A couple of months ago, I had an incredible opportunity to tag along with our Associate Veterinarian, Dr. Goodnight and my boss, Nancy Filippi on a trip to Ventana Wildlife Society in Big Sur, CA. The trip began very early in the morning with a wake up time of 5:00am. I picked up Dr. Goodnight in Pleasanton and we carpooled down to Big Sur. Nancy traveled down to Carmel the night before and met us at Ventana at 10am. If you haven’t made the trip to this gorgeous coastal area, I highly suggest it. I had driven through the town once prior and was instantly reminded that I need to bring my husband back. The views of the ocean are breathtaking. It reminds me how lucky I am to be a Californian and that I have the opportunity to travel to these areas during a day trip.
Not only were the views a bonus of this work trip, we also had the pleasure of meeting Kelly Sorenson. We spent a great deal of time with Kelly traveling up into the mountains of Big Sur. Luckily, he had a 4×4 truck that was able to take on the steep terrain and dips in the dirt road. The road was definitely rough and one less traveled. Through the twists and turns, it took us probably 2.5 hours to drive up the mountain to the California Condor research camp. No one got car sick; however, I was a little queasy and requested the front seat for the trip down the mountain.
Once we reached the research area, Kelly hiked us down a very steep mountainside to an area where they feed carcasses to condors, monitor the giant birds, and test them for lead poisoning. The hike down was extremely scary. I have weak ankles and kept thinking that my life could flash before me at any moment should one of them give out. I pictured myself rolling down the mountain and being stuck without a way out. A helicopter rescue would be dangerous in such conditions. As those thoughts flashed before me, I kept reminding myself to stay focused on the task at hand…getting to the research area. Once we made it to “the spot,” you instantly knew you were there, not by the obvious structure, but by the stench. California Condors feed on dead carcasses and the smell is so strong. It was one of those moments I wished I had the handkerchief my Dad always has in his back pocket. That would have come in handy during this smelly situation. But, I was in the company of Kelly, the Executive Director of Ventana Wildlife Society, a researcher, two interns, a veterinarian, a FedEx Public Relations Executive, and my boss. I had to buck up and quote unquote “deal with it.”
The purpose of the trip was to acquire footage of the California condors, the research being done, and to also to interview Kelly Sorenson of Ventana Wildlife Society about a project he has invested decades of his career into saving. The Ventana Wildlife Society’s goal is to save the California Condor from extinction. In 1987, there were only twenty-seven birds left in the wild. They were on the verge of becoming extinct due to hunting, poisoning, habitat loss, and electrical power lines. However, with the help of the Ventana Wildlife Society, the LA Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, the wild population today is around 200 birds. A captive breeding effort and rehabilitation program has helped bring the numbers up and has provided researchers with more knowledge on how to save the species. One of the main threats right now, is lead poisoning. Lead poisoning sounds crazy, but these birds are scavengers and they feed on dead carcasses. Some of the dead carcasses have lead fragments in them, remnants from a hunter that may not be aware of how his ammunition is impacting a bird that has found a free meal.
In late October, Oakland Zoo joined the LA Zoo in helping to rehabilitate condors with lead poisoning. Once a bird has tested positive, it is identified in the field and will be transported to the Oakland Zoo for treatment. Dr. Goodnight and the Zoo’s Veterinary Medical Staff will put their expertise to work and will take aim at rehabilitating the bird back to health, so it can then be released back into the wild.
The prehistoric looking bird has a wing span of six feet long. Their beauty isn’t in seeing them up-close; instead, it is the majesty of their flight that can take your breath away. They are able to glide over mountain tops and are just incredible to watch. While at the research camp, there were two condors that were flying above us with the blue skyline as a backdrop. I had to pinch myself a few times to be reminded that what I was watching was real. As my boss was filming the footage around us, my eyes were taking in the scenery, making memory notes that I was sure I could never forget.
I can still see the Executive Director of Ventana Wildlife Society in my mind as he sat on a huge rock with the Pacific Ocean behind him and mountain tops around him. Nancy and I did a thirty minute interview with Kelly where I asked him in-depth questions about the plight of the California Condor and the efforts to save this bird. The interview was used for a video Nancy and I recently completed. The goal of the video is to make more people aware about a bird that may not be as beautiful as a bald eagle, but it’s definitely an animal worth saving. Oakland Zoo Links up with California Condor Recovery Program