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SeaWorld saves, then frees birds

Orlando Sentinel

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August 20, 2007

They had to amputate No. 215's wing from just above the elbow.

By the time the grounded sandhill crane was found in St. Cloud -- likely the victim of a car collision -- and brought to SeaWorld Orlando last month, an infected bony lump covered its broken humerus. Veterinarians determined little could be done to save the wing.

It has been a busy year for wounded birds, cranes in particular. As of Thursday, the attraction had accepted 242 injured or orphaned native birds of various species so far this year, paving the way for a record year. It has taken in 40 cranes in 2007 -- compared with the previous three years, which saw between 26 and 41 cranes for the entire year.

"We're seeing an awful lot of fractured wings and legs," senior veterinarian Scott Gearhart said before examining the crane's wound. He gently ran his fingers over the pinkish knob of bone, where downy bits of grayish-brown feathers had started to grow.

The crane with the amputated wing was SeaWorld's 37th crane for the year. Three others arrived after him but died from their injuries. Cars are the most common cause of crane injuries, followed by golf balls, discarded fishing line and an occasional gun shot.

"We're moving into their areas, and as their populations grow, their space becomes smaller," said Julie Ensor, assistant curator of SeaWorld's Aviculture Department. "And they become so acclimated to people that they're not scared of people."

Cranes are not the only wildlife losing their fear of humans to their peril. A black bear died Wednesday after it was stunned twice with Tasers by Orlando police. The bear was roaming around the Tivoli Woods neighborhood looking for food, which wildlife officials suspected someone had encouraged by intentionally feeding it.

SeaWorld accepts all Florida native birds in need of care as part of its permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It specializes in wading birds and ducks. Most won't stay long. If after treatment, they are not fit to be released, they live out their days in a zoo or aquarium. Occasionally the animals are incorporated into SeaWorld's exhibits or appointed wildlife ambassadors, as were Olive the crested caracara and Mattie the bald eagle.

Mattie came to SeaWorld in 2003 from the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland. She fell out of her Leesburg nest when she was only a couple of weeks old and broke both her wings. Now the SeaWorld animal trainers are teaching her to fly, but her injuries were so severe that she would have trouble surviving on her own.

Olive, who arrived in 2006, was left in Audubon's night-deposit box. She had been isolated from other birds for so long that she can never be released.

"She thinks she's a human being," animal trainer Christopher Kosik told a group of children and adults that stopped to look at the squawking brown bird. So now, "she's here to represent her species."

Someday soon, No. 215 will find its new home and get a proper name. SeaWorld officials don't name the birds in rehab "because they're not our pets," Senior Aviculturalist T.J. Dray said.

"We're purely here to rehab them, get their health back up and send them out."

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