Owl released back into wild after successful treatment at UF

Tiberius, an owl treated at the UF Small Animal Hospital.

Tiberius, an owl treated through the CVM’s zoological medicine and integrative medicine services, was released back into the wild on Oct. 5. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Jonas)

By Sarah Carey

A young barred owl brought to UF’s Small Animal Hospital on June 27 was lethargic and had a droopy right wing upon arrival. He’d been found by the side of the road, obviously hurt.

And although the next four months might not exactly have flown by for the poor bird, he is now back in the wild, having been released Oct. 7 after successful treatment by UF veterinarians.

“He had badly broken two bones in one wing, which we repaired surgically,” said Dr. Jim Wellehan, associate professor of zoological medicine, who performed the wing repair surgery.

Wellehan explained that avian fractures are typically open and are prone to infection.

“These types of fractures can also contract and dry out,” Wellehan said. “Since a bird with a limp can’t fly well enough to hunt, I generally perform surgical repair as soon as possible to get optimal reduction and return to function.”

Soon after surgery, veterinarians began a regimen of rehabilitation therapy to help the bird, which they named Tiberius, regain its mobility.

“We became involved a few weeks after the surgery, as there was significant ‘wing droop,’” said Dr. Justin Shmalberg, chief of the hospital’s integrative medicine service. “It was also clear that he was developing some contracture in the tendons that allow him to extend the wing.”

As Tiberius had to be strictly confined to prevent injury to his repaired wing, he was also losing muscle mass, Shmalberg said.

“Although the best rehabilitation techniques for injured raptors are not well-established, there have been suggestions that therapies used in small animals and in humans may be beneficial,” he said. Among those therapies are therapeutic ultrasound and neuromuscular electrical stimulation.

UF’s integrative medicine team used those therapies on a daily basis to try to increase healing in the tendons affected by Tiberius’ surgery while preserving his muscle mass.

Gradually, the owl’s ability to extend his wing increased, but even after weeks of daily therapy, UF veterinarians weren’t satisfied with the level of progress. Team members put their heads together to discuss the best way to move forward.

“We try to handle these birds as little as possible so they don’t become overly accustomed to human contact,” Shmalberg said. “In Tiberius’ case, we knew that in order for him to fly again, we would have to encourage him to use the wing in a normal fashion.”

So UF veterinarians developed an exercise routine for the bird, just as a physical therapist might do for an injured person. They found ways to position and move him that would cause the owl to flex and extend its wing naturally.

“He also responded to other exercises to encourage him to flap his wings and build those muscle groups,” Shmalberg said, adding that the integrative medicine group worked with Tiberius daily, for up to an hour each day.

Only toward the end of his release was Tiberius’ progress put to a key test.

“Once his fractures had completely healed and his surgical pins were removed, we permitted him to fly around an enclosure,” Shmalberg said.

The majestic bird passed this test with, well, flying colors.

“Tiberius demonstrated that he was able to control movements and produce sufficient extension to fly appropriately,” Shmalberg said. “However, as UF lacks the large flight cages needed for more precise flight testing, we sent Tiberius to Audubon Bird of Prey Center in Central Florida for a few weeks of additional testing.”

“They were encouraged by his progress and sent him back here for release after the final phase of rehabilitation,” Shmalberg said.

Tiberius flew “remarkably well” when he was released near Citra, Shmalberg said.

“We are optimistic that he can find suitable habitat and food to certainly have the best chance at living out a natural lifespan,” he said.



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