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Get the Lead Out
Edmonton Journal, July 6, 2010

For the sake of eagles, it's time to get the lead out
By Caroline Barlott

When a bald eagle comes to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton looking weak and vulnerable, the prognosis is often food chain poisoning. Sitting on the top of the food chain, people sometimes think these tough birds are invincible. But unfortunately, cases of lead poisoning can severely affect them, slowly deteriorating their health.

The birds become sick when they scavenge on prey like fish that have swallowed lead weights or mammals killed with lead bullets. Toxins collect in the bald eagle’s fat reserves and when it’s time to use the energy, like during migration, the bird will become really sick. The WRS has seen a number of cases of bald eagles that would not be able to make migration because of lead poisoning.

Stephanie May, animal care manager for the WRS, says that it takes several staff members and volunteers to help treat these massive birds. One bald eagle, who weighed 4.75 kilograms (about 101/2 pounds), required three people just to hold the bird, while a fourth staff member took blood. “From this sample [we] were able to get values for packed cell volume, total protein, white blood cell count and level of lead in the eagle’s system,” explains Stephanie.

Once it’s determined that the animal has lead poisoning, the wildlife shelter can begin using chelation therapy, which involves injecting penicillin and a calcium compound into the birds. The drugs work to draw the toxic lead from of the animals’ systems.

And while staff have experienced success in rehabilitating bald eagles, they’d prefer seeing less animals come to the shelter suffering from a painful, debilitating, and completely preventable illness. People can help prevent lead poisoning by using lead-free fishing sinkers and lead-free bullets. Lead shotgun pellets are illegal in our province, but people who still have old ones sitting around are advised not to use them.

Lead poisoning can also result from improperly disposing of any type of battery, old paint, and other hazardous materials. For information about how to properly dispose of all types of hazardous items, go to the City of Edmonton’s Reuse and Recycle directory and type in the item you need to recycle.

The WRS is a non-profit organization which relies on donations to be able to care for injured wildlife. For more information, click here.

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Photo © Paul S. Hamilton