On a quiet Sunday morning, Toni Lance of the St. Croix Avian Sanctuary received an urgent phone call from Erin Procter at the Buccaneer Hotel alerting her to a pelican with a hook embedded in its body and fishing line wrapped around its legs, standing in the parking lot of the Mermaid Restaurant.
Lance said she would come immediately and asked Procter to make sure the bird didn’t wander off. By the time she arrived, there were more than a dozen people surrounding the brown pelican – Buccaneer staff, hotel guests and others.
“There was all this gear caught around his wing and legs and about 30 feet of line around his feet. There is no question in my mind, he was looking for help,” Lance said.
Some of the guests were Americorps volunteers for the National Park Service turtle watch program, including Abby Crowder, from Colorado. They stayed at the Buccaneer for five weeks and patrolled the Buccaneer beaches looking for turtle tracks and nests in exchange for food and lodging, Crowder said.
Lance speculated that the bird may have gotten tangled at the Lagoon and made its way swimming and walking to the Buccaneer. She said the bird was healthy, but may have been there a few days. Lance said if fishermen unwound fishing line rather than cutting it, it would be safer for birds.
The group helped Lance by holding the bird still and she was able to cut it free and gently put the pelican in her car.
When she got home, the bird was introduced to Lance’s ICU – her laundry room. He was given fluids and later a few fish, which she pushed down the bird’s throat. She called him “Buc” and gave him antibiotics and applied some cream on the swollen wound created by the embedded hook. There was also a large swelling and burn-like area under the wing, which she thinks was caused by the lure and sinker rubbing the area.
Lance continued to feed the pelican on Monday, but by Tuesday the bird was able to catch his own fish in a large bowl. The wounds still worried the bird rescuer, and she tried to get help from several veterinarians, but they said they didn’t have the time to look at Buc. Instead, she relied on her own experience, likely more comprehensive than anyone else’s on the island. Using burn cream, aloe and then arnica, she was able to get the pelican’s swelling down and the injury, likely a scab, went from purple to black. She also gave the bird Vitamin E up to the point of its release.
After a week, the area where the fish hook had been lodged was 90 percent healed and the burn-like injury became a scab about ready to fall off. Lance fed Buc all the fish he wanted during the week, and she said he was “hefty” on release day.
Many of the same people who helped with the rescue showed up for Buc’s release at Mermaid beach. They helped apply the last dose of Vitamin E oil and caressed the pelican’s very soft down. Lance said he was in his breeding plumage and that by saving him, two more pelicans might populate the earth each year.
As a sendoff, Lance shoved about 10 good-sized fish down Buc’s throat so he could start his journey with a full stomach. Crowder volunteered to carry the pelican to the water. He was as soft as a “stuffed animal,” she said.
“I was so excited. To come full circle from the rescuing to the releasing. I expected it would be an exciting moment, but he just slowly walked into the water,” she said.
The pelican swallowed his fish, took a couple of dips in the water and flew away majestically – “strong as ever” said Lance – while the group cheered and clapped in the background.
The St. Croix Avian Sanctuary is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that receives no government funding. Lance uses her own funds to operate but accepts donations sent to P.O. Box 755, Christiansted, VI 00821. Those wishing to donate can make checks payable to Toni Lance or St. Croix Avian Sanctuary.