On the Freezing of Birds

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On the Freezing of Birds

By Mary Martin, PhD, Animal Person

They were each frozen in various states of sheer terror, in positions that clearly indicated attempts to escape to save their lives.

I was watching a news segment on a wildlife rehabilitation center here in Florida. It was time to feed the bird of prey who was about to be released and while the rehabber was speaking with the interviewer someone emerged from a walk-in freezer with a tray of baby chicks. They were each frozen in various states of sheer terror, in positions that clearly indicated attempts to escape to save their lives. No one paid a moment of attention to the tray but I couldn't keep my eyes off of it.

My animal rescue-life has had many phases. From 2002-2005 I was heavily ensconced in a bird and waterfowl phase with sometimes daily drama of the life-and-death variety that led to my unintentional education about all things duck (Muscovies, in particular).

Too Early Charley was a Muscovy who had just busted through his shell with his egg tooth. He and all 14 of his siblings materialized in my dryer vent after having fallen down the chute on the roof, one at a time, over 48 hours. It took a full day to locate the origin of the meeping of the first one (aptly named The Meeper), but after that it was pretty easy to catch them (in a propped up strainer on a cushion of towels) and put them in a safe place until they were all collected and ready to reunite with their mom.

Too Early Charley never made it more than 50% out of his shell and wheezed and whined and squirmed for hours. The rehab people gave me instructions on how to deal with him and said either he'd be out and fine soon, or (and more likely), he wouldn't make it. It was a holiday weekend and the only place I could take him was over an hour away and I was told that wasn't a good idea.

The kind rehabber called every couple of hours for an update. The last time she called she asked me to describe his condition and then she said, “Sometimes the kind thing to do is the hardest thing to do.”

Of course, that did not sound promising.

She told me to wrap him in a paper towel and put him in the freezer and leave my house, preferably for a couple of hours. “Don’t be tempted to stay home; you’ll regret it.” Hysterical, I tried to say some kind of prayer, as if I believed there’s a god, and I wrapped the little fellow in a paper towel, placed him in the freezer and left the house as instructed. When I asked the rehabber what would happen, she said his system would slow and he would fall asleep. She said freezing to death was actually a very peaceful way to die.

Like she’s ever frozen to death.

Why would I be instructed to leave the house for several hours if Too Early Charley's demise would be so peaceful? Unfortunately I didn't ask myself that question.

Later that evening, I tiptoed into my house, as if not wanting to wake the dead. The following morning I opened the freezer, unwrapped my tiny friend, and found him, mouth wide open, in full Edvard Munch scream. I had an impromptu service for him, buried him, and as cute as ducklings are, hoped that I’d never have to see one again—dead or alive.

I then sat at my trusty computer and checkout out the American Veterinary Medical Association's latest report on euthanasia (they publish one every couple of years), and let’s just say that hypothermia and rapid freezing are on a list that includes: strychnine, which causes violent convulsions and painful muscle contractions; drowning, and burning. In other words, I may as well have doused him in gasoline and set fire to him.

Note to everyone who works with birds and water fowl: Hypothermia and rapid freezing are not appropriate methods of euthanasia and are not considered to be humane unless the animal is anesthetized prior to freezing.

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