Miami vet saves wild bird from Keys with surgery



When veterinarian Don Harris looked at the X-ray that showed a large fishing hook lodged near the heart of a juvenile magnificent frigate, he told wild bird rescuer Maya Totman he was sorry but there was nothing he could do.

That’s when Totman, who had driven 3 ½ hours from Big Pine Key to Miami in morning rush hour traffic to get help for the distressed bird, pleaded with Harris. Urgently.

Totman, director of the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue, has been bringing him sick and injured wild birds for years — including one she recently brought in with a beer can lodged inside of it.

So Harris racked his brain on Thursday for a solution to how he could move the hook into the frigate’s abdomen, a location where it could be surgically removed. The X-ray showed the live bait hook in the frigate had migrated down near the stomach and penetrated the wall of the esophagus, lying alongside the heart.

“I knew he could do it; I have so much faith in him,” Totman said of Harris, head of the Avian and Exotic Animal Medical Center and a world expert in the field.

Harris came up with an idea that he knew would be risky. But with the bird likely to die from infection if the hook was not removed, Totman was willing to take the risk.

Harris threaded the fishing line that was still attached to the hook through a fairly rigid vinyl tube. And through manipulation, traction and persistence, he said he was able to use the tube to push the hook further into the abdominal cavity.

“Hooks are supposed to be corrosive and rust away quick, but this one felt like titanium,” Harris said. “I had to use bolt cutters to cut this thing.”

The frigate, which Totman nicknamed “Lucky,” came through with flying colors. “Just the fact that the bird survived the surgery is good,” Harris said. “That’s 90 percent of the challenge. Birds do not do well under anesthesia.”

Lucky was indeed lucky. People living on a houseboat in Big Pine Key discovered the bird in distress and called Totman. She and her husband picked up the bird and were able to remove a visible hook, but a metal detector let her know another one was inside. Totman could feel it with her hand but could not remove it. Neither could a wildlife rescuer in Key West. So that’s when Totman turned to Harris.

Now Lucky is recovering at Totman’s wildlife rescue center. The bird is getting antibiotics and de-worming medicine. Fishermen also brought the frigate fresh goggle-eye, “which she ate like a pig,” Totman said.

“She was flapping around this morning like she was ready to go,” Totman added. But the frigate will need to spend at least two more weeks healing at the rescue center. A trip back to Miami for a checkup and removal of stitches also may be in order.

“But she’s like a brand new bird,” Totman said. “I still can’t believe it. Thank you Dr. Harris.”

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