The Comatose Barn Owl’s Miracle

Difficulties and disappointments in Wildlife rehabilitation and the story of the comatose barn owl miracle, without a happy ending.

comatose barn owl miracle

First of all and „flat out“: wildlife rehabilitation done properly is very difficult and challenging and filled with „disappointments“ or hardship of many kinds. This starts with the assessment of whether an animal can or should be rehabilitated.

Which is why it is so fabulous to witness and tell stories like Spartacus’ the howler monkey (still keeping fingers crossed as the story continues) who will hopefully ultimately go from certain death to wild and free-living animal in a natural habitat with his own kind.

But those unfamiliar with the field, and may be having illusions of fuzzy and cuddly babies… well those we do see too, and they are one of the beautiful aspects of the field. I might have to write about those next, after this. But in a general rescue center, we often receive very severely injured animals for who we can only relieve of suffering (meaning humane euthanasia), or we receive animals that did not survive the transport hence their injuries.

While those are really „rough“ and sometimes disheartening experiences, in a veterinarians day and professional life, euthanasia is an important responsibility: To decide over and execute as an act of humane kindness to animals, to avoid unnecessary suffering, pain, or incurable illness, the humane and pain-free killing of the creatures you work for… Lack of quality of life and stress is particularly challenging in wild animals. For example when we can cure their fracture but they can not survive to be in captivity while their bones should heal. And in general, it is not only our responsibility to decide and execute but also to console co-workers, staff, owners, or rescuers. Never an easy task I can attest.

But at least in clear-cut extreme injuries, it is easy to see the unnecessary pain and suffering. We often use a three-strike rule: three major injuries and we should not „torture“ the animal with our attempts to cure it, when it’s a system or just its wild nature is unlikely to be able to cope with too many major injuries at the same time. We should let go and choose to give this animal pain-free relief of suffering.

And then we get really difficult, not so clear cut cases sometimes. And they seem to turn, sometimes even miraculously at first, and we opt to NOT euthanize a really borderline severely injured animal, but fight an extended period of time to rehabilitate and give an animal the best chance at a possible survival for release. And sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. When this happens after many weeks it is especially disheartening. As the title indicates, I choose to talk about lost battles.

This brings me to the most recent example of such a “failure” of mine, so to speak. I thought we should try against many odds, and it did look miraculously at first:

In the middle of a 2-week intensive wildlife course for vet students, a barn owl is announced and brought to the classroom by a bird rehabber. When the owl (gender unknown but for the sake of the story assumed female) comes in, she is comatose and unresponsive, in full hypovolemic shock with an old, open humerus fracture and very skinny. Upon first inspection I give her prognosis the „in Faust“ which is the worst possible, basically meaning survival unlikely. After some quick pondering, we decide that we might as well try and see if we can operate, repair the fracture and place a bone pin, which I had with me. Likely she would not survive the surgery and pass away under anesthesia, which would be similar to just euthanizing her right away since she would feel no pain in the process.

We quickly prep a table inside the lodges Restaurant, minimal instruments and I draw up the highly diluted anesthetics for the small patient, trying to keep a light dose for the much-debilitated patient who quickly succumbs to full anesthesia. We immediately start to go to work and my students help inject fluids, steroids, and antibiotics while I try and relatively quickly succeed to place a bone pine, in what feels like only 2 large pieces of the humerus. This is good, I feel no further fragments, contraction is not yet terrible, and surgery is quick. And the patient is still alive too. To complete the treatment we place a standard figure 8 wrap on the broken wing, which is now stabilized with one IM pin. The disadvantage of this simple and quick method of fracture repair that we were able to improvise on a restaurant table is, that it provides no rotational immobilization. So we also have to place a light body wrap on the owl in order to achieve the best possible immobilization of the 2 re-united bone pieces.

Amazingly enough, our patient remains alive and starts to show first signs of life so we return her to the rehabilitator and rescuer who takes her back to the avian rescue center, elated that after having gotten the message that likely we would have to euthanize or she would not survive the surgery, she now had a “repaired” live bird. 5 hours later I receive an image of the comatose owl now PERCHING with a wrap on and all in good position and order! That was like a miracle.

And I won’t stretch out the story too long but we worked with her for a total of 2.5 months to the point of upgrading her into a larger cage to practice and possibly regain flight where she then re-fractured her wing and I had to euthanize her. I always ponder cases, and basically any patient I lose and try to „make the best“ out of them, and learn for the future, to not make the same mistake twice. My goals are to avoid letting an animal suffer when my hopes of curing it were unrealistic and to treat everything the best possible. For the owl, with her old open fracture, I realized afterward that we should have kept her antibiotic treatment on board for longer then we did. Of course, we had no x-ray to really diagnose her bone density and monitor fracture repair. All exams were done by hand. I had never had a patient re-brake like her. So I think she must have had a persistent infection in the bone which weakened it. Therefore when we upgraded to fly, she broke again, despite having been immobilized for longer than usually needed. Sigh.

I learned something from her or so I think and try to improve.

Sorry, not all stories end well, in fact, most of them don’t. That is life. But I guess what we make from our failures is truly what defines us in the long run?

I guess I should make the next blog a happier one again? Let me know…?