Lindsay Wildlife would consider adopting these two boys. We very eagerly said yes, as we missed our beloved Sonora (as did our at-the-time single chuckwalla, Chucki!). The iguanas passed quarantine with flying colors and joined Chucki and newly acquired Guapo in 2018. They were a cuddly, happy family.

Kaiju learned how to sprint to a target for food much to the delight of visitors. Godzilla quickly figured out that if he also touched his nose to the target, he would get a treat too! It was a favorite activity of many keepers and volunteers and was a popular “Feeding Frenzy” subject in early 2020.

On June 1, 2020, Kaiju suffered a traumatic injury to his head. The condition of his eyes and his overall health was unknown. After intense trauma care, including going home for monitoring with Animal Keepers Rachael and Adam in the early days, daily treatments on our PEMF mat and many weeks of hand feeding and medicating, Kaiju opened his eyes. 

Reptiles are very, very slow at healing. There were a lot of patient hand feeding sessions, even after his eyes opened. Thankfully a wiggling mealworm was very enticing for little Kaiju!

In August, Kaiju was reintroduced to Godzilla and his chuckwalla friends. It was as if no time had passed. The reptiles all cuddled and ate together. It was a very heartwarming thing to see especially after such a difficult year that included Kaiju’s accident, the ongoing pandemic and the California wildfires. Kaiju’s recovery was a big morale booster.

On Thanksgiving morning, we discovered that Godzilla received an injury to one of his toes. After amputation and healing in the keeper office for a few weeks, we discovered that Kaiju and Godzilla began showing territorial behaviors for the first time. Keeper Rachael worked on reintroducing them and after many small steps and minor enclosure alterations, it worked! They were once again sharing and basking on rocks, sleeping next to each other and doing the infamous Dual Desert Iguana Target Training.

On Wednesday January 27th, they trained together one last time.

Desert iguanas reach maturity at 3 to 4 years in the wild. Since the pair were both fully mature at the time they were brought to Cal State Fullerton for research, we can estimate that Kaiju was approximately 9 to 12 years old at his time of passing. We are happy to say that is well past their lifespan in the wild. Kaiju lived a long, fulfilling life and fought to stick around at the same time his keepers needed his spirit the very most.

Keeper Rachael says:

“Kaiju was named after our very favorite titans, Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah…those amazing kaiju we grew up watching and being in awe of. Kaiju absolutely lived up to his name. He was so strong. His passing has left a truly kaiju-sized hole in all of our hearts. There are not enough words to say how much I loved and will miss you terribly, baby Kaiju.”


Darkling Beetles: More than Meets the Eye

Small, dark, and unassuming, darkling beetles likely wouldn’t catch your attention as they slowly move about our planet. When we zoom into the darkling beetle’s tiny world, however, we can discover that these arguably boring-looking beetles are more interesting than they may first appear. The term “darkling beetle” actually refers to 20,000 species of beetle in the family Tenebrionidae. What makes a beetle a part of this large group are shared family features: a clubbed antenna that emerges from a cuticle shelf above the eye, a thick exoskeleton, and mismatched leg segments — the tips of the front two legs have 5 segments, while the back legs only have 4. Some beetles in this family are quite famous. The peanut beetle has the false reputation of curing human disease after ingestion. The desert stink beetle is infamous for its noxious, defensive stench. The mealworm beetle is best known for its baby stage; it’s a common food for pets and our Animal Ambassadors.

Baby beetles ( or as entomologists call them, “larvae”) are scavengers like the adults. Their heavily armored body is designed for digging, eating, and storing fat in preparation for its metamorphosis into an adult beetle. Fascinatingly, these easily overlooked animals can eat polystyrene, used in Styrofoam, and polyethylene, a common plastic. What is even cooler is that in their mealworm stage, darkling beetles are able to pass these toxic chemicals in their poop, meaning the mealworms can be later fed to animals like livestock. Farm animals, pet lizards, and wild birds aren’t the only critters able to chow down on these interesting invertebrates. The European Food Safety Agency just approved mealworms as a safe food source for people. In many parts of the world, insects are already consumed by humans. Maybe you have enjoyed the mealworm snacks that were sold in our museum store?

A boring beetle? Hardly. See the incredible diversity by exploring the Field Museum’s collection here!

Farewell, Neil Armstrong the Domestic Rat

We at Animal Encounters know that losing our ambassadors is an inevitable part of life here at Lindsay Wildlife Experience. We mourn each special friend we lose, but we are also proud of how much of an impact they made on our lives as well as the lives of our volunteers and visitors.

Neil Armstrong, our domestic rat, has joined his brother Buzz Aldrin to once again explore the beyond. Although not expected (at nearly 3 years old — their birthday was January 31st! — they were considered elderly), it is deeply heartbreaking to lose this pair of intelligent and sweet rats.

Neil had a ruptured eardrum in 2019 which caused an intermittent tilting of his head. That did not slow Neil down at all. He still climbed up the rope in their on-exhibit enclosure with relative ease, eagerly engaged in training for his favorite treats (banana chips and mealworms!) and got into all sorts of mischief with Buzz. He was kind, gentle and loved everyone that met him.

As we knew his time was approaching, Neil received special treats and medication to make him comfortable. His favorite way to take his medicine? In apple sauce (sometimes off of trusting keeper’s fingers) and banana.

We will miss both of these amazing rats boys so much. Lovingly called “The Ratstronauts”, we will remember them always for their adventurous spirits.

Goodbye, Buzz and Neil.

Farewell, Blossom the California Ground Squirrel and Buzz Aldrin the Domestic Rat

It is with heavy hearts that Animal Encounters announces the passing of two beloved animal ambassadors, Blossom the California Ground Squirrel and Buzz Aldrin the Domestic Rat. 

Blossom came to Lindsay in 2014 after being kept as a pet for several years. She was said to have been born in 2010, which would have made her over 10 years old at the time of her passing. Blossom was named shortly after her arrival in a public naming contest. She was named after Frederick William Beechey, who explored much of Northern California in 1826 – 1828 as captain of His Majesty’s Ship “Blossom”.

During Blossom’s six years at Lindsay, she was able to participate in many programs and was considered a favorite ambassador among the visitors, staff, and volunteers. In her earlier years at Lindsay, Blossom participated in a training session inside the Animal Activity Area where she would practice her target training, agility skills, and health check routines. It was always fun to watch her feeding demonstration programs as she foraged in her enclosure for hidden treats, ripping open enrichment  bags, tubes, and boxes, and chewing through hard nut shells with her teeth. Throughout the day, Blossom would delight visitors  as she would gather her nest and “move” to a new location in her enclosure.

While Blossom’s main enclosure was located inside the exhibit hall, she was able to spend time outdoors with her keepers in an exercise aviary or in her travel enclosure on the Animal Encounters dock. While in her dock enclosure, Blossom would forage for food, gather nesting materials, and was often seen “relaxing” in her hammock in the sunshine.  During Lindsay’s closure, Blossom was able to spend most of her days outside.

While Blossom never let her aging years get the best of her, in August 2020, it was noted she had some discomfort in her right eye. Working with her keepers and veterinarian staff, Blossom participated in training sessions that allowed her to receive eye drops to help keep her comfortable.  She also accepted any oral medications smashed in banana, which was her favorite fruit. In December 2020, a CT scan showed a retrobulbar mass behind her right eye. On January 2, 2021, Blossom was humanely euthanized to prevent any further discomfort from the mass. Her last day was spent in the keeper office, receiving lots of love and attention from her caregivers, as well as some very special treats. Blossom will always be remembered as the spirited “squirrel-girl” and for the way she would always sit roundly on her back legs while enjoying her favorite treats. 

Buzz Aldrin was one of two domestic rats at Lindsay. Buzz and his brother Neil (Armstrong) came to us in early 2018. Keepers and volunteers quickly fell in love with these two rats — the first male ambassador rats to call Lindsay Wildlife Experience home.

Buzz was incredibly friendly, an absolute perfect ambassador for his species. In his prime, he was showing off the ability of domestic rats to jump long distances as he leapt between the benches in our exhibit hall, much to the joy of onlookers! He also showed just how dextrous these animals can be by climbing ropes and squeezing into a wooden space shuttle in honor of his namesake! Buzz loved banana chips and mealworms and got to enjoy some very special treats in his last few weeks, including Cheerios and cinnamon strudel.

For Christmas, Buzz and Neil unwrapped a special wooden house filled with Cheerios. His joy for living in the moment is a good reminder to treat every day like it’s special. We are going to miss this unique and gentle rat so much. His brother Neil is still doing well and receiving lots of love from his friends.

Good night Buzz Aldrin and good luck on your further exploration of the stars.



Creating Eagle Eyrie, a Home for Atsá the Bald Eagle

“The eagle has landed.”

This was the text message that was sent when Atsá the Bald Eagle first arrived in California after being transferred to us from World Bird Sanctuary in Missouri. After her arrival, Atsá was kept in an aviary behind the scenes and brought out for programming, but keepers wanted to showcase this magnificent bird to the public in a more permanent way.

In December 2017, one year after Atsá arrived at Lindsay, designs were being put together by Emma Molinare, Curator of Animal Encounters, to completely transform what was once the “Observation Deck” into a proper enclosure for a Bald Eagle. The plan for the Eagle Eyrie was born.

Lindsay Wildlife Experience previously collaborated with Zoological Fabrication to create a naturalistic enclosure for Penelope the North American porcupine. In June 2018, we reached out to Zoo Fab to collaborate once more for an immersive walk-in enclosure for our Bald Eagle. With every part of the existing tile wall and floor completely covered with fabricated rocks, a tree and a massive pond, the goal is to have our guests walk through the door into Atsá’s enclosure and enter a Bald Eagle’s wild habitat. We want you to see Atsá in her environment and be inspired.

In the meantime, a temporary aviary was installed in the location of the future Eyrie and Atsá moved in during the summer of 2018. Her contact calls could now be heard loud and clear in Larkey Park and are always a fun surprise for park goers who walk by and wonder, “Was that a Bald Eagle?”

Eagle Eyrie’s completion and reveal was set for early 2020, but plans changed with the COVID-19 pandemic and the project was delayed. October 2020 became the new installation date and keepers were amazed to see the enclosure arrive in segments that were put together like a literal life-sized puzzle. ZooFab was kind enough to let keepers film some timelapse videos to show some of the process of bringing the enclosure to life.

It is so important for our animals’ mental and physical well-being to have enclosures that promote natural behaviors. One of Atsá’s upgrades includes a large pond. We hope to team up with local fisherman or fisheries to get live fish for Atsá to engage with and showcase some of her wild instincts.

Atsá can never return to the wild due to her injuries. We owe it to her to give her not only an appropriate enclosure but one that will make her feel like she is in her home. This will inspire guests to get involved and do what they can to help Bald Eagles in the wild. The first step is to engage and learn.

Construction continues on Atsá’s beautiful home. Stay tuned to see the big reveal and Atsá’s introduction to her future habitat.


Farewell, Zeus the Common Kingsnake

Animal Encounters is sad to announce the passing of Zeus, the Common Kingsnake. Zeus was donated to Lindsay Wildlife in 2002 after he was kept as a pet. Hatched in a pet store in Seattle, Washington, Zeus was thought to be around 20 years old.   Zeus, who was named after the “king” of the gods, lived a wonderful 18 years at Lindsay. His friendly demeanor made him a favorite to many staff, volunteers, and Lindsay visitors over the years. Zeus was also known for his energetic eating habits. Come springtime, Zeus was always eager for a meal…or two! Oftentimes, he would be fed 2 large mice in a week!

In late 2018, Zeus had a small cancerous mass removed with no issues. Keepers continued to monitor him for the next year, which was most likely when a cancerous tumor of that kind would appear. However, Zeus continued to thrive and in March 2020, Zeus joined our ambassador homecare program where he stayed at Husbandry Volunteer Navid’s house for 3 months. After a new mass started to show, Zeus was brought back to Lindsay where he underwent another surgery. Zeus recovered from the surgery well and was being carefully monitored for any additional growths. During this time, Zeus was moved into one of AE’s new large-scaled snake enclosures. Zeus was able to spend his last month’s exploring his 6 foot enclosure, basking in the sunlight outside, and eating all the mice he could eat.  After a sudden decrease in his health, Zeus was humanely euthanized on Sunday, October 11, surrounded by a few of his favorite people.

Our volunteers shared some memories of this special snake:

“I had the pleasure of having Zeus as my roommate for about 3 months. He was a great company during the strict social isolation –  we both enjoyed our daily our walk/ crawls in the backyard in the grass and amongst the flowers. He especially enjoyed climbing down the trees & he did that with amazing talent & finesse. Zeus was a very mellow guy- always happy to be handled and never startled by anything.  I will miss Zeus very much. He’ll soon be in snake heaven having a great time chasing after Mrs. Zeus to be! RIP Zeusky.” — Navid Ahmadian

“So very sorry to hear the sad news about Zeus. He is beautiful inside and out and will be missed very much. May you take comfort in knowing that Zeus has had a wonderful, much loved life at Lindsay and that you all did everything possible for him. He was always such a nice snake and is so very special. The photo of him sent with your email was gorgeous. I can only imagine how much he is enjoying being outside in the sunshine and visiting with staff and volunteers. Sure has been a sad year this year in the loss of several long time animal ambassadors. My thoughts are with you at this sad time. If you are able to, could you please tell him that I am sending him all my love. I have always loved him. 18 years is a long time. He will be missed by all.” — Jan Bindas

“I am very saddened to hear about the deterioration of Zeus’ health.  I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but he has always been my favorite snake.  Back when he first arrived, Karen Millikan (reptile team volunteer back then) taught Zeus to do figure-eights around her outstretched fingers. As Zeus grew larger, it became a bit more difficult for those of us with small hands to allow him the space he needed to wind around like that.  I can remember the awe on visitors’ faces when they would see him doing those figure-eights during my presentation(when I was still a volunteer out on the floor). Not only did the visitors love it, but he seemed to be entertaining himself with the movements – better than a snake slalom!  He was a special snake and he will be missed by many.  Over the years, I teasingly said that if he ever disappeared from Lindsay, don’t ask where he went because he’d be at my home!

Lindsay was able to give him a great life and now will be able to give him a humane death, one that he would not have had he been a wild snake with the same health issues.  The keepers and vet staff are to be commended for the care you’ve given Zeus (and all the other animals) in your care!” — Marilyn Fowler

If you would like to “adopt” one of our extraordinary animal ambassadors and contribute to their care, click here.


Welcome, Garnet the Acorn Woodpecker

In June of 2019, a young Acorn Woodpecker arrived at the wildlife hospital. With her sunken eyes, our veterinarians determined that she had a lack of sight, a very important trait for a small bird that needs to catch insects, avoid predators, and find acorns to help support their colony.

Despite efforts to restore her sight, it was determined that the woodpecker would not be capable of being returned to the wild. So she began the process of becoming an animal ambassador. Working with our incredible volunteers, we found off site housing for her where she could live during her quarantine period. She spent a brief stint with us at Lindsay Wildlife Experience, but with the prevailing pandemic, we decided to send her back to homecare with another volunteer. After a long year of waiting, this wonderful female Acorn Woodpecker is a fully-fledged animal ambassador!

Acorn Woodpeckers are very intelligent and social creatures and communicate with a very recognizable call that inspired the Woody Woodpecker cartoon. These birds work together in tight-knit family groups to forage, bringing acorns back to their silo trees (or any wooden structure, much to the chagrin of some homeowners), where they can store enough food to support their whole group through the longest winters.

Paired with that raucous call, Acorn Woodpeckers have a very bright coat of contrasting white and black feathers topped by a shocking red crest making them easy to spot by avid bird watchers and nearby predators who both need to beware, as these birds can be intensely territorial!

We are very excited to have the bright calls of an Acorn Woodpecker echoing through Lindsay Wildlife Experience once again! As Garnet’s eager personality and curiosity help her explore whatever aviaries or enclosures she might flutter through, we’re excited about continuing the trend of incredibly engaging Acorn Woodpecker ambassadors in our family.

Our homecare volunteer, Ellen Green, shared some words about working with Garnet:

“From March through the first part of September, I had the privilege of caring for Garnet, a female Acorn Woodpecker. We are lucky to have her as the newest ambassador in the Lindsay family.

In addition to being gorgeous, Garnet has a great personality – she is lively, vocal, curious – and she relates well to people! She is smart and recognizes the sound her bird kibble makes when I put it in her bowl. Then, she immediately hops over for breakfast. During the day, I enjoy listening to her talk and peck at the wood pieces in her enclosure.

When I need to put Garnet in her kennel, she hops right on my hand. She will stay on my palm, listening as I talk to her. While she doesn’t seem to mind being in her kennel, I think she appreciates getting back to her enclosure – food to eat, wood to peck, and things to explore!

Garnet is truly a gem!”

Welcome, Lucienne the Mourning Dove

Animal Encounters is pleased to introduce one of our new avian animal ambassadors: Lucienne the Mourning Dove! Lucienne came into our hospital last year after being found on the ground. She was an unusual patient not only because of her dark coloration (uncommon in Mourning Doves) but also the obscure shape of her beak. Lucienne has a soft beak that has grown in an abnormally twisted shape. This causes her to have difficulty foraging and eating seeds so she is unable to return to the wild. 

Her home care keeper, volunteer Marilyn Fowler, brings her in every Sunday for an appointment. Lead keeper Rachael and Dr. Krystal Woo cope, or trim, Lucienne’s beak on a weekly basis to help keep it at a manageable length for picking up seeds and to try to slowly ease it into a normal shape. After her coping, Lucienne had been spending some time in a shared aviary with her future enclosure-mate, Zenaida! Their introduction was mostly unremarkable. They share branches on occasion but spend most of their time preening. We are going to start doing shared time in Zenaida’s enclosure to see how they act around each other there. So far, so good!

Mourning Doves are very social animals so we’re sure they’ll spark a friendship and cohabitate perfectly. Lucienne is still currently at Marilyn’s house but we are excited for everyone to meet her when she comes back onsite permanently.

Marilyn had this to share about her time with Lucienne: 

“When the pandemic started and I was no longer able to do my usual husbandry volunteer duties at Lindsay, I missed the joy of interacting with the animal ambassadors.  I’d like to think that they missed me too! In early April, I was asked if I’d like to care for a Mourning Dove that was destined to become an animal ambassador once all the paperwork and permits were in place. Here we are four months later, and I’m privileged to have her at my home. I could go on for pages about this wonderful bird, but I’ll try to be brief and yet give you some idea of the joy she’s brought me.

Her name is Lucienne. Where did that come from, you might ask? Charles Lucien Bonaparte, an ornithologist in the 1800s, named the genus of American Doves “Zenaida” after his wife Zenaide. Since we know that Lucienne is female, I selected the feminine version of Bonaparte’s middle name. I think it’s a fitting name for a beautiful bird with unusual coloring. Also, I think it goes well with the name of the male Mourning Dove who has been an animal ambassador (Zenaida) for a number of years.

Lucienne is non-releasable due to a malformation of her beak that makes it difficult for her to eat. Although I do give her some challenging food presentation methods, she is safe to take whatever time she needs to eat. I transport her to Lindsay weekly to have her beak trimmed to facilitate her ability to eat. She’d be at a distinct disadvantage had she not been brought to Lindsay’s hospital early in 2020.

She’s adjusted to life in captivity very easily. She readily steps up on my hand and hops into her kennel for the reward of her favorite safflower seed treat. She often coos to me and I do my best to coo back. Unlike Zenaida, she loves a spray bath, and I’m happy to give her one several times a day.

In mid-June, Lucienne began gaining a lot of weight. Voila! She presented me with two lovely non-fertile eggs.  She sat on them only briefly before abandoning them. Perhaps she knew that they wouldn’t hatch?

One of her favorite early morning and late afternoon activities is sunbathing – even in the extreme heat we’ve had. Currently, she’s inside (an unusual resident in my guestroom!) due to the toxic air quality from all the fires in the area. I’m sure Lucienne will be thrilled when I can move her cage back to my screened porch. Then she can watch the world go by at treetop level and resume those sun baths!

I know that someday, Lucienne will leave my home and reside at Lindsay full time, most likely in an enclosure with Zenaida. I will miss her but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve had a part in giving her a solid start to a quality life in captivity. I can’t ask for more than that!”

Farewell To Two of Our Animal Ambassadors

Goodbye Ol’ Yeller

Ol‘ Yeller joined the Animal Ambassador program earlier this year. Due to the pandemic, he had been taken offsite to a volunteer’s home to help ensure all of our ambassadors were continuing to receive excellent care. Ol‘ Yeller did have to return due to extenuating circumstances with our volunteer, and a few days after his return, Ol‘ Yeller showed signs of limited activity and passed away.

Banana slugs are a fairly sensitive species of mollusk, a family that includes slugs, snails, squid, and octopi, among others. Banana slugs require a moisture-laden environment and thrive in the forests of the Northwest, where fog rolls in regularly to keep their skin moist as they make their slimy trails.

We are unsure of what happened to Ol‘ Yeller, but we are performing soil sampling tests to help provide the most suitable environment for our slick yellow friends.

So long, Ol‘ Yeller, the best slug in the West.

We’ll Miss You, Elvira

On July 1st, 2018, when our seventh recorded black widow arrived at Lindsay Wildlife after being rescued from a garage in Davis, CA, we had no idea what a wonderful ambassador she would be. Every black widow we work with is a special animal, but Elvira 7 brought something very special with her.

Of all the black widows that have lived at Lindsay, Elvira 7 laid the most egg sacs. When placed outside in a nice, dark space and given some privacy, she even managed to hatch one! The egg took just about a month to hatch, and the babies were seen scurrying away from their hiding place over the following weeks.

Female spiders are among many creatures that can preserve genetic material inside their own bodies, so even if she hasn’t seen a male in months or even years, she is still able to hatch several egg sacs from that single meeting.

Elvira 7 was an adult when she arrived, meaning she was at least a couple months old. When she passed on July 12, 2020, she was at least 2 years old, if not closer to 3 years old. In the last few weeks, she was no longer able to hunt crickets that she loved so much, so keepers provided mealworms. When that proved too complex, Elvira 7’s keepers crushed the mealworm heads and offered them directly to her chelicerae, or mouthparts.


We will miss this beautiful arachnid and all the wonderful opportunities she gave us to teach our community about the importance of a single spider.

Shadow of Doubt

A Great Gray Owl’s Mysterious Condition

“What’s the big gray one?” This is a common question that Lindsay Wildlife Experience staff hears when guests fill Exhibit Hall.

For some, it’s love at first sight. Shadow is the biggest owl at LWE and she always gets attention.

She arrived at LWE in 1999 from Minnesota where she was found with an injured wing. Despite best efforts to rehabilitate the injury, Shadow was left unable to fly long distances. She wouldn’t be able to hunt in the wild, establish a territory, or raise offspring, so she moved to California and became a star.

For 21 years, Shadow has captivated the public’s attention. Great Gray Owls are rare to see in zoological facilities and in the wild as they live in dense taigas, or moist coniferous forests, in the far northern latitudes of North America. In California, the Great Gray Owls living in the Sierra Nevadas are a genetically unique species (Strix nebulosa Yosemitensis) with a small population size of only 100-200 pairs. This California endangered species is reclusive, which makes it hard to study and observe them in the wild. When visitors come to LWE, they get an up-close and personal encounter with this majestic species. Like all of LWE’s animal ambassadors, she is deeply loved.

Shadow‘s real age is unknown. In the wild, these birds can live into their teens, or an estimated 12-13 years. Shadow is at least 22 years old, so when a cancerous mass was discovered during her annual examination in June 2019, her caretakers weren’t surprised. Cancer is not uncommon in geriatric animals. The mass was removed, and Shadow was on the road to recovery. Shortly afterward, a strange symptom was reported. Shadow began to fall. So, we began to investigate. Shadow has cataracts, so maybe she was misjudging her jumps or missing her perch. Dr. Tomo Wiggans, a consulting veterinarian ophthalmologist, reevaluated Shadow‘s eyes but thought it was unlikely that this would be causing her balance issues. Next, Shadow received a CT scan, but nothing significant was found. Her caretakers were looking for a tumor or an inner ear issue that might be causing her to spontaneously fall. Not giving up hope, they took Shadow back for a second CT scan, this time with contrast dye. The second scan found nothing.

Shadow‘s condition worsened. We adjusted how she was handled, paused offsite travel and changed her housing set up, but she kept falling. Veterinarians were consulted, professional raptor caregivers were contacted, and questions were asked over and over again. “What is this?” “Have you seen this before?” “What could it be?” No one had an answer. Other zoo professionals recommended that Shadow should be euthanized.

Her worst episode was in November when she accidentally swallowed a yellow jacket. Yellow jackets are carnivores and often try to steal the raptors’ lunch. After ingesting both her food and the insect, Shadow leaned forward to spit up, fell backwards and couldn’t get up. Her feet didn’t move, she didn’t attempt to stand and she had to be carried inside like a baby. The quick action of former Animal Keeper, Anela Medeiros, likely saved her life. Shadow was rushed into our wildlife hospital and after some stabilizing treatment, was able to stand again.

We were out of options. There were no answers, no treatment, and no diagnosis. We knew it was Shadow‘s time. We held a celebration of life party in her honor and many of her human friends came. People told stories, took pictures and said their final goodbyes.

Then Shadow got better.

Curator of Animal Encounters, Emma Molinare, was visiting her friend and colleague, Jessica Robeson.

“Jessica and I have both worked with Shadow for years. I was sad and telling Jessica all about Shadow‘s strange symptoms,” Emma said. “Then, Dan turned around with a smile. He had an idea.”

Dr. Daniel Robeson, DPT, is a physical therapist at John Muir Health in Pleasant Hill. Dr. Robeson is an animal lover and Shadow is particularly dear to him. Dr. Robeson had known Shadow for years. The owl was so beloved that she had attended the Robeson’s wedding that summer. It was Shadow‘s final offsite event.

“As Emma described Shadow‘s intermittent episodes of unsteadiness, they began to sound suspiciously familiar to a condition that I see regularly in the clinic where I work as a physical therapist,” Robeson said. “I primarily work with sport and orthopedic populations, but as a subspecialty treat vestibular and balance-related disorders. The symptoms Emma was describing aligned very well with the vestibular issues I commonly see in humans, and the extensive medical workup had already ruled out more sinister neurologic causes for Shadow’s problem. There are a number of vestibular related dysfunctions that can cause the sensation, most of which can be easily addressed by a skilled practitioner. Typically, a thorough history and a series of tests are performed to determine the root cause of dysfunction. However, this would be a challenge to perform on Shadow, and so an exact diagnosis is difficult to give.”

Dr. Robeson quickly got to work researching vestibular conditions in animals and reaching out to a specialist. He discovered a potential solution: Meclizine. Meclizine is an antihistamine used to treat motion sickness and vertigo in humans and some animal species

Emma brought the idea to Lead Wildlife Veterinarian, Dr. Krystal Woo. Dr. Woo is an open-minded, creative, and extremely knowledgeable veterinarian. Dr. Woo was familiar with Meclizine and had used it before. With no other options left, Shadow‘s animal care team decided to give it a try.

Within days of starting the medication, Shadow began to improve. While the use of Meclizine has been documented in other animal species, it’s believed that this is the first time a raptor in captivity has been treated with the medication. “We have built an interesting bridge here between human and raptor, and (we) may be pioneering a new therapy,” Dr. Robeson said. “It makes me very happy that I could be a part of such an amazing creature’s story of recovery.”

Under Dr. Woo and the Animal Keepers watchful monitoring, Shadow‘s animal care team wanted to see if the treatment could be discontinued after being used for a short period. When she was off the drug, Shadow‘s imbalance returned.

“That was when I knew Dan’s suggestions saved Shadow‘s life. I know with complete certainty that Shadow would not be alive today if I didn’t go over to the Robeson’s that evening.” Emma said. “Shadow is a very lucky bird. She has many people in her corner that didn’t want to give up on her. I hope that Shadow‘s story can help other animals one day.”

Nearly a year after her balance issues began, Shadow is doing well. Dr. Woo removed a second malignant tumor, and Shadow was placed on a cancer-inhibiting drug. She still receives her Meclizine two times a day. During LWE’s temporary closure, Shadow has been enjoying an aviary where video observations have caught her jumping, running, and bathing. Shadow never received an official diagnosis, but her animal caregivers are happy that she’s doing well. Out-of-the-box thinking and a spirit of collaboration leads to the best animal care.

To support Shadow, Lindsay’s 70 animal ambassadors, and Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital please consider donating to the Love for Lindsay Wildlife Campaign. We are so grateful for your help.

Houston's Ultrasound Roadtrip

At the start of the year, Houston, the Barred Owl who has called Lindsay Wildlife Experience home for more than two decades, started showing a few signs of his age. He was acting very tired, his wings were drooping, and he was not as eager for his food. Our Animal Encounters and Hospital teams worked hard to pull him through the rough patch, and Houston is now as bright-eyed as ever. With plenty of time to rest outside in aviaries and in his mews, we decided to look for more concrete answers to what Houston’s ailment might be. 

We have a wide range of tests here at Lindsay Wildlife, and we have known for several years that his liver values have been abnormal. So we’ve kept him on medications to help keep him healthy. During his bout of illness in January, his liver values fluctuated again. Once he was healthy, we performed his annual exam, including taking radiographs. Using our x-rays, we found what appeared to be a sizable mass in his lower body, thickened intestines, and an enlarged liver. These were signs that Houston could have some form of cancer. It was especially worrying as it seemed possible that his liver trouble could have stemmed from a tumor that had been growing and metastasizing all these years. While he had recovered from this bout, a potential tumor meant he would likely suffer more of these periods of lethargy and inappetence that could have some increasingly serious ramifications. In order to ensure we could give Houston the best care possible, we needed a clear picture of his liver.

X-rays are great at showing rigid structures in a body, from bones to kidney stones to foreign bodies. Skilled veterinarians can even recognize the outlines and impressions of organs or densely packed tissues. When a detailed picture of soft tissues are needed, different kinds of scans can be utilized. Ultrasounds are often used to determine locations and causes of swelling throughout the body, particularly on soft organs. The procedure for scanning is noninvasive and quick, and the scans can be downloaded and viewed multiple times for thorough diagnostics.

Bright and early on the cool morning of May 7th, the two teams of  Animal Encounters keepers coordinated to get Houston to a very important appointment at UC Davis’ Companion Exotic Animal Medicine and Surgery Service. We have had almost no contact with one another besides phone calls during the COVID-19 quarantine. We decided to keep our distance to be extra careful, and Houston was perfectly happy to help us practice our social distancing!

Some people may wonder how well our birds do during travel, and Houston is a perfect example of just how adaptable our charges are. Despite the hour long drive on an empty stomach, Houston was perfectly chipper and curious as we arrived at UC Davis.

UC Davis has also enacted social distancing guidelines, so once we arrived at the Veterinary Medicine campus, we parked, called the office, and then waited for a technician to come and collect Houston from the shade. As always, he was very patient with his handlers, and happy to make sure that we were all keeping a comfortable distance between us. The precautions may have slowed the process down, but it gave us plenty of time to make sure that everyone, including Houston, was staying safe.

All in all, Houston’s procedure took just a couple of hours. When they returned him to us back in his kennel, he was still fairly sleepy from the sedation they’d given him to keep him calm during the ultrasound. According to the technician, he had been a great patient. After a brief check and a quick mist of water, we packed up his supplies and headed back to Walnut Creek.

Once again, Houston was a quiet and calm travel companion, though he was asleep for most of this part of the journey. Following another hour long drive, we were back outside Lindsay Wildlife Experience. After carefully sanitizing all of the supplies and Houston’s kennel, the Animal Keeper teams had another brief encounter, which Houston was kind enough to supervise from a gauntlet, before being returned to his mews. He was apparently still very sleepy, but woke up enough to eat his meal that afternoon.

One week later, we had good news from the veterinarians at UC Davis: Houston’s liver looked good and they found no abnormalities on the ultrasound. The mass in his lower body and those thickened intestines weren’t visible in later radiographs, indicating it was likely a pocket of flatulence and fecal material. Although this didn’t give us an answer to our trouble in January or Houston’s liver problems, the absence of tumors or growths gives Houston a better prognosis for the future. We will continue to give Houston and all of our animal ambassadors the highest quality of care we possibly can, looking into clues, no matter how small they might seem, to ensure that they can stay healthy for the full length of their lives.

Saying Goodbye to Woody

A Tribute to Our Acorn Woodpecker

During these uncertain times, very few things are guaranteed. At Lindsay Wildlife Experience, the Animal Encounters team has settled into their new normal. A long, hard day’s work slides into early mornings. Each day caring for wild animals is different, so there is comfort in a morning routine. Unlock the doors, turn on the lights, waka-waka-waka-WAK! “Good morning, Woody.”

Woody the Acorn Woodpecker is a record holder. At 26 years old, he is the oldest woodpecker ever recorded for any species worldwide. The second and third oldest woodpeckers lived to be 19 and 18 years old, respectively. Lifespan estimates for the species vary from 9.5 years up to 18 years, but none of these birds lived a life like Woody’s.

His story starts with violence. In 1994, a 6-month old Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) was attacked and mauled by a dog in Stockton, California. Negative human-based interactions with wildlife are, unfortunately, all too common. Animals being attacked by unsupervised pets are one of the top reasons for patient admission into Lindsay Wildlife Hospital. Woody was lucky. He survived the attack and was brought into Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center. There, he healed from his wounds but something wasn’t quite right. Woody became too friendly towards his human caregivers.

At first, this situation may seem charming and almost Disney-esque. But a habituated animal isn’t safe in the wild. Nearly all of our hospital patients are injured due to human interaction so being close to people isn’t safe for wildlife. Acorn Woodpeckers also have a complicated social system. Rehabilitators were concerned that Woody wouldn’t be able to fit in and this could likely lead to his death. In 1995, Woody moved to his new home at Lindsay Wildlife Experience and the rest is history.

“Everyone loved Woody.” Lauren Amy, Lead Animal Keeper, reminisced:

“Being an animal keeper at Lindsay, I consider myself lucky. I get to work with amazing people and help take care of the best animals out there. I get to help connect our community to our neighboring wildlife, whether it’s a visitor, a volunteer, a staff member, or even my own family. Every day there are new challenges, new successes, and new memories. Having been at Lindsay for 8 years, I’ve experienced it all, and along the way I’ve been lucky enough to form special bonds with some of our animal ambassadors. While all the animals I’ve worked with at Lindsay are amazing, there is one animal that will always hold a special place in my heart: Woody, the Acorn Woodpecker.

Ever since I started at Lindsay as an animal keeper intern in 2012, Woody was one of my favorites. His loud vocalizations, his happy hops whenever you greeted him, and his silly ways off falling asleep so easily always made me smile. When I became a full time animal keeper in 2014, there was no question I wanted to be his primary keeper. Woody was already 20 years old when I took over as his main keeper. He had a few medical issues that needed monitoring, but nothing major, and he rarely needed medications. It was time, though, to “semi-retire” him from programming and redo his enclosure to suit his needs as an older gentleman.  With easier furniture to navigate, Woody settled into his retired life nicely. To Woody, not much had changed. He was still visited by his favorite people (anyone who stopped to say hi to him), he was still able to go outside, cache his pebbles, and enjoy the sunshine and spray baths.

As the years went on, I spent my days as his keeper making sure Woody had everything he needed to be happy at Lindsay. He eventually required regular eye drops a few days a week and he often protested by keeping his eyes shut. Overall, he remained a fairly healthy old man and enjoyed the wide variety of foods presented to him daily, including his fruit, kibble, nuts, and insects!

As Woody entered his early 20s, we noticed he might need some assistance with reaching some of his feathers for preening.  To help, we started brushing his feathers a few days a week with a soft toothbrush. Woody loved this! Not only did he get to spend more quality time with his people, he also enjoyed a nice relaxing brushing at the same time. Oftentimes, he would fall asleep in your hands as you brushed him. Woody also needed more frequent beak trimmings as he aged. While they were never his favorite, we always took extra precautions to make sure he was comfortable. Afterwards, I would wrap him up in a soft towel and hold him in my lap while he napped.

Recently, I noticed Woody had been slowing down and sleeping more than usual. For a moment, I thought it might have been due to the fact that there were less people around to keep him company. But this last week, it became clear he would be ready soon. His last days were spent being close to some of his favorite people, being hand fed his favorite insects, listening to his woodpecker videos, and even “watching” some Woody Woodpecker cartoons in the keeper shop. And every morning, he still greeted us with his adorable happy hops and vocalizations.  I am happy Woody went as I always imagined he would, peacefully, and surrounded by those who loved him dearly.

Woody will always be special to me. He helped me grow as an animal keeper. He showed me how animals can help connect people to wildlife. Writing this at home, I hear the local Acorn Woodpeckers nearby. They will always remind me of the challenges, the successes, and the memories I had being Woody’s primary keeper. They will remind me of all the special bonds people formed with Woody over the years, even before I knew him.

We’ll always remember the little energizer woodpecker that lived to be one of the oldest of his kind in the world!”

Caring for an animal during their final days can be heartbreaking. Woody, however, always found a way to make people feel better. It was his magic power. Everyone he met was his new best friend. When he was happy (which was nearly all of the time) he would sing and do his happy dance. The Animal Keepers call this his “Happy Hops. During his final days, he got extra special attention. Lauren set him up in the animal keeper office and played his favorite cartoon: “Woody the Woodpecker.” The keepers would talk to him, kindly brush his feathers, and let him take naps in a warm blanket on their laps. He was happy. The next day, a new shift of caregivers started their week. Unlock the doors, turn on the lights, waka-waka-waka-WAK!, “Good morning, Woody.”

Woody is quieter this day and the Animal Keepers know that Woody gave us all the time he could. He sings for his keepers, he dances for the vet staff, and he tells all of his friends that he loves them. One day during an exam, Lead Wildlife Technician Marcia notices Woody would benefit from some oxygen. Lead Veterinarian, Dr. Krystal Woo, calls in his Animal Keepers. Woody, on his own terms, decided that it was his time to go to rest. Surrounded by people who loved him, his heart beats one last time.

Today the routine is different. Unlock the doors. Turn on the lights. It’s quiet.

We know how much Woody meant to a lot of people. To remember him, you can share a story, picture, or video with us on social media. Tag us in your post so we can all share in your memory.