2022 Year in Review: Lilly Farmer, Front-Desk Coordinator

It’s time to look back on 2022! Check our blog between now and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2022 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

EASO #21-3580. That combination of letters and numbers has been ringing through my head for more than a year now. It’s difficult to describe how four letters and six numbers can mean so much to a person, unless they’ve brought a patient to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

EASO: the Alpha or banding code used by birders and wildlife rehabilitation facilities across the world to identify the species Eastern Screech-Owl, a small nocturnal raptor seen commonly throughout the East Coast and as far west as Montana.

#21-3580: The patient ID number for the 3,580th patient admitted to our facility in the year 2021.

This Eastern Screech-Owl was found on October 30, 2021. A gentleman was on his way back from a morning hunt and had spotted the animal on the side of a back road at the western edge of Louisa County, VA. The owl was dazed and its left eye was swollen shut. It didn’t put up a fight as the man gently placed him on the passenger seat of his truck or when it was asked to sit quietly until a more suitable container could be found.

Fortunately, this hunter happened to be my father’s close friend. With many failed attempts to find transport that afternoon, the owl was able to sit comfortably in our insulated barn and catch a ride to the Center with me on the following morning when I went to work.

I didn’t have high hopes. At the time, I had been working at the front desk for a little less than two months, but I had already seen countless patients come through our doors after vehicle collisions. Many of them do not survive. Every day, our veterinary team performs what I consider close to miracles but, as one of the few facilities in the state that accepts severely injured wildlife, we see a lot of patients that cannot be saved. If this owl survived the night and did not have an irreparable injury on admission, its dull attitude carried an extremely guarded prognosis. In collision cases, symptoms of neurologic or internal trauma can present days after the initial event. The following morning, I had mentally prepared to find that owl deceased.

But it didn’t pass that night. Its single visible eye stared up at me as I opened the box.

And it didn’t have an irreparable injury on admission to the Center.

And it survived the first night.

And the second.

And the third.

After hours of oxygen therapy and daily treatment of anti-inflammatories, fluids, vitamins, and eye medication, the owl was bright and responsive. It was consistently consuming 100% of its provided meal, but the left eye remained swollen. After continuing with supportive care and closely monitoring the injury, it became apparent that the eye was no longer functional. Our team identified a fracture over the lens and a scar that left the organ useless. Fortunately, our nocturnal raptor patients do not rely heavily on their sight to hunt in the wild and can still thrive with only a single functioning eye. On the 16th of November, 2021, our veterinary team removed the eye.

The patient healed wonderfully with supportive care of anti-inflammatories, pain relievers, and antibiotics post-surgery. After just a week of recovery, the owl was strong enough to move out of the hospital.

At this point, I had been checking on this patient’s progress daily, sometimes multiple times a day. I had to remind myself continually not to become too attached. Captivity with any wild animal carries a variety of unpredictable complications. One of the parts of my job is to remind rescuers that, though the patient they rescued is receiving veterinary care, it is not yet out of the woods. EASO 21-3580 is a perfect example of this.

11/29/2021: EASO 21-3580 hasn’t eaten since its move to an outdoor enclosure. It lost considerable amounts of weight. After force-feeding for a couple of days, the patient was moved back into the hospital for monitoring.

12/12/2021: Vet team suspects EASO 21-3580 has an esophageal tear or perforation. Its crop is full despite not eating for multiple days. The owl has not improved even with daily flushing and medication to treat the stasis. Surgery was performed. After manually removing old food from the crop, our team found that a portion of esophageal tissue had adhered to the skin.

12/17/2021: EASO 21-3580’s attitude remains appropriate, but there is discharge around the incision site and it is not healing appropriately. Revision surgery was performed that evening. The team also noted a small wound on this animal’s forehead. They cleaned and will continue monitoring the area.

Because this patient’s esophagus needed time to heal, our veterinary team spent weeks tube-feeding the animal. To slowly acclimate the owl to whole prey, our rehab team spent many more mornings painstakingly separating softer organs and tissue from frozen-thawed prey items. More power to them.

1/1/2022: EASO 21-3580 celebrated the New Year with a transition outside to acclimate to outdoor temperatures and avoid the stressful hospital setting. Incision site has healed beautifully. The owl is eating on its own and the forehead wound is improving.

1/17/2022: EASO 21-3580 has been officially moved to a larger outdoor enclosure to practice flight. Our rehab team will be encouraging this animal to exercise every day.

2/14/2022: EASO 21-3580 is barely improving in exercise. Our vet team thoroughly examined its flight feathers and found that many were broken, bent, and missing. Unfortunately, our team determined that this little owl has to remain in care until molting time. These flight feathers were too damaged to repair, so we must wait until a new set to grow in.

Despite very little change to this patient’s condition, I still found myself checking in on the owl almost daily. Months passed by before EASO 21-3580 started to show signs of molting. Once the patient’s new feathers were fully visible, our rehabilitation team restarted the exercise regimen. Finally on November 7, 2022, just over a year since this patient was admitted, I read these words in our rehabilitation team’s Raptor Exercise Report: “EASO 21-3580. Ocular trauma resolved. Flight is release-ready, mouse school 11/5-11/7.” After three rounds of Mouse School (live prey testing) and a lot of concern that this EASO would never make it home, this owl finally proved that it could still catch live prey. The patient made it and I am so happy to share one final update on this animal.

12/16/2022: EASO 21-3580 was released back home in Louisa County, Virginia.

I’ve always considered the release of a patient pretty uneventful compared to the patient’s treatment. A few short seconds watching the patient disappear into the woods will never compare to 411 days of rehabilitative care, multiple surgeries, and countless hours spent preparing this owl’s flight skills for release.

Despite only seeing this patient a grand total of three times in my life, EASO 21-3580 made a lasting impression on my work here at the Center. At the front desk, we write patient updates to those who request them. We write hundreds upon hundreds of updates. At some point during our busy season, when our team has to focus primarily on intakes and phone calls, we would have close to 40 patient update requests sitting in our mailbox. The sheer amount of requests can become frustrating.

But now, I understand. I spent the last year holding my breath every time I read our team’s raptor exercise report, hoping the owl was improving. I sat at the edge of my seat in our veterinary team’s rounds, waiting for the single sentence confirming this patient was still alive.

I understand what it’s like to become attached to an animal that you’ve known for less than an hour. I know how it feels to hope and pray that the animal you helped save is still alive and this team is fighting for its well-being just as much as you did.

And we are fighting. I hope this proves that. I hope you know we never stopped fighting for you, EASO 21-3580.

P.S. Try to stay away from moving vehicles. Don’t take this the wrong way, EASO 21-3580, but I don’t think any of us ever want to see you on this side of the mountain again.

— Lilly Farmer, Front-Desk Coordinator

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