There are always unforgettable experiences in wildlife rehabilitation work. For me, the night of Dec. 5, 1997, was the beginning of one. I answered a call from a gentleman who told a horrible story about how hundreds of birds, mostly pigeons, had been burned in an explosion while making a movie. He wished to remain anonymous, not wanting to cause any trouble for himself, yet his conscience, and what he described, brought a serious note to his gentle voice.
As we talked, I asked questions, as I knew nothing of any movie nor was I familiar with the Phoenix Trotting Track where he said this all had taken place the day before. He answered positively: Yes, birds were still alive, injured, burned, more than a hundred. He gave me directions and I asked the pertinent question of gaining access to the building. He said there should be a guard there and to tell the guard I had received this phone call -- there would be no problem and I would be allowed to rescue the birds.
A call of such magnitude would seem unbelievable, but there was something in this man's voice that made me a believer. I gave my word and promised I would do something, immediately.
I then called Dave Roth of the Urban Wildlife Society, knowing he was one I could count on to jump and run, now. I gathered a few medical supplies along with other necessary rescue equipment and met him. He added to the supplies and we headed out.
Following the directions given, we arrived at the scene, far from Phoenix. In the dark of night, at the end of a long dirt road, we came to a building similar to the grandstand at a fairground. It was the Trotting Track. We stopped, got out, and stared. It stood tall, large and black, not unlike a coffin, in feeling. There was a faint smell of smoke in the air, and the night was shivering cold. No guard was to be found. Not much of anything had been left by the movie crew. A house trailer to one side of the road was the best bet to try -- lights on and obviously occupied. Dave's knocks on the trailer door grew to hollers and horn honks, trying to rouse someone from the trailer. All attempts were in vain.
One of the hardest things to ever do was not to go closer to track -- to just stand there, helpless, knowing full well the legalities that could be involved if we trespassed. All we had to do was cross a short stretch of open dirt following the road. So easy to do, I could have walked it. So hard not to.
We drove away, heading for some lights and, hopefully, an available phone. The lights belonged to a prison. That's OK. They have phones and surely would let us use one. We went into the office and the man at the desk was very helpful. He allowed us to use the phone and invited us to wait inside where it was warm.
Dave put in a call to the nearest police station and they sent an officer out to meet us at the prison. He talked to the officer, going over the whole story -- asking what we could do and what permission we needed. The Officer was really trying to be helpful as he and Dave tossed ideas back and forth while they read the Officer's manuals.
One of the prison employees, just getting off work, offered to join in the rescue. The offer was gratefully accepted. This man was dressed for the occasion, unlike me. I stood with my hands by the radiator of the police officer's car, trying to keep warm. I hadn't thought about how cold it could be so far from the city.
A call was placed to the Arizona Game and Fish Department for help to enable the officer to allow us to legally enter the grounds of the trotting track. I was elected to make the call. A man answered, “Pigeon Palace.” I thought the police officer had given me a wrong number. All I could say was, “What?”, and again the answer, “Pigeon Palace.” Then he said, "Just joking. Game and Fish.” I explained very briefly why I had placed the call, and gave the phone to Dave to give him a full explanation. Dave then gave the phone to the police officer. Yes, I thought, we were getting some place. Not long now. Wrong! Permission was denied. All access and any attempt to rescue any species of bird was denied.
It was a long drive home. I couldn't help thinking about how painful burns are -- and that the night was so cold. Dave and I made plans to meet in the morning, which wasn't far off, and this time we would be successful.
Dave had worked diligently through the night and early that morning to gain access to the building. Stocked with even more supplies, we went out, again. The sun was up and shining, yet the giant cement building looked desolate, cold, and forbidding. I don't think there is any way we could have fully prepared ourselves for what we saw. Even before entering, we saw the bodies of charred, dead pigeons. Babies and adults so badly burned I could not tell the original color of the birds feathers. I could only try to guess age by size and development of the beak and body. Inside, it was the same, everywhere. So many bodies in some places, we had to watch where we stepped.
We started to gather survivors, checking each one, noting degree of injury, separating, and charting the information on the large, brown bags we made into carriers. Some birds just sat, no protest what so ever when we picked them up. Others tried to move with feeble attempts to escape, and still others managed to scurry and try to hide against the cement flooring and steps of the stairs. Some had found hiding places under lumber and other debris.
Looking out from part way up the grandstand, we saw more birds, unable to fly, standing together on small piles of dirt, staring back at their once safe and comfy home. Babies cried from the rafters, above, waiting for their parents to come and tend them. The few birds that flew back and forth had obviously escaped the explosion, yet seemed disoriented. Nothing was as it should be, or as it was only 48 hours ago.
As we worked, we watched a car come in on the dirt road -- big letters across the side announcing Channel 5. Dave gave an interview as to how this had come about, and the camera man put it all on film. They, too, were shocked as we walked together, searching for more birds. The reporter (a lady) and the cameraman, finished their work, put their equipment safely down, and joined in the rescue. The cameraman helped lift boards and gather birds as the four of us, still in disbelief, worked our way across and up and down the grandstand. When the time came to say good-bye to Channel 5, we thanked them for their much appreciated help.
In the afternoon, the next to arrive were three rehabilitators from For The Birds. They joined in, helping with the search and rescue. One of them, a girl named Barbara, I have known for some time. She and I worked together continuing the search, and talked about such atrocities of mankind. She introduced me to the other rehabilitators and offered that For The Birds could take the pigeons and care for them -- that they had enough people on call. I was appreciative of the offer and was also getting tired as the day wore on. It was very apparent that this rescue was not going to be accomplished in a single day.
Shortly after For The Birds arrived, my husband arrived. He was a happy sight to me. (He has experience handling birds and is an expert with a net.) Together we worked the fields surrounding the track, I herding the birds toward my husband, and he working his magic with the net. We also went through the grandstand again, over and over. It seemed that where one had looked a few minutes before, another would find a bird. We worked higher and higher, up into the offices, closets, bathrooms, and even the heating and air conditioning ducts. We found scat (animal droppings) and occasionally glimpsed something on four feet quickly dashing about. We found two barn owls. Both appeared to be fine and were living in an area opposite the direction of the explosion. All of us worked together, checking and re-checking.
Sunday, I did not go back out to the track, though I know Dave and some others did. Monday night, I was told, was the next scheduled rescue attempt. This time I packed supplies for birds that had been traumatized and without care for 4 days.
When I arrived Monday, it was after dark and the grandstand was lit up like a Christmas tree. There were a lot of people there to help and a generator with tall massive lights was aimed at the building. From up in the rafters, occasional peeping of hungry babies could still be heard. The large cement rafters had been blackened from the explosion. It was the one place no one had been able to check. For sure, there were birds -- both adults and babies -- that would need help. At this time of night, baby pigeons should be sleeping, with a full crop of food, snuggled under a parent for warmth. This really wasn't fair.
I talked with the same three For
The Birds rehabilitators that had been there Saturday.
We discussed the rescue and care of the birds, especially the ones to be
brought down that night. I had brought heating pads and a heat light
on an extension cord to run off the generator, a scale to take the birds'
weight, needles, syringes, fluids, injectable emergency medications, and
tags for each bird. (This was not the first time I have worked full
days on multiple rescues and know the value of forethought.) The
The Birds rehabilitators also mentioned their demand
of money for their care of the birds -- figuring $10.00 per day, per bird.
That seemed like a lot of “care” to me. I had brought my calculator
-- to calculate medication dosages per body weight of the birds -- not
$$. As it turned out, I spent the rest of the night just standing
by the generator, filling my ears with it's loud, thumping engine, my lungs
with exhaust, and my body with it's warmth.
Negotiations between Dave Roth, the “lighting crew”, Fire Department, and others I did not know, continued for long, cold hours into the night. And again, we ended up leaving empty handed. That was my last trip out to the track. It still looms there, dark and unforgiving -- a reminder like a tombstone. Go there some cold winter night and tell me what you feel.
There was talk, Tuesday and Wednesday, of efforts to search the rafters, yet nothing came to pass. Rumors were that all the remaining birds were dead. I would have thought so, too, until "Wednesday's Child of Woe" arrived.
Dave had been back out to the track that Wednesday afternoon, and a bird tumbled from the rafters, falling in front of his feet. The bird was still alive. Six days after the explosion, and the bird was still alive! He brought the bird to me. I couldn't believe it. It was an adult, dark check pigeon.
This bird's flight feathers were burned/melted so badly, only short sticks resembling porcupine quills remained on her wings and tail. Flight was completely impossible. Her body feathers were burned. Her feet and legs were burned. Her right eye lids were “melted” shut. Both her top and bottom beak were burned. She was dehydrated to such a high percentage that her left eye was sunken and dry. By all rights, this bird should have died.
With proper care plus help for her beak from a veterinarian, this bird is alive and will fly again. I know because I am sitting here looking at her. The lids of her right eye are ugly and scarred, but work properly -- and she has sight in the eye. When she's finished a molt and is again flying, she will be tested for sufficient sight and released -- unlike the many others who weren't as lucky.
Ellen Hamell is President of Wildlife Concepts, an organization for rehabilitation, education, conservation, and preservation of avian wildlife.
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Movie Blast Kills/Injures Hundreds of Pigeons | Porn for Pigeons
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WILDLIFE SOCIETY | AVIAN
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