March 2006, Carriacou, Grenadines archipelago, in the southern West Indies: KIDO team was showing a slide presentation to a primary school classroom, to highlight the desperate plight of sea turtles, relentlessly hunted and killed in cruel ways by humans, directly and indirectly all over our planet.
The children remained silent; they were fascinated by the images and stories about these magnificent animals. As we were about to leave the school, Donell, a 10-year-old boy, rushed to our vintage Land Rover emphatically alerting us that a huge black turtle had been dragged on a nearby beach to be slaughtered! We wasted no time and drove away with Donell to guide us to the site. Indeed, he brought us to a massive creature, turned upside down, helpless and suffering!
A Leatherback, the most endangered of sea turtle species and a female !!!
With the help of local volunteers we set forth to return this amazing animal to the sea, where she belonged. Of course, we first had to make a deal with the fishers who had unintentionally, they so claimed, caught the turtle in their fish net.
After wetting the turtle with buckets of sea water to prevent the dehydration of her skin, we dug a hole in the ground alongside her to facilitate the ‘turning over’ of her estimated 1000 lbs of body weight. This took seven persons to accomplish, including Donell, our truly courageous rescuer boy!
We also swiftly tagged her back flippers (an operation similar to human ear piercing) with numbered tags provided by UWI Biology Department, Barbados, West Indies and helped the behemoth turtle to reach the sea. After two hours of pushing and coaching, she reached the shallows of the southern lagoon and took off swimming slowly, albeit confused, into deeper water across the reef bar.
Finally she was free! But the eventful story of Donnella, the leatherback named after her rescuer, did not end here.
Two months later, KIDO Nesting Sea Turtle Team on night patrol met Donella nesting on a lone sandy beach in the North end of Carriacou. She still bore the scars of the ropes, used by fishers to forcibly drag her on land for hundreds of feet in March.
And she returned to nest on that same beach at night in 2008 and 2010. Her return every two years, was the happiest of omens for our team working with endangered species to ensure the future of sea turtles!
Peli, the one-footed Pelican
Years ago we received a message from Dean, a naturalist living in St. Lucia: a young female brown pelican had been rescued from stoning by a group of delinquents, who did not know nor cared what a pelican was!
Historically, the brown pelican colonies in St.Lucia had been exterminated decades earlier following the massive use of DDT pesticide sprayed on banana crops along the coast. Rains washed the poisonous chemical into the sea contaminating the coastal fish and the resident pelicans, whose diet is based on such small fish, were severely affected. They began to lay eggs that never got hard, the hardening process was chemically impaired… the pelicans were doomed. So Peli, so named by her rescuers, was likely a transient bird who landed to rest but was unfortunately spotted and pelted with rocks.
A nature park ranger rescued the large bird, but her palmed foot was so badly crushed that the vet decided to amputate. Peli had lost her foot, but not her strong will to adapt and survive and she recovered under the loving care of Dean, who fed her fresh fish and even took her to the beach daily (in his car) for a swim and a stroll on the beach.
Time came when Peli was ready for release in the wild, hopefully to join a colony of fellow brown pelicans: but where? Not in St Lucia with no pelicans in sight!
Dean found out that small colonies of resident pelicans still existed in Carriacou and that KIDO was the name for wildlife rescues, rehab & release.
Legal ‘immigration’ papers for Peli were prepared and the bird was flown with a private two-seat plane from St. Lucia to Carriacou. Her release into the flock of wild pelicans in the bay of Anse La Roche beach, near Kido Eco station, was surprisingly smooth and fast. Peli observed attentively from the beach the pelicans on nearby rocks, then tested the bay water and flew back twice, landing close as if to say goodbye to Dean and KIDO team. Then up she went, wings spread out, missing foot and all, catching a thermal lift with her new avian family who joined her in near magical gliding spirals.
We spotted Peli several times again, for years, circling and dropping down in sharp dives for small fish in the clear waters of Kido bay, her stump hanging down slightly was an easy sign to recognize, while she enjoyed her happy life under the Caribbean sky.
It was a calm windless afternoon when we received a wildlife emergency call from an island resident: in a small bay a mile south of KIDO bay, a dolphin in distress had been spotted!
Equipment ready, we jumped into our inflatable tender and in minutes we motored to the bay of Craigston. There he was, not exactly a dolphin, but a melon-headed whale, an adult 8-9 feet long, a species that often travels with large pods of dolphins. The distress was real!
The whale was frantically circling in shallow waters and suddenly diving fast hitting his nose on the hard sand bottom at full speed. His whole body, some 200 kilos of weight, would be shaken in the impact! This cetacean had possibly lost contact with his pod, maybe while chasing mackerel inshore and got trapped in shallow waters, his eco-location system sending feedback signals of close obstacles all around.
That bay is indeed surrounded by near offshore islets, cays and shallow reefs and it is known that melon headed whales do not take shallow water lightly: they tend to panic! This one surely was increasingly panicked and we were in the water observing his erratic behavior to work out a helping strategy.
We dove and swam along in turns to first show the cetacean that we were not a threat.
Then, KIDO volunteer Adam, 16 and a fast swimmer, was the first to manage to gently stroke the animal, who circled back for a repeat, then slowed his pace and eventually came to a stop… in the arms of our elated volunteer! Surely this was a once in a lifetime event with such a wild creature!
We were thus able to examine him while caressing his entirely smooth body. He had no wounds, but our attentions seemed to reassure him even further: the 200-kilo whale was now following us!
Evening approaches fast in the tropics and we had been for several hours in the water already; we were facing the challenge of how to push the whale back to the open sea, at least one mile out where the sun sphere was about to sink, west. We gently directed him alongside our rubber dinghy and, while Dario was motoring very slowly, Adam, leaning over the side, embraced the whale’s head and I held the tail off the swirling metal blade of the propeller.
The one mile journey back to KIDO bay lasted an amazing hour in which the animal indicated to Adam when he wanted to lift his head up to the surface and take a whale breath: total collaboration!
By moonless darkness we had reached KIDO, which is a small open bay, no natural obstructions all the way to the end of the continental shelf of the Grenadines and deeper waters. Our new whale friend very calmly inspected the coastal borders of the bay causing utmost havoc in the resident fish population, fish were jumping out of the water wherever the whale went!
We knew we had to get this whale back out to the deeper sea, to reach his lost pod…these whale do not survive alone, so Dario and Adam lowered two kayaks from our sailing catamaran moored in the bay and began to paddle in the dark, each kayak at the side of the whale, stroking his back and dorsal fin and encouraging him to follow them towards the deep…
This whale did just that, for almost a mile into the night away from land, spraying now and then fish smelly blows from his nose. When the light coastal waves morphed to a long heavier swell the whale slipped forward into the ocean.
Later that night we learned that melon-headed whales have a reputation to be neither friendly nor cooperative when humans try to train them and that they can respond aggressively. Because of their ‘character’, they are not targeted (good for them) and trapped to be enslaved in aquariums for water circus performances.
Well, our melon-headed whale seemed to understand very well that we were trying to rescue him and showed proof of the most intelligent cooperation and trust during the entire operation. Interspecies communication at work!
Porthos, the Barn Owl
Porthos was one of our first successfully rescued & rehabbed barn owls.
The mother of three featherless baby owls was accidentally killed while humans were trying to remove the barn owl family from under the roof of an old house to be restored in Grenada. The Grenada SPCA asked us if KIDO (based 30 miles north across the sea) could take care of the three orphaned owlets.
The three weightless owlets came via ferry boat in a cardboard box with holes and LIVE BIRDS THIS SIDE UP written across in red.
Porthos was tiny as his two brothers, but a little stronger. His siblings, barely hatched, did not make it much longer and, from the moment they died, Porthos plunged in a depression so deep that he refused to eat. It seemed that he wanted do die. We had to force feed him, open his sharp beak and place down his throat lizards & mice for one month, all the while he grieved for his losses.
Then one day he woke up from his stupor and wanted to live again! He hopped about the large cage and his appetite increased. He would instantly grab meat shreds with his sharp talons, dragging them away to a safe spot to consume his meal voraciously. Independence was calling.
Within a few weeks this little owl became so familiar with us and with our other animals around us that he would land on our head or on a dog’s back. He was also extremely curious and aware when a newly rescued creature joined our KIDO Animal Sanctuary. During daytime Porthos chose to live perched on a pipe in our door-less shower, and using the bathroom sometimes required negotiating. Nighttime no trouble, the owl-in residence was out, active on the prowl.
We had also been concerned about human imprinting and his possible difficulties to relate to other owls, but our doubts disappeared when we were called to rescue another baby owl: it took Porthos three days to realize that the owlet was in dire need of food, then he started hunting for him! In the middle of the night, awakened by his powerful screech, we would get up, open the door of the baby owl enclosure and wait until Porthos would fly from the forest through the arched window of our house into the enclosure and feed the baby with a freshly caught small lizard or mouse! This, of course, four or five times every night for a few weeks.
Porthos thus raised several of our rescued owlets. Then one day, after launching so many mating calls chirping throughout the valley, she answered his call and he finally found the love of his life and started to build his own family. Porthos and his wife were prolific, every 6 months their den (a small plywood box tucked safely under the eaves of our dome home roof) was occupied by 3 or 4 owlets and the air in the night was filled by their voices. A concert of screeches, happy chirping, playful cat-calls (yes!) and often just plain complaining about neighbor owls!
We learned the blood curdling screech alerting that the tree boa constrictor is approaching; also, when the stealth opossum, or nocturnal monkey-fox, climbs the near reaching branches of a coconut palm, another terrifying owl shriek brings us all to attention!
Porthos maintained his relationship with humans while raising his avian family. After performing his duties as a father, he would often stand on the windowsill waiting to chat with me and receive some gentle scratching around his beautiful heart-shaped face and behind his owl ears. When family life was too much, he would resume his perch on the shower pipe in the bathroom for a day or two, we understood.
Today his sons and daughters continue to be around, feeding on mice and small lizards. One single owl may catch 1500 mice per year and a family of owls more than 5000 mice per year, keeping houses and barns free from destructive invasions and ensuring natural population control.
We are forever grateful to Porthos, the Owl who allowed us to enter his extraordinary world and comprehend his message: we, though of different species, are in this world all together and need to help one another. It works.
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