Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
17 September 2000 Issue

By [email protected]

So I'm on my way to interview David Hitzig, director of the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, and I'm thinking about the kind of animals I will be seeing. My mind is filled with raccoons, opossums and Florida panthers. But when I enter the lobby, I am met by a most friendly Siberian Husky. Sleeping next to him is a little tabby cat. Have I entered the wrong building? No, says David, and introduces me to his sons: Bourbon the husky and Wild Thing the cat.

Nothing is ever as it seems.

Animal Rights Online has the unique pleasure of hearing from people all over the world, and to answer questions and offer intervention wherever necessary. And so it was that we received a message from an individual in Africa, who was contacting us secondary to a complaint that they received regarding a misunderstood vulture.

The vulture, it seems, has found his way to a wildlife sanctuary in Florida of dubious intent, and the woman who brought the vulture to the sanctuary was unhappy with his care. So I went to meet this bothersome bird, and get the real scoop.

First, a little about the sanctuary and it's director. Busch Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Jupiter, on the southeastern coast of Florida. It depends on public support for its operating funds, and gets it's name from its first benefactor, Peter W. Busch. Peter is the son of August Busch, II, who is the son of August Busch of Anhauser-Busch fame. Peter and David met in Miami where they were both involved in wildlife rescue. David worked as a veterinary technician for Dr. Pane, who specialized in wildlife rehabilitation. In 1992, immediately following Hurricane Andrew, David took his cat, Wild Thing, a hurricane victim himself, and moved to Florida. There, he continued his work rescuing wildlife, lecturing at schools and raising funds for medical help for injured wildlife. Peter Busch made a donation to get them started, and still pays about 10% of the organizations expenses. "I think I was rebelling," says David in answering a question about how he got his start, "my dad was a developer." Indeed, 90% of the animals who are injured or sickened are so afflicted at the hands of humans. Be it destruction of environment, careless disposal of fishing lines, or out and out deliberate acts of cruelty.

Now, back to the vulture and his story. His name is Terrance, at least that is what the rescuer told everyone. The vulture didn't correct her, so we assume that it was good enough for him. "We have to have something to call the animals by," says David, "we don't want people to think that these are our pets, but we don't want to say "hey red-tailed hawk," so we name all the animals." Ok, we'll go along with that.

David tells the story of how Terrance came to be in his care. "We received a phone call from another wildlife rehabilitator in Melbourne. They had gotten him from an animal control officer in Brevard County. It seems he was hanging around the bus stop, wanting to hang out with the kids. He began following them around. So, he was captured by this animal control officer, who assumed he must be injured. The officer took the bird to the rehabilitation center where he was checked out and determined healthy. They took him out to release him. Terrance flew for a distance and turned around, and walked back to where all the people were standing. So, they recaptured him and brought him back to the center. A veterinarian who volunteered hours at the center had a client who has vultures frequenting her property, so they decided to release Terrance at her house. The thinking was that Terrance would meet the other vultures and assimilate. They took him to her property and released him. This is where the story gets a little fuzzy. For some reason, the other vultures mistreated him. So Terrance was then re-captured and confined in the laundry room where he stayed for an indeterminate amount of time. The determination was made that Terrance is hopelessly imprinted and therefore can't be released. The woman wanted to keep him. However, in the state of Florida, one needs a permit to house wild animals, and she didn't have one. Terrance made his way back to the rehabilitation center in Melbourne, and eventually the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary as a permanent residence.

Well, we are all pretty familiar with animals who can't be returned to the wild because of broken wings, missing limbs, blinding eye injuries and the like, but imprinting? What is that?

Imprinting, is a serious problem. David describes it as a roll of film in your head. Similar to taking pictures, all of your life experiences and education is put on the film. For people, it takes a lifetime. We are always learning, but most of our experiences and education are imprinted in our minds about the time we finish college. However, a bird only takes a few months to learn these same things. Therefore, the film is exposed, the pictures are fully developed by the time they are three months old. But, if a vulture has spent his "formative" years in the company of human beings, the pictures are not of a vulture's life, the pictures are of life as a human, and they are very confusing. Wild instincts tell him to do one thing, but imprinting tells him something else. Sometimes an imprinted animal can learn to be around his own kind, sometimes not. It's quite possible that the imprinting caused Terrance to act in a way that the other vultures didn't quite grasp, and they didn't understand him. Kind of like the Barry Manilow of vultures.

I met Terrance. He's a beautiful animal with soulful, intelligent and inquisitive eyes. He immediately walked over to me and wanted to make friends. He was wonderful. His habitat was also very nice. He had a roommate, a turkey vulture, and it seemed that they were company for one another. His habitat was large, roomy and had plenty of circulating air. David also showed me the free-flight aviary where Terrance and the other raptors are brought several times a week for exercise and socialization. As far as I was concerned, Terrance was fine. Animal Rights Online officially closed the case on the complaint against Terrance. But not before learning a little more about the challenges of keeping wild animals in captivity.

While traveling to Terrances' aviary, we had to pass another habitat that housed three adult Florida panthers. These animals had been declawed, defanged and raised to be pets. The animals, of course, had gotten much too large to be housecats, so they were living the remainder of their days here at Busch Wildlife Sanctuary.

David is very concerned with the problem of people keeping wild animals as housepets. "We have a very big problem in this country with wildlife. Wildlife has gotten way out of control. There are too many people out there who are breeding animals in captivity and selling them illegally. There are too many people who are also selling them legally but they are ending up in places they shouldn't be. They buy cats that are little and then they get big and they lock them in little cages. We get at least an iguana a week. I refuse to recycle any animals back into the pet trade. I don't sell them to pet stores or private owners. Instead, I try to find a facility where the iguana can live a well-cared for life in captivity but also serve a purpose in teaching people that wild animals don't make good pets. I don't mean a traveling petting zoo, but a biology center of a school or a nature center, a stable and permanent place. We do use our animals as teaching aids." David acknowledges the discomfort of PETA and other animal-rights organizations who have a policy of opposition to this type of exploitation of wildlife. He freely admits that the majority of so-called educational programs have situations where the animals probably don't receive the proper treatment. "What does concern me," says David, "is that I understand that PETA may not ever endorse our program because we use live animals, but I also would expect that PETA wouldn't necessarily take a stand against us and condemn us because of our position. Many organizations call themselves an educational organization but that's not what they are"

"It's funny," David says, "We have cats, nobody ever complains about us having reptiles, but when we have a big cat present, everyone gets mad. But the big cats are so confused. The dream is to take a wild animal home, declaw it, defang it. The animal is then psychologically confused because they are designed to take down a white-tailed deer, but yet he is the same creature as you. He will take any chance to jump on your back and bite into your neck, because he is practicing for the time when he will find a white-tailed deer. Wild animals don't make good pets. There are exceptions to every rule. There are some that are very calm. People see one animal that is calm and they think that they can duplicate that. 99.9% of the animals can never, never, never make a good pet. There are so many people who call themselves sanctuaries or educational programs but their animals are nothing more than a means to make a living. Our animals don't do tricks. If animal rights activists don't support us, I accept that, but I want them to understand that they have an ally with us. The reality is that I can't save every single animal. The injury or illness is so grave that we can't do anything. Or we run into a situation where an animal is injured and probably could be saved, but would be miserable in captivity. I am very much concerned about the quality of life. Some animals are more accepting of certain situations than others. There are limited resources as to where I can relocate an animal. When animals are seized from a captive situation, ideally you want to place that animal in a better place than it was in. Initially the animals are state's evidence. But after the case is over, they auction the animal off but they may not be in the best place. There are a lot of animal-rights activist who would have a problem with it, but I think euthanasia is the most humane remedy in that situation. That appalls people."

One of the biggest things David finds most insulting is when people find a lost or injured animal, or a baby animal, and they call and ask about caring for it. "I spend twenty minutes on the phone trying to convince them that they should not try to raise the animal themselves, and they should bring it to me so that I can put him in with others of his kind. Or I spend twenty minutes telling them exactly what to do, and after the twenty minutes they will say to me "Well, if I bring it to you are you just going to kill it?" Think about that, does that make sense? The very last thing on our list is euthanasia. Don't they realize how insulting that question is? It would be a lot easier for me to just say, I can't help you, but I don't say that, I always have to get involved."

David is very concerned about allegations that make it seem that he does not have the best interest of the animals in mind. He points to the allegation that brought me to visit him. "Look at the way I responded to this accusation," he argued, "Any time that someone says I don't care about the animals, I say that they are wrong. I have the most elated joy at watching an animal fly free. It's a sensitive issue. My goal in life is to help animals who have been hurt at the hand of man, to undo a wrong. Also to educate people to appreciate the land. I want people to feel that this sanctuary will benefit people. I want people to feel that they need the environment. People need to understand, I support the rights of animals. I don't encourage people to keep wild animals. There are good dog/cat owners, and there are bad owners. I want to educate people, wild animals don't make good pets. We have very special challenges in Florida. One of them is the enormous growth at the hands of developers who take the land away from the animals who live there. Another challenge is that Florida has the biggest import/export of wildlife. Watch what gets shipped; snakes, other reptiles. We are the biggest because of our location, ships, boats, planes. People want to raise wild babies on their own and they get really mad. Then they call back six months later wanting us to take the animals but we are not always successful in releasing animals back in the wild after they have been with humans for six months. The woman who brought Terrance to me is an individual who loves that bird. She was keeping the bird in her laundry room. Is a laundry room a better housing than an enclosure where he interacts with other birds?" David asks, and admits that he doesn't really know the answer to that.

That would depend on the lifestyle of vultures these days. David is fascinated with vultures, and thinks that there is "hardly anything more beautiful than a vulture in flight." He believes they are also very interesting creatures. "There are a lot of misconceptions about vultures," says David, "One is that they are raptors. The truth is that they are related to storks more than raptors, scientifically speaking." I asked about their, umm, disgusting eating habits, but David was quick to defend them: "They eat road kill because they are built differently, unlike the raptors, their claws have no grasping power. They are forced to settle for animals that are weak, dying, infant, or dead. People portray them as gross, because they don't have face feathers. But that's a matter of hygiene really. I mean, they stick their heads in rotting carcasses." (That's ok, David, we get the picture).

Vultures also have an interesting social structure and interaction with one another. They don't really seem to be big on building nests. Their standard operating procedure is to find a place either on the ground, in tree hollows or fallen logs, perhaps the uninhabited nest of a bigger bird. They will nest anywhere near the ground. And vultures have no natural predators as an adult. Of course, as an infant, any raptor, snake or cat will go after them. And even though a lot of species of birds tend to mate for life, there really is no evidence that vultures do so. There are also many species of vultures. In the United States, however, there are only three; the California Condor, the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture, which is what Terrance is.

I asked David what he does for continuing education for his very unusual lifestyle. "Everyday is a learning experience," he says "I have something to learn from everyone, trained professionals and people who learn from their own experiences. I attend as many workshops and seminars as I can. In the wildlife community I have excellent relationships with other rehabilitators, but there are also others that I choose not to affiliate with because I don't agree with what they are doing. I have been doing this for 20 years, and yet I still feel that I am a very lucky person to have had the experiences, both with my opportunities to explore the environment and to learn and research and help animals such as panthers, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks. I don't own these animals. I have a job, whether you believe in a higher power who has commissioned me to do this or if the animals have chosen me to do it, I have an important job, to help animals. Everything I do, I do for them. I don't own animals, I have family members. Some are temporary and some are permanent."

What's Involved In Getting A Permit

State to state laws vary, but in Florida, an applicant must first have 1,000 hours experience over the course of a year. To get this experience, they must volunteer with a wildlife rehabilitation facility. There is a written examination too. You need to build a facility that can house animals. You must also have a veterinarian on board somehow. It is necessary that there is an alliance with other rehabilitators with whom you can consult. Municipalities also have their own zoning requirements as to type of animals and type of housing you can build.

Go on to Let's Work Together to Finally Pass the Ban on Steel Jaw Traps!
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