Steller's sea eagles pass physicals at Aviary
Dr. Pilar Fish and her team of technicians at the National Aviary strategically held down the wings, legs and feet of two Steller's sea eagles on a table.
The Aviary's director of veterinary medicine carefully gave the fierce birds of prey — powerful enough to break a human's arm — their annual checkups on Tuesday without the use of anesthesia, which can increase the risk of death for the bird indigenous to northeastern Asia.
Fish strapped balls to the feet of the eagles — Kodiak and Aleutia — so that no one would be clawed by their sharp talons.
“Safety is my main concern,” Fish said Tuesday at the Aviary in the North Side's West Allegheny section. “When I was drawing blood, I could feel (Aleutia) boxing me ... with her little padded feet, and I thought if she didn't have those ball bandages on, she would've grabbed my abdomen.”
Fish has developed innovative methods to keep birds, veterinarians and technicians safe during medical procedures since she began working in zoos 25 years ago. Among her most notable is examining large birds — such as condors and sea eagles — without putting them to sleep.
Fish said she has seen many birds die during routine exams because they succumbed to anesthesia medications, which can impair their ability to breathe. The proper care of Steller's sea eagles is crucial, she said.
“Those Steller's eagles are ambassadors for their wild counterparts. They are educating thousands and thousands of people about eagles,” Fish said.
Fish and her team routinely practice an anesthesia-free examination on stuffed models weeks before the actual procedure.
During an exam, which lasts about eight minutes, Fish draws blood and physically examines a bird to determine whether it's healthy.
The information that Fish gathers tells her whether a bird requires preventive care.
Fish developed a remedy to prevent fungal pneumonia, a lethal illness that plagues eagles and other birds.
Gary Michael, curator of birds and conservation at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, said Fish has developed a number of avian medical techniques and is well-respected.
At the Louisville Zoo, vets anesthetize Steller's sea eagles and other birds during exams, Michael said. Birds aren't examined frequently at the zoo, but Michael said none has died of complications from anesthesia.
In a few years, Fish and her team might have another sea eagle to examine.
The exam showed that Aleutia is healthy enough to reproduce. Aviary workers are trying to get Aleutia and Kodiak to mate.
“They're paired for life,” said Kurt Hundgen, director of animal collections.
Christina Gallagher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5637 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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