Interview with an Intern

Where else can you go to handle a hundred Pelicans in three months?
– Jay Holcomb

During the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, International Bird Rescue recognized the need for a place where people interested in seabird and other aquatic bird rehabilitation could go to get hands-on experience, and the International Internship Program was born.

International Bird Rescue interns commit to at least three consecutive months of volunteer time in one of our rescue centers in California, and receive specialized training in all aspects of rehabilitation – from initial assessment, nutrition and animal care, basic medical treatments, bird washing, case management and volunteer management. They learn first-hand, from our experts the intricacies of waterproofing, housing for each species, problem solving, and herd health management (caring for many birds at one time). These are the very skills needed in working with wildlife impacted by a spill.

In addition to the applications we receive each year, it has become a tradition during oil spill responses to invite individuals who develop a passion for this work through their volunteer experience to intern with us at one of our Centers. We have had interns from all corners of the world, and one of the beauties of the program is that many of our interns have been able to bring their new expertise back to their native countries to share with others.

We recently asked our current intern from New Zealand, Michéle Melchior, to tell us about her experiences and her unique plans for how she will put her International Bird Rescue training and inspiration to good use.


Michéle helping to release rehabilitated Little Blue Penguins in New Zealand

What brought you to International Bird Rescue and wildlife rehabilitation in general?
Well, I studied film and television at university, and was traveling in Africa to film a documentary on white lions when I first became interested in rehab. When we finished filming I stayed on to work with the baby white lions and baby hyenas in one of the rehab centers there. So then, when I got back to New Zealand, I heard about the Rena oil spill and decided to volunteer for a day. I ended up working the rest of the spill and that’s where I first met people from International Bird Rescue, and Michelle Bellizzi (International Bird Rescue’s San Francisco Bay Center Manager) invited me to intern.

What has been your favorite thing about the internship so far?
The amazing thing is just how much I’ve learned so quickly. What surprised me was how much I was learning from day one, and how often I am given the opportunity to try things myself. After watching the staff perform a task a certain amount of times, they let me try it myself. It just gives you so much more confidence when you know you can do it on your own. There is of course close supervision, but the fact that they trust me to try the skills that I learn is really valuable.

So has it inspired you to pursue a career in wildlife rehabilitation?
Definitely. In two different ways. I really, really want to join International Bird Rescue’s Emergency Response Team, and then I also want to produce documentaries that build support and awareness for wildlife rehab organizations, because I feel like people don’t realize how important it is, or even that organizations like Bird Rescue exist, or that they need help from volunteers and donations to be able to operate…

Wow. So you must have been excited to meet Judy Irving at the 40th Anniversary event?
Yeah! I loved seeing her clip from Pelican Dreams and I also love (Irene Taylor Brodsky’s) Saving Pelican 895 about the Gulf spill. I think what I want to do is mini documentaries that show the work, and how and why we need the public’s help.

Having had the opportunity to work with International Bird Rescue at a spill and in the Center, how would you say these two experiences differ?
Working at a spill involves a lot of repetition. It is mostly groups of the same species of bird with the same problem: oiling. At the Rena spill it was mostly Little Blue Penguins and I was in the clean tent, so the work involved throwing the birds in the pool, checking their waterproofing, and a lot feeding.

Penguins rehabilitating in pools after the Rena spill

Working at the Center is very different. It is more like a hospital. There are a wide range of birds and a wide range of tasks to be done. Over the course of a couple hours you could be checking bumble lesions and hock abrasions, feeding, taking blood, checking meds, helping with an intake… and it’s all on a wide variety of species so it helps your confidence. Also Becky, Michelle, Marie and Isabelle (International Bird Rescue’s Veterinarian and rehabilitation staff members) teach classes on things like anatomy, tube feeding, baby bird season, intake examination… so you get hands on training and classroom training.

So, what would be an example of a new skill that you’ve learned at the Center that you would be able to transfer over to oil spill response?
Well, I just learned how to sub-Q a bird, which stands for Subcutaneous injection. This is when a needle is inserted just under the skin of the bird to rehydrate them faster than giving water to them orally.

Also, choosing where to house specific species is important and I’m learning all about that. For example, pelagic birds need to be on the water all day, while other birds recuperate well on gravel… and these are decisions that you would have to make if you were helping to organize different birds in a spill.

Also, in the Rena oil spill I helped with washes by handling the birds while someone with more experience washed and rinsed, but now, during my internship, I have had the opportunity to wash and rinse oiled birds myself, while someone else handles.

So even though the work at the center varies from the work at spills, it’s still applicable?
Yeah. I actually think it is more effective in preparing for the next spill than working at another spill would be because gaining hands-on experience with all different skills and species will actually prepare me to help with a much wider range of tasks at a spill, so I would be a more valuable part of the team.

That’s great. So what would you say is the most challenging part of being an International Bird Rescue intern?
When animals come in with fishing hooks, lures, lines or just really badly broken – all because of human carelessness. We recently took care of a bird that accidentally flew into vegetable oil that was lying next to some kind of food shop. And a really sad thing has been the Canada Geese we get – humans have been feeding them some kind of poultry feed, and as a result they get metabolic bone disease, so they get life-threatening bone growths… It’s really hard to see.

Which species are the hardest to work with?
Well, I was really scared of Pelicans when I first got here and then one bit me in the butt so that didn’t help!

(Laughs) Seriously?
Yeah! But after that the staff suggested that I work with Pelicans for a week straight so that I could overcome my fear. (Laughs)

Really? Did you do it?
Yeah and it was perfect. I learned exactly how to deal with them and now I love them. Plus, like I said, I love Saving Pelican 895 so that helped too.

Awesome. So is there anything else that you think people should know about International Bird Rescue’s Internship Program?
It is extremely educational and you get a wide variety of hands-on experience. You meet a lot of like-minded people with different backgrounds who bring their own experience and knowledge to wildlife rehabilitation. I love it!


See what it takes to become International Bird Rescue’s next intern by visiting our Internships page!

International Bird Rescue is also always looking for volunteers at our Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Centers! No experience is necessary to attend a volunteer orientation and become an integral part of our life-saving team, so please also visit our Volunteer page to lend a hand.