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On the Freezing of Birds

I was watching a news segment on a wildlife rehabilitation center here in Florida. It was time to feed the bird of prey who was about to be released and while the rehabber was speaking with the interviewer someone emerged from a walk-in freezer with a tray of baby chicks. They were each frozen in various states of sheer terror, in positions that clearly indicated attempts to escape to save their lives. No one paid a moment of attention to the tray but I couldn't keep my eyes off of it.

My animal rescue-life has had many phases. From 2002-2005 I was heavily ensconced in a bird and waterfowl phase with sometimes daily drama of the life-and-death variety that led to my unintentional education about all things duck (Muscovies, in particular).

Too Early Charley was a Muscovy who had just busted through his shell with his egg tooth. He and all 14 of his siblings materialized in my dryer vent after having fallen down the chute on the roof, one at a time, over 48 hours. It took a full day to locate the origin of the meeping of the first one (aptly named The Meeper), but after that it was pretty easy to catch them (in a propped up strainer on a cushion of towels) and put them in a safe place until they were all collected and ready to reunite with their mom.

Too Early Charley never made it more than 50% out of his shell and wheezed and whined and squirmed for hours. The rehab people gave me instructions on how to deal with him and said either he'd be out and fine soon, or (and more likely), he wouldn't make it. It was a holiday weekend and the only place I could take him was over an hour away and I was told that wasn't a good idea.

The kind rehabber called every couple of hours for an update. The last time she called she asked me to describe his condition and then she said, “Sometimes the kind thing to do is the hardest thing to do.”

Of course, that did not sound promising.

She told me to
wrap him in a paper towel and put him in the freezer and leave my house,
preferably for a couple of hours. “Don’t be tempted
to stay home; you’ll regret it.”  Hysterical, I tried to say some kind of prayer, as if I believed there’s a god,
and I wrapped the little fellow in a paper towel, placed him in the freezer and left the house as instructed.
When I asked the rehabber what would happen, she said his system would slow and
he would fall asleep. She said freezing to death was actually a very peaceful
way to die.

Like she’s ever frozen to death.

Why would I be instructed to leave the house for several hours if Too Early Charley's demise would be so peaceful? Unfortunately I didn't ask myself that question.

Later
that evening, I tiptoed into my house, as if not wanting to wake the dead. The following
morning I opened the freezer, unwrapped my tiny friend, and found him, mouth
wide open, in full Edvard Munch scream. I had an impromptu service
for him, buried him, and as cute as ducklings are, hoped that I’d never have to
see one again—dead or alive.

I then sat at my trusty computer and checkout out the
American Veterinary Medical Association's latest report on
euthanasia
(they publish one every couple of years), and let’s just say that hypothermia and rapid
freezing are on a list that includes: strychnine, which causes violent
convulsions and painful muscle contractions; drowning, and burning. In other
words, I may as well have doused him in gasoline and set fire to him.

Note to everyone who works with birds and water fowl: Hypothermia and rapid freezing are not appropriate methods of euthanasia and are not considered to be humane unless the animal is anesthetized prior to freezing.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ron Kearns #

    "Like she’s ever frozen to death."

    Now, that was an exceptionally funny statement.

    Humans most often get it wrong when they rely on anthropocentric 'beliefs' to assume what the physiological and psychological effects of any human induced ‘treatment’ might be on nonhuman animals. I have often encountered this irrational anthropocentrism in wildlife management, especially with game management. Hunters and many wildlife scientists ‘assume’ that since humans need abundant free water that desert adapted wildlife must also have those same requirements. Therefore, they build needless wildlife waters under the guise of “Helping to Save Wildlife” while subsequently killing some of those same animals they ‘helped’ earlier through sport hunt harvests.

    Mary, you had little choice other than to euthanize that duckling. As a senior veterinary animal specialist and as a wildlife biologist, I had to euthanize laboratory animals, pets, livestock, and wildlife. The task is not an easy one and the best that you can do is find the quickest method for each species. Most often, without drugs available, the physical method of cervical dislocation is best for smaller animals such as your duckling. I have used it on birds as large as pelicans and on rodents the size of guinea pigs. However, you must learn the proper technique and most animal rights advocates would likely have a difficult time with the idea of cervical dislocation.

    I assume that there might be rules and regulations against some practices of larger nonhuman animal euthanasia in some municipalities or jurisdictions; therefore, it is always prudent for people to be aware of the sometimes confusing and cryptic laws regarding wildlife, feral, or domesticated animals.

    While the AVMA guide is an excellent source, the best practice is to let your local veterinarian perform the euthanasia by the most humane procedure possible—although you did not have that immediate option—or allow the natural process of death to occur. In this case, the duckling most likely would not have made it in ‘the wild’ anyway. Overall, the most practical option might be the services an ethical and licensed rehabber who has read and understands the AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia.

    I own the latest edition of the Merck Veterinary Manual although I was unaware of the latest euthanasia guide; thanks for the link.

    September 6, 2009
  2. What a terrible experience. I'm so sorry. I think it's pretty well established that humans do just "go to sleep" when they freeze to death, so I was at first wondering if there was some sort of physiological difference between humans and birds that would account for the horrible death for the bird. Then it came to me: no, it wasn't a difference between humans and birds. Instead, it seems likely that the bird didn't freeze to death at all, rather he suffocated. Perhaps out in the open, in freezing temperatures, the bird would have just "gone to sleep" as humans do, but the freezer was air tight, causing suffocation before he could freeze.

    September 7, 2009
  3. This post and the next one, from today, both made me want to reach out and hug you. You have a wonderfully open and big heart, and though that's what leads you into these experiences, it's also what surely makes them so difficult. Virtual hugs to you, friend.

    September 12, 2009

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