Swan doctors

Who can fail to be moved by the beauty and grace of the swan? Swans play a major role in mythology and culture, feature in our childhood stories and because they usually mate for life, have become a symbol of love. But their iconic beauty masks a sad reality.

Sheila Bolin taking part in a swan rescue in Longboat Key, Florida

Swans are among the largest flying birds. The largest species, including the mute swan, trumpeter swan and whooper swan, can reach lengths of over 1.5m and weigh over 15kg. Swans do not have many natural enemies, and are well equipped to defend themselves against most predators. But they face several threats: pollution, poisoning by lead weights used by anglers, entanglement in fishing tackle and collision with power lines. Swans are popular ‘ornamental’ species kept in parkland lakes, on golf courses and in zoos around the world but they are not always properly cared for—many are underfed or afflicted by disease.

One of the people working to improve the health and care of these natural beauties is Sheila Bolin, a long-time member of IUCN’s Swan Specialist Group and CEO/Founder of The Regal Swan Foundation®, Inc. based in Orlando, Florida.

In 1999, Sheila and her colleagues began studying and documenting the care of swans in captive settings including hotel grounds and golf courses. During their investigation, they learned that Dr. Wade G. Gardner, a veterinarian from Lakeland, Florida, had pioneered the use of a vaccine to reduce swan deaths due to botulism. The city of Lakeland maintains a flock of more than 100 swans.

The Foundation is one of the few groups in the world that specifically deals with captive swans and their need for humane treatment and veterinary care. It acts as a veterinary emergency response team and as consultants for the city of Orlando’s swan flock at Lake Eola. The Foundation created the ‘Swans of the World Habitat’ facility at the lake to showcase all swan species, their habitats, and the need for wetland conservation. It has also developed international science, maths and reading activities suitable for all ages to enhance the knowledge of the sciences as well as the care of captive swans. Specific swan care products such as nesting platforms, veterinary medical slings and indoor pens have also been produced by the researchers.

"I became interested in swan research when one of the swans that I was caring for had been accidently entangled in a fishing line,” explains Sheila. “When we could not find accessible information about veterinary medical care for swans, we decided to form a swan research team to address the issue and not only conduct research, but place it in the hands of swan keepers and veterinarians worldwide.”

“Our research in captive settings allows swan and avian veterinarians to use the discoveries made about swan habitats, veterinary medical needs and so on, to care for swans in wild settings,” says Sheila.

On 16 October, The Regal Swan Foundation will lead a group of volunteers from the local community, who, using kayaks, will capture a flock of around 50 swans at Lake Eola for their annual veterinary medical examination. The swans will be sexed, micro-chipped, vaccinated against botulism and weighed. All medical findings will be documented to maintain a record of each swan as well as the health of the overall flock. The swan round-up will include mute swans, Australian black swans, South American black-necked swans, whooper swans and trumpeter swans.

Sheila describes the highlights of the research as seeing the implementation of humane captive swan habitats; cygnets and adults that receive proper veterinary care and the prevention of many swan diseases and injuries through the right care.

But the team also faces several challenges, says Sheila. For many years, municipalities and private owners have maintained swan flocks, but due to the lack of knowledge about the veterinary medical needs of swans in captive settings and budgetary restraints, many of them do not provide annual medical examinations or the necessary feeding programmes.

"One major challenge is people or facilities wanting swans who do not understand that they are ‘high maintenance’ species and must receive proper veterinary medical care and habitat maintenance. When these individuals or facilities place swans on their waterways and do not take care of them and continually replace them with more swans if some die, this is frustrating."

Sheila holds a Master’s Degree in Administration, Supervision and Curriculum with a minor in Biology. She is the Wildlife Manager for Orange Lake Resort Orlando and serves as the state-licensed wildlife transporter and alligator re-locator for the resort.

“Our hopes for the future are that swans worldwide, captive or wild will have humane treatment and veterinary medical care that can prolong the birds’ lives based upon sound research, education and products specifically developed for swan care. We also hope that people will understand the need to conserve and preserve wetlands, migratory stations and other natural habitats that swans depend for their food and nesting resources.”

Sheila can be contacted at: [email protected]

Work area: 
North America
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