2021 Year in Review: Dr. Karra Pierce, Director of Veterinary Services 

It’s time to look back on 2021! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2021 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

On May 13th, I was in our busy ICU re-checking some squirrel patients when our front-desk coordinator brought in a small box housing a young screech-owl. She had brought this patient directly to me to check if it was alive or dead. In our line of work, when that is the first question we ask, the outcome is rarely good.

I quickly looked at the small owl, and found it was alive, but just barely. The owl was hypothermic and practically comatose, but its heart was beating and it was breathing. I did a brief exam, collected a small amount of blood, and got the patient into an incubator. I was only able to get enough blood to run very basic tests, but for some reason, decided to include a blood lead test in my diagnostics. This is not a test we historically have run on all owls, given they are much lower risk than raptors than traditionally scavenging raptors, but given the clinical signs, decided to run the test.

To my surprise, this tiny baby owl tested positive for lead. This patient also had clinical signs consistent with head trauma. Due to the severity of clinical signs, we placed an intravenous catheter, set the owlet up in our critical care chamber, and started treatment for lead intoxication and head trauma. The outlook was grim, but my gut told me it was worth a shot.

After about a week of intensive care, the owlet was alert and able to walk around on its own but had a persistent left head tilt (sometimes 180 to 90 degrees from the normal head posture). Due to the severe head tilt, this patient couldn’t seem to figure out how to eat on its own, so each day I would carefully tweezer-feed the owl (while wearing a camouflage mask to avoid human-imprinting) to ensure it was getting the nutrition it needed to grow and develop. The head tilt persisted but most all other clinical signs had resolved, so we fashioned a custom neck brace to help straighten the head, and continued to assist feed – encouraging the tiny owl to hold its head up straight to get bits of food. Eventually, the owlet learned to eat on its own. At this point, we were able to combine this owlet with other young Eastern Screech-owls in our care.

The head tilt improved slightly with the bandage, and our little owl continued to do well in care. In June, we were able to move this owl into a larger outdoor space. With time and experience navigating a larger space, the head tilt resolved completely with small incremental improvements each day. This owl was able to navigate its space very well, but had residual signs of permanent head trauma, being unable to navigate a larger space.

At this point my little owl patient plateaued and we stopped seeing signs of improvement. The head tilt had resolved, but I was not left with a releasable patient, as being able to navigate a very large space and not turn in circles is essential for life in the wild. I knew this patient was a long shot from the start so was trying not to be too disappointed. Fortuitously, we had an opening for an Eastern Screech-owl on our education ambassador team. But, that being said, tiny owls are notoriously difficult to train and only very select individuals in very select situations are even candidates for consideration. I still didn’t have high hopes but asked Amanda to evaluate our little red owl to see if he might be a good fit (but that is another story).

This case is important to me for many reasons. Not only did I grow very attached to this patient due to the critical care I provided, but it sparked in me a curiosity about lead intoxication in nocturnal raptors and lead me to complete a research project on this. What a great example of the work we do at the WCV – medical care, education and outreach, as well as research.

— Dr. Karra Pierce, Director of Veterinary Services 

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!