Usually very alert and aggressive, the great horned owl at the University’s Raptor Center is now weak and passive.
It is among the center’s 42 birds suspected of having the West Nile virus. Eighteen of those birds have died; the virus was the confirmed cause of death in eight cases.
University veterinarian Patrick Redig has watched these birds die since Aug. 14. As director of the Raptor Center, he’s hoping to find an effective treatment.
A vaccine – called the equine vaccine – was developed on horses and has proven successful, but hasn’t been tested with other species.
It is administered in two doses over a six-week period.
For now, the birds only can be protected and monitored. Sick birds are given hydrating fluids, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory pills, which Redig said help slow development of the disease.
“The issue of vaccination of birds is really unsettled at this point,” Redig said. “We can really only protect them.”
To keep the birds protected in the outdoor exercise area, the center has enclosed the yard with a dark mosquito net.
But this only protects 70 percent to 80 percent of the birds, so frequently they will be kept inside.
Approximately 111 species of U.S. birds, including chickadees, morning doves, night hawks and killdeer are suspected carriers of the virus.
Birds in early stages of the West Nile disease have shown signs of depression and loss of appetite. Middle to late stages involve neurological malfunctions such as body trembling and head convulsions.
Redig said birds in the last stage are assumed blind because they seem unaware of what happens around them. Often they will have seizures, at which point Redig and staff will euthanize the birds.
“The likelihood of full recovery becomes very small in the late stages,” Redig said.
Lori Arent has worked at the Raptor Center for 13 years and says she adapts to working with sick birds.
As rehabilitation coordinator, she re-hydrates the malnourished birds with water injections that allow them to resume normal eating patterns.
“There’s so much about this virus that we don’t know,” Arent said. “But we do know that if they weren’t here they’d be dead.”
She also said researchers are unsure if they will find a cure, but she’d like to see the birds healthy enough to be released.
Redig said he is working with the medical and veterinary communities to find a cure through what they learn from the sick birds.
“We’re very much in the giddy-up and go stages. We have no choice,” Redig said. “This virus is here and it’s here to stay. It will continue to be a problem.”
Arent said she remains optimistic that a remedy will be found.
“It’s just reassuring to know that we are helping in some way, either to find a cure or develop an effective treatment,” Arent said. “It feels good to be a part of that.”
Courtney Lewis welcomes comments at [email protected]