It’s no secret that Hatteras Island is home to some incredible—and incredibly diverse—wildlife. While most of us, visitors and residents alike, love and admire these creatures, few people truly appreciate just how delicate and complex our relationship with them is, and even fewer understand how to care for them without crossing that ever so tenuous boundary between compassion and domestication.
Lou Browning is one of those rare individuals who does.
Browning runs Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation, a non-profit organization that he started in order to care for sick and injured animals, particularly birds and reptiles.
An artist and engineer by trade—and an animal and nature enthusiast at heart—Browning has spent the past eight years working as a state, and eventually, federally licensed rehabber.
In that time, he has successfully rehabilitated and released scores of animals, everything from snakes and sea turtles to pigeons and bald eagles.
Most of his cases come from concerned citizens. People will call him when they find an animal in distress, and Browning will drive to the site, find the animal, and take it to his home in Frisco.
Once there, he works to diagnose the animal and determine a course of treatment. Many of the animals remain with Browning, and they are housed in the various enclosures he has constructed on his property while he oversees their care.
If and when they are once again able to survive on their own, Browning sends them back to the wild.
Sometimes, the trauma or illness an animal has endured requires attention beyond what Browning can provide. In those cases, Browning will contact the veterinarians he works with to arrange for specialized medicine and advanced procedures.
He also works closely with a number of state, federal, and non-profit organizations, including the National Park Service, The Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, and various rehabilitation centers throughout the area, to locate, treat, and transport animals to appropriate facilities.
In the nearly 10 years that he’s been doing this work, Browning has amassed an impressive “client list” and handled a number of challenging cases, each offering him the chance to learn more about the animals he works with and giving him an invaluable opportunity to hone his craft.
It’s knowledge and experience that Browning has put to good use, working to improve and expand his work.
He recently converted a small, older structure near his home in Frisco to a kind of clinic, where he can triage the animals more efficiently.
He said he built the clinic with sea turtles in mind—especially cold-stunned turtles, which are widespread in the winter and whose care is handled largely by volunteers and private organizations.
In recent years, many of the cold-stunned turtles here have been found in the sound on private property. And because the Park Service doesn’t handle cold-stunned strandings that occur on private property, Browning and a troop of dedicated volunteers have been working to care for those turtles. And it’s been a lot of work.
So, with that in mind Browning set his new clinic up so that he can process the turtles and get them where they need to go as quickly as possible.
But on a recent July day, there were no turtles in the clinic. There was only Browning—barefoot and hunched over a microscope, with his latest charge, a three-month-old American swallow-tailed kite, resting on his finger.
The swallow-tailed kite is a raptor, and a rare bird to see in these parts. The one in question had been found somewhere in Nags Head, and, as far as Browning could tell, had been hit by a car or suffered some other kind of blunt-force trauma, which caused his retinas to detach, and had left him blind in both eyes.
Despite his recent trauma, the kite seemed to be in good spirits, occasionally stretching his wings and showing off his striking, forked tail, while Browning spoke about the challenges and joys of his work.
“Diagnostics is by far the most difficult part of dealing with wildlife,” Browning said. While trauma cases are more straightforward, illnesses are complex and can be very hard to properly diagnose. And they can be even harder—if not impossible—to treat.
Since wild animals don’t speak English, it’s tough to get all the information necessary to pinpoint specific maladies. Compounding that problem is the fact that the broad-spectrum antibiotics used to combat a variety of infections can lead to drug-resistant strains—particularly if an animal is carrying a disease for which it shows no symptoms.
As we’re starting to see in human pathology, drug-resistant illnesses could have major consequences for the long-term health of a population—and it’s no different for our feathered or four-legged friends.
“Often,” Browning said, “illnesses are just not something we can fix.”
“I’m trying to better judge when I’m messing with Darwin,” Browning said, referring to one of the most difficult aspects of his work—the process of determining not only if he can rehabilitate an animal, but also, if he should.
Nature has its own regulatory system, its own set of checks and balances, and it doesn’t really need our help enforcing them. Sometimes, it’s best just not to interfere, no matter how sad the situation, or how badly we may want to fix it.
In fact, there are plenty of cases where we are the problem.
Browning has recently been doing some research that may help other rehabbers in the future and could, hopefully, increase public awareness of activities that pose dangerous threats to local animals.
Human interaction is generally the cause of most trauma cases—birds tangled in monofilament fishing line or struck by cars, turtles run over by boats or caught in old fishing nets, and the like.
However, human interference is manifesting itself more frequently and in increasingly surreptitious ways.
One disturbing trend Browning said he has noticed in recent cases is an increase in chemical poisoning—especially from common household poisons like rodenticides and pesticides.
Last month, Browning picked up a great horned owl that someone had found near Hertford, N.C. The owl was suffering miserably from some kind of sickness, and, unfortunately, he didn’t make it through the night.
The following day, a necropsy revealed that he had died from organ failure—particularly in his liver and kidneys—that had progressed slowly, spurred on by long-term exposure to chemicals found in common rodenticides.
“It’s a slow and painful death,” Browning said, very matter-of-factly, as be began to explain why cases like this should concern more than just the soft-hearted animal lovers among us.
“These chemicals are starting to show up in [vegetarian] animals like songbirds and deer,” Browning said. He explained that pesticides and rodenticides have become incredibly strong, and that, while the poisons do effectively kill the target animals, it usually takes about four or five days for them to do so.
Even if the rodents and insects don’t become prey for some other animal during that time, the toxins in their bodies will be released when their tissues begin to break down postmortem, contaminating the soil and the flora near the site of their death.
That may not mean much right now, but in the not-too-distant-future, such instances could create problems for more than just low-level prey and their predators.
And pesticides are not the only causes for concern.
Another problem that Browning has begun to notice—and one that he’s been researching recently—is microplastics.
“Most people, when you talk about plastics, think about the stuff that you can see,” he said. But there are lots of common household products—particularly exfoliating cleansers and other abrasive cleaning supplies—that contain tiny plastic beads.
Those microplastic beads are small enough to slip through filtering systems and go straight into the water, where they readily absorb the excess of chemical solvents that regularly get dumped into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
The problem, Browning says, is that microplastics are roughly the same size as plankton, a common food source for myriad animals at the bottom of the food chain—or, to put it another way, the food that our food eats.
“All these things are going to be coming to a head in the next two to three years,” Browning said, speculating that, without some changes, “there could be major food chain disruption.”
Browning said that these are issues that he would like to research more, and he hopes that people will become increasingly aware of these problems.
In the meantime, he’s focusing on his primary mission—rehabilitating and releasing wildlife. And though there’s plenty of disappointment and heartbreak in his line of work, Browning has more than enough heartwarming success stories to go around.
Recently, he worked on a project that not only had a happy ending for the animal involved, but also could have a major impact on thousands of other animals like it in the future.
Sometime last year, he found out about a female red-tailed hawk that had spent two years in a rehabilitation center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, recovering from severe foot and leg injuries.
The bird had made a near full recovery, but in the end, was still unable to use of one of its talons.
Current laws prevent the release of raptors that are not 100 per cent rehabilitated, which left just two options for the hawk — transfer or euthanization. A transfer, of course, would be the better of the options, but euthanization, unfortunately, would have been the more likely of the two.
But Browning thought that there might be something else he could do, since, in addition to being a licensed rehabber, he is also a passionate falconer.
Curious about the hawk, he called the regional offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if he could get permission to work with the bird, the idea being that, if it could prove that it was able to hunt successfully—despite a non-functional talon—then it could be released.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife allowed him to take the bird—and even extended his permit from the standard 180 days to a full year.
He spent the next four months training the hawk, whom he named Sunshine, to hunt on its own in the wild—a physically and mentally draining project that required more than 1,000 hours of intense work.
But it was worth it.
When winter rolled around, Browning took Sunshine hunting. And at the end of the hunt, with 36 confirmed kills under her belt, Sunshine had unequivocally proven that she was perfectly capable of surviving on her own—bum talon and all.
Soon after, Browning found a suitable place, and released her.
It was a proud moment for Browning, and now, he is writing the experience up as a case study and planning to submit it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
He is hopeful that it may serve as a way to change the release criteria for falcons and save the lives of the thousands of red-tailed hawks that are euthanized each year because they are deemed non-releasable.
“[Sunshine] proved that it’s possible to release them, less than perfect,” he said, “but you can’t just assume.”
There are some birds, of course, that simply can’t be released. Like the swallow-tailed kite.
But that doesn’t mean their stories can’t have happy endings, too.
In the weeks that Browning has had the kite, the bird has gained back more than 10 per cent of its body weight and kicked its parasitical “feather lice” to the curb. It is now eating about 10 per cent of his body weight each day in frozen mice.
Browning is hopeful that the bird will regain enough of its sight to eat, drink, and have some quality of life. When and if that happens, Browning said he will reach out to raptor centers throughout the region, hoping to place it somewhere as an education bird.
“Right now,” Browning said, observing the increasingly-restless kite, I’m just holding him here, giving him time, in essence, for a miracle.”
And really, there’s no better place he could be.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
For more information on Lou Browning and Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation, visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hatteras-Island-Wildlife-Rehabilitation/316636688958
Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation is an all-volunteer, 100 percent donation-funded, 501(c)3 non-profit organization. To make donations, contact Browning at 252-475-4217.