SeaWorld San Diego Responds to California Brown Pelican Crisis as Mysterious Illness Causes Hundreds of Juvenile Birds to Strand, Requiring Rescue and Critical Care

Published: Jun. 13, 2022 at 10:42 AM EDT
  • Mysterious illness creates a state of crisis for California brown pelicans as hundreds of sick, malnourished and injured juvenile birds need rescue and urgent care
  • SeaWorld provides critical care to 30 California brown pelicans that join the more than 300 other seabirds helped this year alone
  • SeaWorld operates the only seabird rescue facility from Tijuana to Camp Pendleton, working in partnership with the large community of local rescue organizations
  • Since 1980, SeaWorld has rescued injured and sick seabirds and is the largest facility for seabird care in San Diego County with experience caring for 80 different species
  • SeaWorld veterinarians and seabird specialists join California Department of Fish and Wildlife Incident Command for Emergency Response

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SAN DIEGO, June 13, 2022 /PRNewswire/ -- SeaWorld San Diego is providing critical care to 30 California brown pelicans as a mysterious illness has caused hundreds of juvenile birds to strand up and down the California coast since May 12. The pelicans under care at SeaWorld join hundreds of others admitted to other wildlife rehabilitation facilities after being found emaciated and often with secondary injuries, such as pouch lacerations, monofilament line entanglement or fractured limbs. In partnership with other wildlife organizations and agencies, SeaWorld is providing critical care support and diagnostic investigation to help identify the unknown illness that threatens this formerly endangered species. SeaWorld San Diego has provided specialized rescue, critical care, and return of rehabilitated wild seabirds on the West Coast since 1980 and is the largest facility for seabird care in San Diego County.  SeaWorld has rescued more than 1,000 California brown pelicans since 2010.

SeaWorld San Diego responds to California brown pelican crisis as mysterious illness causes...
SeaWorld San Diego responds to California brown pelican crisis as mysterious illness causes hundreds of juvenile birds to strand, requiring rescue and critical care.

Kim Peterson is the Supervisor of SeaWorld San Diego's bird rescue operation and has been caring for dozens of different seabird species at the facility for more than 23 years. Of the current brown pelican crisis she said, "Species preservation does not end with removal from the endangered list. We give special attention to species that have recovered and rebounded from endangered status to ensure overall species health and genetic diversity is maintained. Given the tumultuous history of the California brown pelican, each rescue, rehabilitation and return must be viewed as a critical component to the preservation of this precious species."

SeaWorld Provides the Highest Standards of Critical Care at the Only Seabird Rescue Facility from Tijuana to Camp Pendleton

Roughly one month since the crisis began, SeaWorld has provided care to more than 30 pelicans in-need because of this crisis at its San Diego rescue facility. SeaWorld has rescued more than 1,000 California brown pelicans since 2010.

The current influx of pelicans in need of rescue are being found at unusual, inland locations including paintball parks, schools and backyards. Most rescues have been younger birds with ages ranging from just a few months to two years old. The seabirds are found malnourished, dehydrated and typically 40-50 percent underweight. Once they arrive at the SeaWorld rehabilitation facility, SeaWorld veterinarians provide thorough exams and animal care experts administer treatment with vitamins, hydration, and nutritional support, with fish-based formula.

Leveraging decades of experience, SeaWorld San Diego pioneered highly customizable feeding formulas for sick birds and developed specialized feeding tubes for birds in need of acute care.  They also created a balanced fish smoothie that supplies nutrients and builds the strength needed for the birds to begin their road to recovery.

Some of emaciated pelicans are also arriving with secondary injuries, including entanglement in fishhooks and fishing line. The SeaWorld veterinary team removes imbedded monofilament line or hooks and treats the wounds of individual birds with antibiotics and anti-fungal medication to improve recovery from traumatic injury and disease. Surgical procedures are performed in response to more severe injuries, such as pouch lacerations or fractured bones. These surgeries are only performed when the birds are stable and have acquired the necessary strength to recover from these surgeries.

SeaWorld San Diego is the only seabird rescue facility along the coastline of Tijuana to Camp Pendleton with the facility and expertise to care for bird species that spend their lives on or near the ocean. SeaWorld San Diego has been caring for seabirds since 1980.

SeaWorld San Diego is also a member of the California Oiled Wildlife Network (OWCN), which is comprised of over 40 agencies and organizations throughout California that respond to animals impacted by oil spills in the ocean and bays. SeaWorld animal care specialists have received OWCN certification and are trained annually to care for oiled wildlife. The SeaWorld San Diego Oiled Wildlife Care Center (OWCC) was built specifically to care for animals that fall victim to oil spills. The 8,000-square-foot facility can treat as many as 200 oiled seabirds at a time and is equipped with examination, treatment and food preparation areas, flight pens and a 32,000-gallon rehabilitation pool. The OWCC has helped more than oiled animals from all over the world. When the OWCC is not being used for oil spill rescue, it houses marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds for rehabilitation.

Caring for seabirds requires specialized skills such as taking care of the feathers and fragile limbs of birds that never come to land except to nest. One of the largest of its kind on the West Coast, the SeaWorld seabird rescue and rehabilitation facility includes eight outdoor and three indoor natural seawater pools along with a modular interior that can be configured to meet the size requirements of the nearly 80 different species of seabirds with warm or chilled salt/freshwater, from a few ounces to 10 pounds and more.

SeaWorld San Diego works in partnership with local organizations including The San Diego Humane Society's Project Wildlife to ensure the rescue, rehabilitation and return of seabirds in California.

"With SeaWorld's partnership, we are able to provide our rescued seabirds and shorebirds a safe place to go for critical care and rehabilitation," said Dr. Jon Enyart, Senior Director of Project Wildlife at San Diego Humane Society. "Especially during times of crises, SeaWorld's facilities and expert care teams play an integral role in our collaborative response to ensure species survival."

40 Years of SeaWorld Experience in the Care and Study of Seabirds Helps in the Race to Find a Cure as the Team Joins the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Incident Command for Emergency Response   

The California brown pelican was classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1970 with populations recovering and the species was removed from the endangered species list in 2009. Significant food shortages continued to threaten the species in 2010 and 2012.

The cause of the 2022 illness and mortality remains a mystery. SeaWorld's team of veterinarians and scientists are running tests and examining bloodwork of the rescued pelicans to help investigate the source of the crisis. Once data is collated by the rehabilitation center network, more concerted therapeutic/interventional measures can be implemented to combat the crisis. To date, test results from SeaWorld and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) indicate starvation-related problems. Wildlife scientists continue to investigate potential underlying causes of this starvation as there is no apparent shortage in food supply or changes in water temperature that would conflict with species' eating habits.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife established an Incident Command in response to the ongoing crisis. The group consists of biologists, pathologists, and researchers from seabird rehabilitation centers spanning from San Diego to Monterey. The team includes SeaWorld veterinarians and scientists.

"We are grateful to all members of Incident Command, including wildlife rehabilitators, for coming together in this critical time," said Laird Henkel, supervisor of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care & Research Center. "The collective expertise and knowledge shared through this group is key to pelican rescue and rehabilitation as we work to understand the root causes of this mortality challenge"

So far in 2022, SeaWorld San Diego has rescued and rehabilitated nearly 300 seabirds across dozens of species. It has experience in caring for 80 different species of seabirds.

Ongoing Commitment to Conservation

In 2017, the SeaWorld Conservation Fund (SWCF) provided emergency funding to the Panamerican Conservation Association (APPC), Panama's leading wildlife rescue and conservation NGO, for the treatment of sick and injured pelicans. The grant request was in response to an unexpected increase in the number of pelicans rescued to expand pelican and seabird rescue and rehabilitation efforts and train staff to better assess the crisis and develop animal care protocols. The funding was also used to investigate potential solutions to the mortality crisis and provide better veterinarian treatment that would ensure the rescued pelicans could be released back into their natural habitat.

About SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment 

SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: SEAS) is a leading theme park and entertainment company providing experiences that matter, and inspiring guests to protect animals and the wild wonders of our world. The Company is one of the world's foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal welfare, training, husbandry, and veterinary care. The Company collectively cares for what it believes is one of the largest zoological collections in the world and has helped lead advances in the care of animals. The Company also rescues and rehabilitates marine and terrestrial animals that are ill, injured, orphaned, or abandoned, with the goal of returning them to the wild. The SeaWorld® rescue team has helped more than 40,000 animals in need over the Company's history.  SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. owns or licenses a portfolio of recognized brands including SeaWorld®, Busch Gardens®, Aquatica®, Sesame Place® and Sea Rescue®. Over its more than 60-year history, the Company has built a diversified portfolio of 12 destination and regional theme parks that are grouped in key markets across the United States, many of which showcase its one-of-a-kind zoological collection. The Company's theme parks feature a diverse array of rides, shows and other attractions with broad demographic appeal which deliver memorable experiences and a strong value proposition for its guests.

Media Contacts: 
Mediarelations@seaworld.com

Tracy Spahr, SeaWorld San Diego
Tracy.Spahr@seaworld.com
619-203-6468

SeaWorld
SeaWorld(PRNewswire)

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