In wildlife rehabilitation, we often run up against the reality of ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ in our work. We totally get that many wild animals survive by eating other wild animals, and predators need to eat just as much as the animals they prey upon. However, sometimes the prey animal fights its way free and gets away after being lethally injured; not only does the predator miss its meal, but the victim may die anyway. Nobody wins. This reality sometimes puts us in the position of treating a wild animal that escaped being another wild animal’s dinner, and this Cackling Goose was one of those cases.
Cackling Geese are considered by many of us who work with geese to be the cutest subspecies of Canada Goose – think miniature Canada Goose, about the size of a Mallard. And as pint-size geese, they are often extra feisty, which also endears them to those of us who love our wild animals for being truly wild.
The Cackling Goose in question had succeeded in getting away from a predator, probably a large falcon or other raptor, that had grabbed the bird just behind the head. The attack was witnessed by the kind rescuer’s neighbor. The goose was severely injured in the escape, with the skin sliced open all the way around 95% of the circumference of the neck. The predator’s talons had penetrated deep into the goose’s neck muscles, with punctures down to the bone. By the time the bird was admitted at our San Francisco Bay-Delta Wildlife Center, the wound was a few days old and the bird was in critical condition.
As a wild bird surgeon, I generally prefer to do surgery on birds that are as strong as possible before anesthesia. I want them well-hydrated, well-nourished, and able to thermoregulate, especially if the surgery they need is going to take more than a few minutes. This bird was none of those things when the surgery needed to happen. We rarely lose birds under anesthesia and do hundreds of procedures safely every year, but this one was definitely higher risk. Consequently, we were as careful as we could be, making sure the bird would have a good chance to survive both the injury and the procedure.
Once the bird was anesthetized and intubated, I started removing all the shredded and dead tissue from the wound and began to plan how the skin was going to come together. The wound edges were bleeding vigorously from several areas, including the bird’s severed jugular veins. It’s not like you can put a tourniquet around a bird’s neck; usually if I just do repairs like this quickly, putting the tissue back together stops the bleeding.
People tend to think of birds as being really delicate creatures, but they can heal amazingly well from injuries like this (termed ‘degloving’ where the skin has been ripped away from the underlying tissue). The bleeding in this case was very persistent, and then things got even more complicated when Kelly Beffa, our rehabilitation technician doing anesthesia, said “Umm, the neck is bubbling on my side.” Sure enough, there were bubbles popping out from underneath the edge of the extremely bloody skin margin. I took a look and found a neat slice through the wall of the bird’s trachea, between the cartilage rings, splitting it open about 50% of its circumference. I was immediately afraid that blood from the skin and muscle I was cleaning up was going to pour into the trachea hole and the bird would be in danger of drowning in its own blood before we could secure an alternate airway. The trachea slice appeared to have healthy tissue on both sides, so I opted to simply suture it closed really fast and hope the needle poking through the trachea didn’t make it bleed on the inside. It closed nicely with no more air leakage and Kelly assured me there was no sign of fluid in the trachea.
Back to the vigorously bleeding wound. The bird began showing signs of instability under anesthesia so I decided to stop trying to clean up the wound and just close the skin fast so we could wake the bird up. Birds are very good at walling off dead and infected tissue in this sort of highly contaminated wound. I fully expected I might need to reopen at least part of the wound at a later date to continue cleaning it up after the bird worked on healing for a week or two. I sutured it closed all the way around. The goose recovered from anesthesia without further problems under Kelly’s attentive care.
Post-op, the bird had a few days where fluid accumulated under the jaw due to all the damage to blood vessels, and spent the next several weeks recovering with a few other current goose patients. The neck wound healed fabulously and the feathers regrew. I didn’t need to go back in to remove more debris and the bird never had any respiratory issues whatsoever from having that trachea sliced open for several days and later sutured closed.
I don’t go on releases very often as I am rarely available when patients are ready to go, but with this one, I had the privilege of going on the release. Even though, like all wild animals, this patient may eventually end up being dinner for someone else, this time the bird got the chance to heal from wounds that would have been lethal without treatment.
A co-worker and I took the bird out to American Canyon’s marsh at the edge of the Napa River, where other Cackling Geese had recently been sighted. We could hear geese talking upwind in the distance. We pointed the cage at the water, and opened the door. The bird quickly rushed into the flowing water at the edge of the marsh, but a little while later got out to stand on the bank, moving into and out of the water several times, until finally standing on a mud flat facing into the wind and towards the sounds of other geese. We watched from a distance until the bird finally took flight towards them, flying strongly until out of sight.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Rebecca Duerr is clinical veterinarian and research director at International Bird Rescue’s two wildlife clinics in California. She completed her DVM, MPVM, and PhD degrees at UC Davis.