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ECWR's Michelle Pettis shares her shocking encounters with native wildlife

Michelle Pettis

Highlights from WUWF's EcoHeroes podcast

Director of Animal Care at Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, Michelle Pettis, gives us the ins and outs of what it's like to rescue orphaned, sick, and injured native wildlife. She goes into exactly how animals are rehabilitated so that they stay wild, and are able to be released and survive on their own. Lastly, she touches on some of the incredible animal encounters that she's had in her time as a wildlife rescuer.

Michelle: So we have this one pelican that we named Dexter.

Sarah (Host): Dexter, do you normally name your patients?

Michelle: Normally, we do not name our animals. They all get a number. Unfortunately, we don't get the chance to really bond because it is rehab and release. But it doesn't mean that we can't give animals silly names because of silly circumstances! This one was more serious than silly.

But we did have a pelican that came in. We did the typical protocol that we do is for any shorebird. We always take an x-ray because, uh, even though we don't see anything on the outside, doesn't mean that they swallowed a hook on the inside. And so the x-ray showed a very straight line, which is abnormal. We all know what a hook looks like. It's pretty circular most of the time. Um, so it was definitely interesting. And we thought maybe he swallowed a sewing needle or, you know, everyone's going through these crazy things and we kind of left it at that because no one knew what else to do with it.

I'm looking at this x-ray and I'm thinking "this really isn't normal." There has to be another explanation. And for anyone that might understand an x-ray, it's just like looking at a piece of paper. It's a two-dimensional view of a three-dimensional object. Sometimes just looking at it in one way doesn't give you the whole picture. So I went back in and I took another x-ray and it did look exactly the same as my colleague had taken. But then I turned the animal in a different direction and I took another x-ray, mhm, and that is where it showed! This went from a perfectly thin line, which was on the edge of this object, to when you turn it on its side, it showed you the whole object laying down. Which in fact was an entire paring knife.

Sarah (Host): So he had swallowed an entire knife.

Michelle: So this pelican had somehow managed to get a knife, swallow a knife and still be alive. So it was just really interesting and it was a really huge teaching point for me and my colleagues. For us to understand: that's why we always look at things from this side and this side and this side, because you never know what you're going to look at! Every time we have people that come through, we show people that x-ray.

It's just crazy how easily you could overlook something, but in your gut, when you know something isn't right, you figure out a way to really understand what it is. He ended up having to undergo surgery. We are fairly certain that the only reason he survived was that he swallowed the knife handle first. So it was just lodged in his gastrointestinal tract and our veterinarian was able to cut it out, she extracted it. It was exactly what it looked like on the x ray. And so we were all still in shock because it was a 'you don't believe it until you see it' type of deal. We still had a lot of reservations about the recovery of this animal. So we sutured his intestines back together, sewed his body back up and he recovered very nicely from anesthesia. But that doesn't mean we're out of the woods quite yet.

We observed him for the next couple of weeks. He was on his pain medications and everything and he was doing great. He acted like nothing ever happened and he went out in our flight pen when his sutures were removed and he flew around! As I said, he acted like nothing ever happened. And so most of us here have seen the TV show Dexter. And so we joked around and called him Dexter and he was released. It's still something that I barely believe even happened! It's just the wildest thing.