By Dr Sarah Woodhouse
I am a specialist Zoo Veterinarian from the USA and currently volunteering in South Africa at VulPro. While it is amazing to work with gorillas, stingrays and chameleons every day, I find my true fulfilment working with vultures at VulPro. Using the veterinary skills I’ve developed with birds of all shapes and sizes, I can help the VulPro staff bring endangered vultures back from the brink of death… literally.
We received a young White-backed Vulture who had been poisoned during my first week here. He was severely dehydrated and unable to stand or keep food down. When he lifted his head, he had severe tremors that sometimes progressed to partial seizures, a common clinical sign of pesticide poisoning. We placed an IV line in a vein in his leg to rehydrate him and give him medications.
I checked on him every 10–15 minutes for the next six hours, listening to his heart and lungs, watching his breathing, and assessing his response to me. He was so weak that he lay flat on the ground with his neck outstretched. His breathing was so slow that I thought he had died at least ten times that night. But each time I checked him, I gently touched his head, his eyes would slowly open to look at me, and I would breathe a sigh of relief. This little guy has gradually improved. He no longer has tremors; he eats like a champion, and the first time we saw him stand, even though it was only for a few seconds, we all cheered. He still likes to sleep flat on the ground, which I’ll admit makes my heart skip a few beats, but he can now stand and move around on his own, and he has even graduated to eating like a real vulture.
When my vulture patients heal, they are either released back into wild populations or stay at VulPro, find a mate, and raise chicks that are then released into the wild. This means I am using what I have learned and practised over the past 17 years to make a direct difference – both for the individual vulture I’ve cared for and an endangered species. ‘Happy’ is a difficult concept to describe, but when we really think about it, I think most of us include ‘making a difference’ in our definitions of what it means to be truly happy… and that is why VulPro is my happy place.