Where the wild things are

Israeli Wildlife Hospital veterinarians treat animals and warn the public to leave hedgehogs, gazelles, etc. to their own devices.

Wildlife center 311 (photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
Wildlife center 311
(photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
Opening a shoebox that had been punctured with air holes, Dr. Rona Nadler- Kouris carefully scooped out the latest arrival at the Israeli Wildlife Hospital, in a new building nestled behind the hippopotami and gorillas that inhabit the Zoological Center Tel Aviv – the Ramat Gan Safari.
The patient, a common quail brought in by a Karnei Shomron park ranger, had suffered an injury to his left wing and needed to be taken for X-rays immediately.
“I’m going to cover his eyes because birds – once their eyes are covered – calm down, as they react mostly to sight,” Nadler-Kouris said, checking the animal’s pulse and vital signs. “This way we can examine them without causing too much stress.”
The quail was one of the approximately 2,000 patients the hospital now receives annually, a drastic increase from the 300 it received during its 2005 opening year, according to Dr. Igal Horowitz, director of this facility and a veterinarian at the Ramat Gan Safari Park. On average, treating each patient costs about NIS 1,000, Horowitz estimated.
The hospital is a joint venture of the Safari Zoological Gardens and the Nature and Parks Authority, but the current building – soon to receive a new wing of its own – was constructed with funds from the Environmental Protection Ministry, said Nadler-Kouris, who, along with Horowitz and one other doctor, makes up the entire paid veterinary team. The hospital receives many private donations, particularly of medical instruments and equipment, and most of the staff members are volunteers from the community who help feed the animals and clean their cages.
None of the patients receives a name, because they’re wild animals and the veterinarians “don’t want to develop some kind of affinity to them,” she explained, but they do each get a personal file.
“The [number of animals] that come every day vary according to the seasons,” said Nadler-Kouris, who attended veterinary school in Slovakia and then worked in a veterinary clinic in Tel Aviv, as well as on a project with colobus monkeys in Africa, before coming here.
“Israel is located in the middle, between Europe and Africa, so we have a lot of birds migrating at least twice a year over Israel – so during migratory seasons, we have a higher case load,” she said.
Horowitz added that “about half a billion birds pass above Israel during the migratory season, birds that often get hurt when they are here, and therefore, this hospital is not only treating Israeli animals, but it is treating the animals of the world.”
In the six years of the hospital’s operation, no animals have ever actually come in with rabies, and luckily staff members have thus far avoided injuries by the more dangerous patients, according to Nadler-Kouris.
“Our staff is trained to treat any animal,” she said.
“Once a large carnivore comes in, we make adjustments so that the cage is in a place where we can enter from a back door and not disturb the animal. Animals being treated are usually weak and are not interested in attacking or hunting. So we try to treat them and cause the minimum stress possible, and we take the necessary precautions in these kinds of cases. For poisonous snakes, for example, we use a special rod we can pick up the snakes with, and we issue protective gloves and masks if necessary.”
BACK ON the examining table with the common quail, Nadler-Kouris determined that the bird’s temperature was normal, then brought him into the X-ray room to determine the nature of what were probably fractures and whether he would be a proper candidate for surgery. After a few quick photographs, his broken skeleton appeared on a large computer screen.
“I suspect that we have a fracture here in the left femur, the left leg, in the thigh bone. You can see he has some food in his stomach, and there is a total fracture of the left shoulder. It’s pretty hard to see, but you see the alignment is much higher here,” she explained, concluding that the bird had a fracture to his clavicle (collar bone) and scapula (shoulder blade), a misplaced humerus (upper arm) bone, a shoulder fracture and a leg fracture.
“But despite the leg fracture, he’s still standing, so that’s a good thing for now,” she went on, guessing that he had smashed into something – like a window or a car – on his left side. “Judging from all his injuries, which are localized on his left side, it seems that he collided with something that caused these various traumas on his wing and his leg.”
The bird was not a candidate for surgery, so the doctor taped his wing to his body instead while administering pain medication.
“We need the whole body to stabilize it, much like arm slings you put on people,” she said.
“As long as he’s standing on his legs and remains in a small cage to rest, I believe he will be just fine,” she added. “I don’t believe he will be able to fly again, but he will be able to survive in an environment where he can walk and eat and where there are no predators.”
Such an environment could include a zoo or a conservatory, she explained.
The quail’s healing process would take approximately one month, Nadler-Kouris predicted, noting that he wouldn’t be lonely in his cage, as “he has another friend waiting for him.”
While most birds come to the Wildlife Hospital from park rangers, the center has cared for some rescued by civilians, as well – Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian alike – Nadler-Kouris said.
“We had a common buzzard that was injured after he was shot, probably in Jordanian territory, and a Jordanian truck driver actually ran into him while he was dropping down from the sky,” she said. “He took him and put him in the truck and brought him to the border, and then Israeli soldiers brought him into the hospital.”
IN A ROOM populated by cages of Caspian water turtles, hedgehogs and lizards, Nadler-Kouris pulled out an injured chameleon, cradling the animal in her palms and pointing out its fractured mandible.
“Chameleons are most often attacked by cats, and they come in with various injuries and we try to treat them,” she said. “We have had some successful releases with them. They don’t survive well in captivity, so we try to give them the best food and warmth... but they’re very fragile.
“Reptiles take a long time to heal because their metabolism is much slower,” she added.
This chameleon had come to the hospital about a month and a half earlier and was a darker shade of green than normal because she wasn’t feeling very well, Nadler-Kouris explained. Almost frighteningly still, she sat perched in the doctor’s hands, only her eyes moving about.
“She’s checking out her surroundings with both her eyes in different directions,” Nadler-Kouris said.
“Their basic instinct is to be camouflaged. She can’t really [be camouflaged] right now because she doesn’t have that color.”
While this chameleon was on her way to recovery, the doctor explained, the hospital staff was waiting for her to gain more weight, as she was currently only 53 grams when she should be between 60 and 70. Meanwhile, she’d continue to be fed insects grown in that room. Once she recovered, Nadler-Kouris said, the lizard would have no problem readapting in the wild, because she is an adult.
“For a grown animal, if she came from the wild and she grew up in the wild, getting her back is no problem.
But if it had been a young animal who hadn’t learned yet all the lessons about how to survive in the wild, then it would be quite difficult, although reptiles are quite adaptable,” she said.
While reptiles tend to learn from experience, mammals learn from being taught by their parents, Nadler- Kouris explained.
“If she had been very young, she would’ve been learning by experience and would’ve gotten used to being fed,” she said. If this had been the case, however, the lizard would need to go to a zoo environment or something similar, as it is illegal to house chameleons as pets, according to the doctor.
“Israel is very developed in the sense that all wild animals are protected, and they’re not allowed to be held in personal captivity,” she said.
NADLER-KOURIS pulled a hefty, prickly hedgehog out of one of the cages in the room, explaining, “This is our patient for today. We’re going to take him to the clinic. I’m not holding him directly because he’s pretty prickly.”
While her assistant held the two-and-a-half-year-old adult hedgehog on the exam table by his spines, Nadler-Kouris examined his injured back left leg, where a wire had cut him.
“There’s some nice granulation tissue forming around the place of injury,” she said, pointing out the swelling on the distal part, or area furthest from the body, of that leg. “Luckily for him, there wasn’t a complete occlusion of all the veins, arteries, capillaries and nerves, so the tissue remained viable in the distal part of his leg and he hasn’t lost it. We’re going to keep revitalizing this area, clean it, put some cold compresses here, and we’re going to keep on monitoring him. He’s also getting antibiotic treatment and antipain medication, and he’s on a diet because he’s very overweight.”
She pointed out that “he is very alert and he’s trying to find a good way to escape, but as you can see he’s very obese, and this is a direct result of overfeeding, so someone must have fed him.” She noted that he weighed 1.6 kilograms, the highest documented weight of any hedgehog to visit this hospital.
“Hedgehogs are used to being in urban environments right now, and they rely a lot on cat food distributed in the streets,” the doctor said.
But in these urban environments, many hedgehogs experience incidents of cruelty, such as dog attacks and children throwing stones at them, Nadler-Kouris went on.
“People just don’t really understand the nature of hedgehogs,” who are actually “really shy and timid and beautiful creatures,” she said. “We get a lot of calls sometimes – they’re nocturnal animals – and people see them in their yards and say they have hedgehogs.
They just need to be left alone; they’re perfectly fine wandering around.”
The spring season particularly brings the hospital many litters of hedgehog babies, because residents often find the small animals alone and assume their mothers have abandoned them, when in reality she is just out hunting for food, according to the doctor.
“If people see such cases, we tell them to observe from afar and see if the mother returns, and if not, then they can bring them in,” Nadler-Kouris said, noting that the same rule applies for gazelles and ibexes, which they also treat in the hospital. “It’s very important for us to let people know not to touch them, not to take them in, because once an animal is removed from its natural environment, then it’s very hard to bring it back.”
Along these lines, Horowitz added, the hospital is not just a place for “medical response and treatment,” but also an outlet for education.
“We are turning to the general public by such means as the media, in order to tell the same story about animals who get hurt and why they get hurt, and that they get hurt because of us, because of humans,” Horowitz said. “This could mean electrocution, poisoning, running over and shooting of the animals, and so on. Some of these things are on purpose, some are due to lack of caring, and many are done out of love and a desire to help the animals, only done in an incorrect way that ends up hurting them.”
On the exam table, Nadler-Kouris proceeded to clean the wound to prevent infection, explaining that “hedgehogs tend not to be the cleanest animals,” as they are strictly insectivores. While the animal didn’t attempt to bite her or the assistant this time, she noted that “we don’t blame them” when they do make such attempts.
“It’s not really open, so it’s not hurting him, but it’s not comfortable,” Nadler-Kouris said. “Actually, the swelling has really gone down – when he arrived I think it was three times the size it is now.”
Unfortunately for the doctors, the animals probably have no idea that they’re being cared for rather than threatened, Nadler-Kouris explained.
“[For] a wild animal, once it’s in an environment where it feels threatened, then I don’t think it has the ability to know if it’s a good threat or a bad threat,” she said. “The whole situation of being held and being in an unfamiliar environment with noises – everything that occurs to us as perfectly normal – is to them an immediate threat, and sadly I don’t think they understand they are being helped. But once they understand that they’re not being harmed and they’re put back in their cages and have a good environment, and they have food, I hope they feel secure.”