by Bonnie Georgiadis
We were excited about getting 61 winged pelicans. They were to be displayed in a sanctuary along the Weeki Wachee River as an additional point of interest for patrons enjoying the Wilderness River Cruise at Weeki Wachee Springs. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary donated them to us because they were overcrowded with pelicans that could never be released back into the wild. A great deal of care was taken to select the right location for The Pelican Sanctuary. The existing steep slope was terraced, complete with gently sloping sand, ramps and tropical landscaping. An enormous shallow pool was constructed for swimming and a fence was added all the way around. A walk-in freezer and a tub for thawing fish was put in behind the scenes. It was quite a big deal to prepare for them.
Then came the grand opening. Ralph Heath, the ubiquitous founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, brought most of his staff and several trucks full of animal flight crates, loaded with one-winged pelican amputees. The seabirds were injured as a result of fishing line accidents, when fishermen would cut their line if it became fouled in the branches of mangrove islands. The line would wrap around a bird’s wing (not only pelicans). Unable to fly, they would hang there until either someone found them or they starved to death. So these birds arriving at Weeki Wachee were the lucky ones. They all marched, or I should say waddled, single file down to their swimming pool. About half of them kept right on going past the pool and waddled up to the fence along the river, climbed up the chicken wire which was attached to the split rail fencing and jumped into the river. The current in the river is pretty strong. The pelicans paddled as fast as they could with their webbed feet but couldn’t make any headway against it.
We all dashed for our cars, rushed back to the attraction (about a mile away) to get the work boat and some long handled catch nets. Meanwhile the maintenance men added another rail to the fence to make it taller. What a day that was. Scoop up a pelican, rush back to the pen, put birds into the pen and hurry back to get another one.
The office was getting phone calls from residents eight miles down-river about pelicans floating by. At the end of the ordeal we took a beak count and there were still 61 of them. Whew.
A few months passed and the Bird Department was becoming accustomed to the routine of going down to the pen every afternoon, thawing 80 pounds of thread herring and hand-tossing them to the pelicans. We hand-fed them so we could study their physical condition. They were fed 80 pounds during the summer months, and double that amount in the winter. They were hungrier when it was cold. The type of fish we fed them would change with the seasons, based on whatever smallish fish was available in the marketplace.
Our troubles began on a freezing January night. The natural predators of pelicans (raccoons, opossums, et al), saw their appetites also increase with the cooler weather, and our birds were easy prey. They couldn’t fly or get up high as a normal pelican would. They were nesting on the ground and couldn’t defend themselves. The captain of the first Wilderness River Cruise of the day, called me and reported that he saw a dead pelican in the pen. I found the bird partially eaten. Three days later another one was killed the same way. We had an electric hot wire installed around the fence but the raccoon or opossum, whichever it was, would dig under the exclosure.
At the time, we were practicing wild bird rehabilitation for birds of prey at the attraction. When we received any water birds, a local farmer was brought in to shuttle them down river to the Seabird Sanctuary. On one of my visits to his farm, I drove into the farmyard and was horrified to see dead birds and pieces of dead birds scattered about the yard. The farmer told me that they usually had two large dogs on guard, but a week earlier one of the dogs had disappeared. Last night, the remaining dog, still despondent over the loss of his friend, and shaking from the bitter cold outside, was allowed to come inside for comfort. The predator or predators struck. There were chickens and ducks, geese, a peacock and a turkey. All torn apart. It’s not Disney World out here. Some critters just kill for fun.
As I drove away I kept thinking, everything was all right until the dogs were gone. A dog! That’s what we needed at the pelican pen. I was lucky there was already an existing ten foot high chain link fence encircling the outer perimeter of the smaller fenced pelican area.
And I had the dog. Gretchen, a Doberman Pinscher, was a trained guard dog. Except the night watchman said she was afraid of noises and when he gave the command, “Go search” she wouldn’t leave his side. But that didn’t matter. It’s the scent of a dog that would keep the predators away.
It worked. All was quiet for many months until Gretchen dug in under The Sanctuary fence and chased the pelicans. She didn’t harm any of them. They injured themselves trying to get away from her. One drowned in the pool during the stampede. If Gretchen got in once, she’d do it again. It was too enticing. I had to find her another home and get a new dog.
Fortunately, one of the girls in the Bird Department, Dana Proger, was looking for a home for Cleo, a Pit Bull mix. I’d heard about the reputation of Pit Bulls, but this dog always looked like she was smiling, and I needed a dog bad. I decided to give her a trial run. Lucky dog, lucky me, lucky pelicans. Cleo had found her calling.
The boat captains would notify me when Cleo was barking. She only barked when she had a reason. She would bark at anything that wasn’t a pelican. She barked at vultures if they perched too close to the pen. She barked if a great blue heron sat on a fence post. One time she barked so frantically I was called to go find out what was wrong. She met me at the gate and insisted I follow her. She went down to the outskirts of the pen, then ran back to me, back and forth. I followed her to the area and there was a pelican wedged with one wing under the fence, the other stub of a wing jammed under an exposed root. I never would have found her there. Cleo was licking that stub of a wing…that’s all she could reach. When I got the bird loose, Cleo walked along with me, licking the pelican’s feet as I carried the bird back to the entrance of the pen.
Another time a gentleman walked up to me at The Birds Of Prey Show Stadium and said, “I just got off the boat ride. Is there supposed to be a dog in the pelican pen?” I said, “Inside the pelican pen?”
When I got there, all appeared to be normal. The birds were waddling around in the pen and swimming in their pool. There was no sign of panic as there had been when Gretchen got in. They were not upset at all. And there was Cleo, laying down with her front paws crossed just inside the pen’s gate, gazing at her adored pelicans. I repaired the place where she had squeezed inside and she never tried to get in again.
There were no predator problems as long as we had Cleo present, but we did have a snake problem. One was eating pelican eggs. I tried setting a trap that was small enough for a snake to enter but it couldn’t exit if it had swallowed an egg. Then put a couple of chicken eggs inside. Never caught the snake. Then I found out why. The snake was too big to enter the trap.
Again, one of the boat captains alerted me that Cleo was barking. She greeted me at the gate and was more excited than usual. I noticed she had some blood on her sides and on her face. She circled toward a big clump of grass and back to me so I followed her. As I neared the tall grass I saw the head of a large snake rise above the grass to look around, then disappear back down. I examined Cleo’s face and saw two fang marks. I immediately put her in my truck and drove her back to the attraction office.
When I called the veterinarian he said to observe her for awhile and see if there was any reaction to the venom. Luckily she showed no signs of anything wrong, so I left her there and went back to the pen to see about the snake. By this time the snake was dead. It was a very large cotton mouthed moccasin. It’s midsection was perforated by Cleo’s teeth. The dog had whipped her head back and forth so violently that the snake’s innards were protruding from its mouth. That’s why Cleo had blood on her flanks.It was the snake’s blood.
That afternoon I skinned the snake to keep proof of how big it was. And proof of what a wonderful dog Cleo was. Don’t ever say anything derogatory to me about Pit Bulls. Cleo loved people, and would do anything to protect her pelicans. She was one treasure of a dog.