Lo­cal Hero

He­lene Van Don­inck, a vet­eri­nar­ian in Nova Sco­tia, is help­ing hunters and an­glers un­der­stand the toxic ef­fects of their gear

Canadian Wildlife - - FEATURES - By Cana­dian Wildlife Staff

Lead­ing the way against lead, He­lene Van Don­inck, a vet­eri­nar­ian in Nova Sco­tia, is help­ing hunters and an­glers un­der­stand the toxic ef­fects of their gear

Dr. He­lene Van Don­inck is al­ways on the go. A part-time vet­eri­nar­ian and full-time an­i­mal care­giver, she is also co-founder, direc­tor and driv­ing force of the Cobe­quid Wildlife Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre. She and her hus­band, graphic artist Murdo Messer, built it on their prop­erty near Truro, N.S., in 2001. Now a reg­is­tered char­ity, the vol­un­teer-based fa­cil­ity pro­vides ve­teri­nary care and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion to in­jured, sick and or­phaned wildlife brought to them from all over Nova Sco­tia.

Since 2012, Van Don­inck also has been the mo­ti­va­tor be­hind “Get the Lead Out!” — a cam­paign she has been wag­ing through­out the re­gion to in­form and en­gage hunters and an­glers about the “col­lat­eral dam­age” of lead-based am­mu­ni­tion and fish­ing gear. She knows first-hand about the harm done to birds higher up the food chain: since open­ing, her re­hab clinic has been in­un­dated with poi­soned bald ea­gles brought in by the public.

The re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre treated 400 bald ea­gles and other large scav­enger birds in 2016 alone, and they are on track for even more this year. Un­able to fly, eat or even stand be­cause of the neuro-toxic ef­fects of lead, with­out help they would be dead in days. Even be­fore overt indicators of lead poi­son­ing show them­selves, the birds be­gin to lose the abil­ity to feed, mate, nest and care for their young. The ef­fects are dev­as­tat­ing. For those birds for­tu­nate enough to be de­liv­ered to the cen­tre, the treat­ment con­sists of TLC, warmth, se­cu­rity and a process of chem­i­cal “chela­tion” that rids the body grad­u­ally of the toxic lead. Within six to eight weeks, most birds have re­cov­ered and are well enough to be re­turned to the wild.

When we caught up with Van Don­inck by phone, she was in her car on her way to the New Brunswick Sports­men’s Show, a huge re­gional expo for hunters and an­glers, where she had reg­is­tered as an ex­hibitor to con­tinue her ed­u­ca­tion cam­paign. We talked (hands-free) as she drove.

“Hunters are con­ser­va­tion­ists by na­ture,” she says. “They love the out­doors and they are pro­tec­tive of it. So, my job is to in­form them, tell them about the ter­ri­ble side ef­fects of lead am­mu­ni­tion.” What is she telling them? “First thing I tell them is I don’t have any­thing against hunting and fish­ing.” She then goes on to say that ea­gles, hawks, owls and other air­borne preda­tors and scav­engers eat dead and wounded game birds and guts con­tain­ing em­bed­ded lead am­mu­ni­tion frag­ments dis­carded by hunters. Just five pel­lets of in­gested buck­shot are enough to in­ca­pac­i­tate and even­tu­ally kill an adult bald ea­gle. “Hunters be­lieve they are do­ing the right thing by leav­ing the guts for the wildlife to eat. And they are… ex­cept when they are em­bed­ded with th­ese pel­lets of poi­son.”

An­glers, who have to cut away tan­gled lines, leave be­hind weights and sinkers with­out giv­ing it a sec­ond thought. And yet wa­ter­fowl swal­low lead fish­ing weights — it only takes one to kill them. For the com­mon loon, lead tox­i­c­ity is now the lead­ing cause of death.

When hunters and an­glers hear of th­ese un­in­tended ef­fects, most are sur­prised, even hor­ri­fied. “The over­whelm­ing re­sponse is ‘Oh my heav­ens, I didn’t know,’” she says.

Reg­u­la­tions in dif­fer­ent parts of North Amer­ica have been in­tro­duced to ad­dress the issue, but they are lim­ited. The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment has over the years man­dated that non-toxic non-lead shot be used in na­tional wildlife ar­eas (1995), in wet­lands (1997), for hunting many mi­gra­tory game birds (1999) and for up­land game birds (2012). (There has been a dra­matic drop in lead-re­lated mor­tal­ity in ducks since the ban was in­tro­duced.) It is also il­le­gal to use or even to have lead fish­ing sinkers and jigs in na­tional parks and wildlife ar­eas. Still, this rep­re­sents a frac­tion of the hunting and fish­ing ac­tiv­ity in Canada, and most of that falls un­der pro­vin­cial ju­ris­dic­tion. In the U.S. on Jan­uary 19, 2017, in one of its fi­nal orders, the out­go­ing Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion banned the use of lead am­mu­ni­tion on fed­eral lands; on March 2, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­scinded the or­der.

Van Don­inck doesn’t think reg­u­la­tion is the an­swer. “Bans get push­back, and be­sides they are un­en­force­able. Change has to come from the hunters them­selves. Un­less they un­der­stand the ter­ri­ble un­nec­es­sary dam­age to wildlife — and the risks to their own fam­i­lies — peo­ple will still use lead am­mu­ni­tion.” She points to her ex­pe­ri­ence with Nova Sco­tia hunters. “In the be­gin­ning, I just started meet­ing with groups, and I never stopped.” Within a year, the pro­vin­cial as­so­ci­a­tion rec­om­mended the switch to non-toxic al­ter­na­tives. And a year af­ter that, one hunters’ group raised enough funds to or­ga­nize an am­mu­ni­tion ex­change for its mem­bers.

Her fer­vent hope is that hunters and an­glers, in­formed about the dan­gers of lead in the wild, will want to switch to al­ter­na­tives. “Hunters want to do the right thing. When they know the facts, they’ll know what to do.”a

To learn more or to sup­port the Cobe­quid Wildlife Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre’s work, visit www.cwrc.net.

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