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Why did Pema the NC bald eagle die of lead poisoning?

Pema, a 10-pound female bald eagle, found near Wilson Lake who died of lead poisoning despite staff at the Cape Fear Raptor Center’s best efforts to save her.
Pema, a 10-pound female bald eagle, found near Wilson Lake who died of lead poisoning despite staff at the Cape Fear Raptor Center’s best efforts to save her.

The staff at the nonprofit Cape Fear Raptor Center spent seven days trying to save a female bald eagle they called “Pema,” but she died of lead poisoning despite their best efforts.

Now the center wants to warn hunters about what kind of bullets they’re using – and the unintended consequences their ammo can have.

Pema, a 10-pound bald eagle found near Wilson Lake, was brought to the center on Jan. 15. She likely contracted the lead poisoning when she ate fragments of lead splintered inside an animal carcass left behind by a hunter, the center said.

The lead levels in Pema’s blood were so high, it was too much for the center’s equipment to read, said Scott Shrimp, director of rehabilitation for the center.

“We thought something must be wrong with the machine,” Shrimp said. “We even checked with the manufacturer.”

X-rays showed seven lead fragments in Pema’s digestive system.

Despite emergency surgery to extract the fragments, along with costly twice-daily treatments to counteract the toxic lead that had already made it into her bloodstream, the poison was too much for Pema. She seemed to rally briefly, but succumbed to the lead poisoning Sunday morning, Shrimp said.

“We certainly tried everything in our power, everything we could,” Shrimp said. “The bigger story is how does an eagle like this get lead in their system?”

Most hunters still use lead ammunition, Shrimp said. It’s cheaper and what most people are used to using. But when hunters field dress carcasses and leave remains behind, or when an animal shot by a hunter gets away and dies later, scavengers such as vultures and eagles can inadvertently consume some of the lead shot.

“Carrion can be a significant portion of their diet, especially during this time of the year,” Shrimp said. “And we just finished up hunting season.”

And lead is such a relatively soft metal that it can break into tiny pieces and spread throughout a carcass into pieces as small as a grain of sand – which can still be fatal for birds like eagles and vultures.

The center says about 75 percent of the bald eagles it’s treated in the last year tested positive for lead poisoning.

The center is encouraging hunters to switch to bullets that do not contain lead to help save birds like Pema.

“I don’t think everyone fully understands how dangerous (lead bullets) can be,” Shrimp said. “Not just for raptors, but for you and your family if meat isn’t completely clean.”

But taking the hit by purchasing pricier non-lead ammunition could be worth it, he said.

“You are protecting our environment from this highly toxic substance.”

For more information on the Cape Fear Raptor Center, go to www.capefearraptorcenter.org. To donate to the nonprofit rehabilitation center, go to www.capefearraptorcenter.org/donate.html.

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