Posted by: Wild Instincts | March 3, 2013

CSI Wildlife Rehab Style

Wildlife rehab is mix of wildlife biology, veterinary knowledge, MacGyver-like resource utilization and detective work. Yep. You read detective work.

Let’s talk about the detective work part because many people don’t think about it when they think about wildlife rehab, but it’s a huge part of it.

When a domestic animal is brought to the vet by its owner, the vet can question the owner in depth. When did you first notice this? Has he been eating normally? Did she get into something she shouldn’t have?  Was he attacked by the neighbor’s dog?

With wildlife there are no owners to ask.

Sometimes, events can be very clear-someone struck the deer with their car to cause the broken leg or a person hears the thwack as a bird hits their window. Other times it’s not so clear and we have to deduce things; even things that may seem obvious aren’t always as they seem.

Just because an animal is found on the road or a side of the road doesn’t always mean it was hit by a car. Sometimes other injuries or illnesses can bring them to the roadside because it’s an easy path.

The American Badger we admitted yesterday is one of these cases. He was found on the side of the road and showing signs of possible head trauma, common in animals hit by car. Upon further examination, though, he is emaciated and dehydrated. These are not caused by vehicle collisions. His teeth are worn down indicating he’s an older animal. Did disease slow down his reactions enough to leave him vulnerable to being struck by a car? Did disease do all of this and he was just on the road when he could go no further? Time will tell.



Badger exhibiting signs of head trauma upon admission


                          Starting to improve after initial treatment


Another example is the bald eagle that was admitted today. She was transferred to us from an inexperienced wildlife rehab facility not licensed to treat birds. We were told it was a territorial fight and the rescuer unstuck the bird’s right foot from a tree as it was hanging upside down from the tree.

When we laid eyes upon the bird, we immediately noticed some flaws with this theory of events. Number one- the bird is a female. While females can occasionally be involved in territorial fights, that is generally an activity left up to the males. Number two- there is deer hair lodged in the split talon in one of her left digits. This is an important clue. Eagles frequently get hit by cars as they gorge themselves on road kill deer. They eat so much they can’t get airborne fast enough to clear the lane of traffic and the oncoming car. This is one of the leading causes of eagle admissions. Number three-there is obvious road rash injury on the inside of the left wing. Not injuries consistent with being inflicted by another eagle, but very consistent with being struck by a car.


                                Deer hair in the splits in the talons on her hallux and digit 3     Image                 Damage to the feather shafts and road rash on her inner wrist

 So what about her being stuck in a tree and maybe being harassed by other eagles or birds?

Our theory is she was feeding on road kill, got struck by a car but managed to get to the tree. She has a compromised toe (either fractured or dislocated we’ll know for sure after radiology). She could’ve tried to land, only to have her toe and other injuries throw her off balance, resulting in the predicament of being stuck upside down without strength or wellness to right her self. Other birds tend to gather and mob out of curiosity or opportunity.  

Hmmm. Will it matter if this eagle was in a territorial dispute or hit by a car? In this case, in the short term, it won’t matter a huge amount.  Her injuries are obvious enough and we will treat accordingly. In the long term, though, if it was a territorial dispute, it would be unwise to release her back where she came from to get her butt kicked again. However, eagles are just now getting territorial. What if it wasn’t a territorial dispute, but rather she was hit by a car? Then if we don’t release her back to her territory, we’ve removed her from her home territory and allowed someone else to move in.

See why being a good detective matters? In cases that aren’t as clear as this, it can be difference between life and death for the animal.

This is why experienced wildlife rehabilitators are so important. They have the knowledge base to be better detectives, ask biological based questions, look beyond the obvious and listen to what the animal in front of them tells them.

It’s CSI, wildlife rehab style!   


She sure looks like she could’ve been in a fight, but was she really??



  1. Excellent explanation of how reasonable conclusions/theories can be made. Wonderful how all the evidence is weighed. Keep up the good work!

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