Cody was a Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres), captive bred at the Pretoria Zoo who came to VulPro at about 2 weeks old to be a vulture ambassador. No one knew then how impactful this single vulture would become for a species.
Vultures in Africa are declining at a devastating rate – we have to save the species. Without them we face disease epidemics, vermin population explosions and loss of livestock and wildlife. Vultures are not generally liked by “Joe Public”, mistakenly seen as dirty and vicious. Vultures needed a saviour, a vulture so special and so unique that you couldn’t help but fall in love with him. A vulture who would make people fall for him, so that they learnt to appreciate and empathise with the species.
Meet Cody – he became the face of Mazda, the iconic vulture featured in their moving and impactful television and print media adverts. This little vulture put vultures in almost every house in South Africa, in a way that made us proud to be South African and willing to look after our heritage. Coupled with glorious African sunsets and landscapes he epitomised all that we love and are proud to call South African.
Normally vultures are quite playful and as they reach sexual maturity can become a bit grumpy about being worked with, so are not best suited to being education birds. Prone to bite when startled or threatened, they can be their own PR enemy number; one add to that their piercing gaze and they are quite intimidating.
Cody was the most unique vulture, gentle to his very core. In his two years as a vulture ambassador he never bit a person or reacted negatively to one. He seemed to understand his purpose in life and maintained the gentlest and calmest persona. A vulture’s gaze is usually highly intelligent and quite piercing; it can be quite intimidating as you feel that they look right into your soul. Cody’s gaze carried the intelligence of his species but held a highly unusual softness that drew one in. We can honestly say that he was an old soul with the knowledge and confidence gleaned through the ages; he had the inexplicable charisma that drew whoever met him into wanting to be closer to him and even better he allowed and thrived on the interaction. He genuinely loved to be around people, as seen in the photo above could be almost human like in his interaction with them. Whilst we don’t condone the anthropomorphism of animals, it was very difficult to not think in those terms when you were around Cody.
As is so often the case, the best of us often die far too soon. Sadly he died of unknown causes when he was two years old, his post mortem was inconclusive making his death even harder to accept.
To this day there has never been another vulture with his same gentleness of spirit and age old peace – staff at VulPro still become emotional when the talk about him a true legend and a well-deserved member of the VulPro Vulture Heroes.
Cody’s legacy lives on,
“If you can’t make people love a species, get them to love one special character, because one vulture did make a difference!”
Vultures are big heavy birds that can look quite comical with their funny hopping walk on the ground. Watch them in the air and it is a completely different picture, graceful, powerful and free they can soar and glide for hours as they ride the thermals searching for food. Vultures are specially built to soar beautifully, their wings are huge and they have short tails.
The Cape Vulture nests on rocky ledges and cliff faces in a nest made of grass and sticks. Vulture chicks are often seen practicing flapping their wings while they are on their nest ledges, sometimes flapping so hard that they lift off the ledge a little bit. When the wind picks up they open their wings to feel the wind through them – this may be a way of learning how to feel and use the wind when they do fly.
Watching vultures coming in to land at VulPro’s restaurant, you start to appreciate what skilled flyers they are. Watching their wing feathers flare on one side while the curve the wing more on the other to change direction, slowing right down to check their specific landing spot or changing their minds and soaring off again.
Dating on the Fly
A vulture’s version of dating is soaring around each other in the sky, with the male behaving like a fighter pilot, showing off his skills by almost touching the female’s wing tip as he flies. Vultures are very sociable in their colonies, but when it comes to pairing up and breeding, they mate for life.
Vulture chicks fledge, or take their first flight, at around 140 days after hatching. They are the same size as their parents but not quite as heavy and they have their full feathers just their colouring is different showing their youth.
Nature vs Nurture
Birds are born with the instinct to fly; they do still have to learn the mechanics of it though, a little like our parents helping us learn to walk.
It is thought that the vulture chicks build their bravery, strength and muscle development with their wing flapping on the ledge to be able to take the first leap. Relatively speaking, it appears that the leap and subsequent gliding is easy for them, the difficulty and challenge occurs when they need to get back onto the cliff. This takes more, skill maneuverability and stamina, and is often the reason that we find so many grounded young fledglings, a bit like us learning to drive, they have the forwards part down pat, but the parking skills are sadly lacking.
There are also reports of parents who” kick” the fledgling out of the nest; this may involve stopping feeding the chick or not allowing the chick to roost on their ledge as well as the literal kick out the nest. This is nature’s way of making sure that the parents are able to hatch their next egg and raise the next chick. Only with practice do they learn the ropes and develop the muscles necessary to flap their wings to their fullest potential.
Sizzle (Tag B432) a Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) was rescued on the 10th of November 2010 in the Damdoryn area of Brits in the North West Province, South Africa. Sizzle had decided to go through a property’s electric fence and in trying to get through had burnt his neck severely. Ordinarily an electric fence has up to 6000 volts running through it; this is what is legally acceptable in South Africa. Kerri has rescued many vultures stuck in electric fences and never before or since seen the kind of burns that Sizzle experienced – leading her to believe that the voltage on that particular fence was much higher.
On initial inspection, Sizzle had a few singed neck feathers as would normally be expected from an experience like this. Then he started to breathe strangely, making a horrible gargling sound in his throat, not understanding what was causing the problem, he was rushed through to the Exotic Animal Clinic at Onderstepoort.
Sizzle was anaesthetised and the vet checked inside his mouth, normally an endoscope would be used to examine all the tissue in Sizzle’s throat, in this case, his throat was so swollen that the vet couldn’t get the endoscope down his throat. Using long thin forceps, the vet was able to ascertain that there was necrotic burnt tissue inside Sizzle’s throat, blocking his trachea (air passage). Not only was this excruciatingly painful, threatened Sizzle’s ability to breathe, the risk of infection from dead and dying tissue all of which would have killed Sizzle without veterinary intervention.
Poor Sizzle had to be anaesthetised and treated every third day for the next few weeks – this meant that the vet had to scrape and remove all of the dead tissue in Sizzle’s trachea and oesophagus. After that he was treated once a week until he had healthy tissue left in his trachea and oesophagus.
He was kept with Puff Adder (Read Puff Adder’s Story) for few weeks to make sure that he was strong enough to survive after being released and could eat and breathe with no issues.
South Africa is a country with a high crime rate and electric fences are the go to first line of defence against intruders. What we often forget about are the wildlife who have to move in and out of our gardens in order to survive. Snakes, mice, chameleons, hedgehogs, large insects and birds are all at risk of electrocution if the fence is not legally compliant. Pets are also at risk should a dog get stuck under an electric fence that isn’t legally compliant.
Whilst we all need to remain safe and secure in our houses, please remember that we need to keep our wildlife safe as well. Sizzle is the perfect ambassador for the implications of illegally designed security measures. He was released with Puff Adder on the 19th of December 2010.
Familiarise yourself with what to do should a person or animal be stuck in your fence:
- Turn the fence off or move the animal away from the fence using a dry, non-conducting object made of cardboard, rubber or wood.
- Know how to perform CPR on animals, especially if you really love your dogs and cats
- Keep the animal warm as shock can cause a significant drop in body temperature.
- If clean gauze or a sterile dressing is available then cover any external burns. Do not use cotton wool or material with fibres as they will stick in the wounds.
- Get the animal to a vet immediately, many electrical burns are worse on the inside than you would expect from the external signs on their body.
- Make sure that your electric fence is legally compliant with current legislation
Puff Adder a Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) as he became affectionately known arrived at VulPro on the 5th of November 2010. He was a grounded fledgling that had got himself into trouble due to bad weather. This happens so often with young fledgling vultures, gardens, swimming pools, dogs and electric fences can all cause huge problems for young, inexperienced vultures. They end up on the ground without enough space or possibly strength to take off again, left alone they die.
VulPro rushed out and rescued him, taking him back to VulPro to be fattened up a bit and grow stronger, before being tagged and released. “Puff Adder” had been at VulPro a couple of weeks when on the 27th of November 2010, Kerri arrived back at VulPro with an electrocuted vulture (Read Sizzle’s story here) to find Puff Adder screaming in agony and running backwards in his enclosure.
He was quickly caught and inspected, with a single puncture wound being discovered on his neck. Kerri and her team suspected a snake bite, although the snake was never seen and apart from screaming from shock and / or pain, Puff Adder showed no other symptoms yet.
Kerri rushed Puff Adder to the Exotic Animal Clinic at Onderstepoort to be treated by Dr Francois Le Grange. By now Puff Adder had started to swell, a huge concern was that his throat would swell so much that he wouldn’t be able to breathe. Oxygen was administered and Puff Adder was also put on a drip.
The Puff Adder (Bitus arietans) is responsible for causing the most snakebite fatalities in Africa owing to various factors, such as its wide distribution, frequent occurrence in highly populated regions, and aggressive disposition. It is a sluggish snake that relies on camouflage for protection, most bites occur because the snake is stepped on. The Puff Adder bite is severely cytotoxic (kills cells) and is responsible for severe pain and swelling leading to tissue necrosis.
After a lot of careful thought, it was decided to treat Puff Adder with anti-venom. This had never before been done with a vulture, and both Kerri and Dr Francois Le Grange had no idea whether it would help or hurt Puff Adder, they just knew that they had to do something or he would die. His symptoms were worsening and not being able to breathe was a very real problem.
Two vials of anti-venom were administered to Puff Adder and he thrived! There was no tissue necrosis (dead tissue), within a week the swelling started to go down.
Puff Adder was in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at Onderstepoort on a drip for 3 days, to make sure that he was properly hydrated, he then returned to VulPro and was kept in a crate (specialised vulture transport crates) for a few days on a drip to make 100% sure that he was healthy.
One month later, Puff Adder was healthy enough to be tagged and released. On the 16th of July 2011, Puff adder was resighted feeding on a carcass at Shelanti Game Reserve. This is the reason that it is so wonderful when people share their resightings of tagged vultures with us. We add the sightings to our database and it allows us to track these vultures. We haven’t had any resightings since then, but we are thrilled with the confirmation that Puff Adder was alive a year after his ordeal.
Why is Puff Adder’s story so important?
Living in Africa especially on plots, farm land or in the bush makes sure that wild life becomes a factor in your life – good or bad! We recommend that you should be aware of and have basic knowledge about the snakes that reside in your area. We don’t support killing them; rather relocate to a place where human interaction is limited.
It is important for you to know, how poisonous they are, what type of venom they have ie what the symptoms are and how to treat a snake bite. This is important not only for you and your friends and family but for your pets and livestock as well. Kerri and Dr Le Grange ensured that Puff Adder experienced minimal damage from the Puff Adder bite because he was treated so quickly. Left untreated for longer because of the position of the bite it is almost certain that Puff Adder would have died.
After Bee Sting’s visit at Millstream Primary School and rescue by VulPro, she spent some time at VulPro before being released again. We all gave a big sigh of relief hoping that Bee Sting would now keep her life a little simpler and give us fewer grey hairs. Sadly this hasn’t been the case; about 10 days ago we had to fetch Bee Sting from Caribbean Beach in Hartbeespoort, she was brought back to VulPro and initially we didn’t realise what had happened to her. She was able to fly to the top of the 9m enclosure and was her usual cheeky self, our plans were to let her settle again, make sure that she was well fed and then re-release her. Bee Sting has an incredibly strong and stubborn personality which had helped save her life when she was stung by over 220 bees Bee Sting’s Story Part One, little did we know that her will to live had been tested again.
On the 26th of June, we noticed some blood on Bee Sting from her right wing, our vultures’ health is always very important, so we caught Bee Sting to find out what the injury is. Imagine our horror when we discovered a burnt area on her right wing and some singed feathers – the only conclusion is a power line electrocution, which this miracle vulture survived.
When we collected Bee Sting she was on the ground in close proximity to a power line but because she showed no sign of injury and was able to fly, we didn’t realise that she had in fact been electrocuted and without another one of her “extra lives” would have been found dead. Read about power lines here.
Bee Sting’s electrical burn was treated and healing well, until the itching and irritation of the healing process caused Bee Sting to “help” her healing process a little too much and she caused some new wounds. This is very similar to when we have a cut or graze that is healing and we end up scratching it until it is sore or bleeding because the itching is driving us crazy. The difference is we can be told to leave it alone and why, vultures don’t understand that rubbing and scratching their injuries only makes it worse.
Bee Sting was rushed to Dr Dorianne Elliot at the Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital at Onderstepoort, North of Pretoria for treatment and to try and save her wing. Bee Sting has a hole right through the joint of her wing and shows some signs of infection, the tendons and ligaments are exposed and she has torn the follicle capsule on one of her primary wing feathers. The original burns are healthy and very close to fully healed. To prevent Bee Sting from “helping” heal her injuries, the innovative Dr Elliot devised a cap of fibreglass cast to stop Bee Sting from picking at the wounds as they continue healing.
The wounds were flushed and treated with an anti-bacterial ointment and then covered with a bandage and the fibreglass cap was placed over the bandage.
Great care has to be taken to protect the blood supply to a vulture’s wings as the blood vessels are very close to the skin with very little protection. As far as we are aware a “cap” like this has never been used on a vulture before, so our brave, tough and cat-like
Bee Sting is proving to be a trailblazer all over again.
In spite of Bee Sting appearing to have 9 lives, we can’t risk her life. This miracle vulture is going to live out her days in our important captive breeding programme run at VulPro. The wild Cape Vulture numbers are so low, that literally every vulture counts to save the species. At VulPro, Bee Sting can continue to supplement wild populations with her chicks and her legacy will live on.
We would also like to invite you to come and visit Bee Sting and our other vultures at the centre, experience first-hand how important our work is, but most importantly come and see how special, intelligent and what characters our vultures are.
More than 220 bee stings were removed from a very stressed and sore Bee Sting. She was treated with an anti-inflammatory, pain medication and a Vit B Complex injection, as well as an anti-histamine and a drip for fluid intake.
Bee Sting’s face was very swollen, with upper respiratory noises, although she was standing up and able to move around. She was also treated with the same drugs as Day One and an antibiotic was added to fight any infection.
Bee Sting’s face and neck were even more swollen although her breathing had improved, she was also more alert. She was treated with pain medication, antibiotics, and medicine to keep her digestive tract functioning properly as well as a drip for fluid intake.
Bee Sting was starting to make her feelings known about being treated, she was very strong and biting when we approached her. Her face was still swollen but she was eating. She was treated with pain medication; antibiotics and medicine to keep her gut functioning as well as a drip to manage her fluid levels.
We all got really worried, Bee Sting’s Blood pressure dropped and she was less responsive to us. Her tests showed that while her Uric Acid and Bile levels were normal, her Haematocrit (the ratio of the volume of red blood cells to the total volume of blood) was decreased, her monocytes (white blood cells) were greatly increased showing inflammation. Bee Sting was treated with the same medication as on the previous days.
A huge part of saving wild animals that are being treated is juggling their emotional and psychological well-being as well as their physical health. Bee Sting was showing signs of depression and because of this VulPro wanted to take her home; to see other vultures and help stimulate normal behaviour. Bee Sting was treated with a drip, antibiotics and pain killers.
Bee Sting was back at VulPro, as hoped being around other vultures, seemed to have improved her mood. She was interested in food and was interacting with the other vultures.
Bee Sting was seen to have severe fly strike, where flies have laid eggs in the wound and there are maggots in the wound. Maggots are good at eating all the rotting or dead tissue, but dangerous because they will eat all the healthy tissue too and can result in death of an animal.
Bee Sting’s wounds showed granulation tissue on her left cheek and her entire skull was covered in hard dead (necrotic) tissue. Her right cheek had skin sloughing off it with dead tissue and her jaw bone was exposed.
Bee Sting was treated by manually removing all the maggots, for her safety not even one could be left behind. The wounds were cleaned and she was treated with a dewormer called Ivermectin, which would kill any maggots that may have been missed. As a precaution, Bee Sting was hospitalised again and kept in a fly proof room because it was mid-summer and the peak of South Africa’s fly season.
We were so relieved to see that Bee Sting was doing well, even though her skull was still covered in dead tissue; she showed signs of healthy granulation tissue. Her right eye was working properly, which would be vital to her ability to survive out in the wild. Cape Vultures rely on their sight to identify their food sources – being able to see up to 6.5km their eyesight is phenomenal.
We discovered dead skin over Bee Sting’s crop although the crop itself was not damaged. The dead tissue on her face was removed, healthy granulation tissue was found and she was treated with F10 Cream. The good news was that Bee Sting was eating well, which was helping her to heal and stay strong.
F10 Wound Spray was sprayed over Bee Sting’s wounds and she was put in the outside aviaries and seemed to be happier in herself.
A Cape Vulture’s Tear Duct (Lachrymal duct) runs similarly to ours, Bee Sting’s ended up opening onto her face because of all the dead
and damaged tissue and skin. It was repaired by surgically placing a feeding tube from where the tear duct opens in the inner eye to the choana (An opening at the back of the nasal passage (there is a left and a right side) that empties into the space behind the nose called the nasopharynx). Wound granulation tissue (healing tissue) from the surrounding areas was placed over the feeding tube to create a new tear duct. The area was also partially covered with a skin graft called a pedicle flap and the rest of the wound was covered with a dressing called Granuflex.
Bee Sting had a visit from Dr Isaac Venter from the Johannesburg Animal Eye Hospital, who looked at her right eye to establish how well it was working. We were very relieved to hear that Bee Sting still had vision in her right eye and that no surgery was required. Although she had lost a small amount of peripheral vision, it would not affect her ability to live wild.
Bee Sting Flies Free
1st February 2015, Bee Sting is released at VulPro, making Bee Sting truly one of our miracle vultures. For a long time we weren’t sure that she would make it and to have her recover well enough to fly free and live wild again is a very special feeling.
Dr Francois Le Grange is open to being contacted should anyone require assistance of this nature when treating vultures, he may be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org