Using Science To Increase Wildlife Rehabilitation Success

Lindsay’s Research Projects

Posted on: November 12th, 2020

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #31

A barn owl arrived last year at Lindsay’s wildlife hospital with a terrible wound on her leg. It was a fledgling, meaning it had just left or was preparing to leave the nest. A neighbor had called an animal services officer because the owl was hopping around on the ground, unable to fly. The officer that rescued it thought that a cat had caught and wounded the owl.

The owl’s leg was in pretty bad shape. Most of the lower leg skin was gone or “degloved,” as this type of injury is called, and there were maggots on the open lesion. After initial treatment, disinfection of the wound, antibiotics, pain killers, and bandages, the vets put it in the care of Annette Wolf, an experienced volunteer barn owl caretaker, for rehabilitation. Its prognosis was guarded because of the severity of the lesion.

A strip of tilapia skin wraps the open wound on this injured barn owl.

As the days went by, healing was slow. Bandages needed to be changed frequently, which meant more manipulation by the caretakers. The owl also messed around with the dressing, chewing on parts of it and removing other areas. The vet techs applied honey to the wound during bandage changes. Honey has antioxidant, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, all of which aid in healing. A month into the treatments, the injury was still touch-and-go, showing improvements in some areas but not so much in others.

Six weeks into the treatment, Lindsay hospital staff contacted Dr. Jamie Peyton, a lead veterinarian from UC Davis, for advice. The owl continued to tamper with its bandages, which impacted the slow healing process. Dr. Peyton is a pioneer in the use of tilapia skin (yes, the fish!) as dressing for large wounds, such as the ones found in bears and other animals impacted by wildfires. Her technique of using sterilized tilapia skin as a dressing offers many advantages, such as a low chance of rejection. And even in the case of the owl picking at it and eating it, the fish skin would not pose the types of issues as those resulting from other foreign materials such as cloth bandages or surgical tape.

Pieces of sterilized tilapia skin to be used as a wound dressing on injured wildlife.

The tilapia treatment worked exceptionally well. While the owl still removed parts of the unnatural dressings, the tilapia skin was left mostly intact over the wound, acting as an organic scaffolding for new healthy tissue to form underneath. The owl started to behave more naturally, vocalizing and becoming more feisty with the vets and rehabilitation technicians — all good signs. After months under treatment, care, and rehabilitation (such as learning to fly and hunt on its own in an aviary), the day finally came to return it to the wild, almost nine months after it first went to the hospital.

We learned a lot from this experience and benefited tremendously from Dr. Peyton and our veterinary staff’s research work. The use of science for improving the treatment of wounds in wildlife is a fascinating area of research, and we’re fortunate to count on scientists such as Dr. Peyton to bring state-of-the-art techniques to our wildlife hospital.

Red-tailed Hawk with a severe trichomoniasis infection affecting its left eye. Lindsay collaborated with researchers in this project.
The life cycle of the West Nile virus mosquito and transmission to animals and humans is another research project where Lindsay is a collaborator.

Research is a big — albeit not widely known — part of our identity as a science-based conservation organization. Besides the fascinating work with the tilapia skin, Lindsay’s staff collaborates with several researchers providing samples to support projects. Current collaborations include work with researchers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the University of California at Davis, the East Bay Regional Park District, and the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District. These include research projects on raptors, pigeons, bats, hummingbirds, West Nile Virus, trichomoniasis (canker) disease, pesticide poisoning, various forms of cancer, aging, and even work on bird prosthesis. Samples, specimens, and data from our hospital and our animal ambassadors are critical components/ help to inform these projects.

Sample map of wildlife vehicular injuries sorted by the cities where they occur. This data guides our outreach to help people reduce the incidence of these issues.

One of the potentially most impactful research projects involves the extensive database of wild animal injuries that the hospital has accumulated over the last few decades. Every animal that comes to our hospital receives an accession number (for example, the tilapia skin barn owl featured above, had the accession number 19-3234, meaning it was the 3,234th patient of 2019). On average, the wildlife hospital receives between 5,000 and 5,500 animals each year. We collect information on every patient, including species, estimated age and gender, the exact place it was found or injured, the cause of the injuries, and other relevant particulars. This data allows us to map out where certain types of injuries are more prevalent and help us design specific outreach programs to communities where these issues are more common.

Conservation action is the core motivation for the Lindsay Wildlife GIS (Geographic Information System) project, led by our Lead Wildlife Veterinarian, Dr. Krystal Woo, Rice University student Katie Choo, Hospital Manager Peter Flowers, and me. The project attempts to find “hot spots” of wildlife injuries in the East Bay region where we can develop and deliver education and outreach programs to reduce the incidence of these occurrences. For example, our preliminary data shows that some communities are more prone to see vehicular-related injuries than others. If this ends up being the case, we can develop special signage and education programs to reduce these types of incidents in a particular community. We can also detect trends over the years to gauge the incidence of injuries and measure the impact of our education and outreach efforts. We will showcase some of the results of this exciting conservation project in a future essay.

Lindsay also collaborates on projects about hummingbird biology and conservation.

Science is the best source of critical information for decision-makers in many aspects of our society. Science and scientists provide the best credible data and information to address global issues such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis and inform particular policies and actions that individuals and communities can adopt to protect wildlife in their regions. Armed with reliable scientific information, we can support more balanced and healthy communities. Lindsay Wildlife Experience is committed to helping people and nature coexist and help them achieve this balance.

Carlos L. de la Rosa
Executive Director

Acknowledgments: I want to thank Dr. Peyton (who has joined our board of directors), Dr. Woo, Wildlife Hospital & Rehabilitation Manager Peter Flowers, and Curator of Animal Encounters Emma Molinare for their dedication and support of research as an important part of our mission. Included in my thanks are Dr. Alison Daugherty, who served as Lead Veterinarian at Lindsay for several years; Katie Choo whose energy and work on our animal injury dataset is producing excellent data to guide our outreach work; and to the fabulous team of veterinary and rehabilitation technicians, hospital staff, animal encounters staff, and dedicated volunteers who work tirelessly, seven days a week, to treat and rehabilitate our injured wildlife and care for our animal ambassadors. Thank you for your wonderful work! CdlR


Further Exploration

  Dr. Peyton’s use of fish skins, with video.

  Another video on the use of tilapia skin by Dr. Peyton to treat wounds caused by wildfires.

  An article on Lindsay’s partnership with Dr. Peyton

  Use of Geographic Information Systems to assess wildlife issues and threats

    • Thank you, Sheri, for your comment and outlook. And I agree, science does provide data, answers to questions, and guidance on solutions. But it is up to all of us to use scientific information wisely. Cheers! CdlR.

  • Fascinating article about researching locations and causes of wildlife injuries!
    Would you explain the different colored symbols on the sample map of vehicular wildlife injures?

    • Thank you, Marni, for your comment and question. The sample map is one of the possible ways to look at this p[articular issue. In this example, the different colors represent the different cities where the injury was seen. We can sort the data by species, by time of the year, by look for trends over several years (is it getting worse or better?), and target programs for specific audiences. CdlR.

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