As the impacts of red tide have consumed headlines, the economic and environmental angles have been covered at length. But at ground zero for the toxic algae bloom, the emotional impact is palpable.
For 50 years, a small animal hospital nestled among lush green tropical vegetation off the main road on Sanibel Island has dedicated itself to the medical treatment of wild animals in the hopes of being able to release them back to their natural habitats.
The 'red tide' dinoflagellate Karenia brevis produces marine neurotoxins, called brevetoxins. When animals come into contact with the toxin, they get brevetoxicosis, commonly known as 'red tide posioning.'
The staff at the Crow Clinic has been treating animals with brevetoxicosis for years.
Veterinarian Robin Bast has been at the clinic for eight years and said it has been common to for them to treat animals suspected of red tide posioning.
“Seeing them throughout the years as they deal with the same disease process is definitely something that unfortunately has become familiar to me 'cuz its not uncommon for us to see it every single year,” Bast said.
This red tide bloom will be a year long come October. It has had a devastating effect on the marine life and taken a toll on the people trying to help them.
Bast recalled a patient that she found particularly striking.
"We had a giant, adult male loggerhead that came in, suspected brevetoxicosis. 350 pound turtle and he had a grand mal seizure," Bast said. "To see an animal that old and has gone through that much time in the environment without an issue and now to see it go through all of that and then fight to save it but despite everything you do, you can’t save them all…those are the tough ones."
The clinic has been flooded with sick animals. Last year from January to mid-September, the clinic admitted 89 patients for suspected red tide poisoning. For the same dates this year, the clinic has admitted 366 patients--that's a 311 percent increase.
Shelli Albright is the Hospital office and admissions manager at CROW. She described the symptoms of animals brought in with suspected red tide poisoning.
"The turtles, they were just so lethargic, they couldn’t lift their heads, I’m imagining that if people hadn’t found them that they may just drown out there," Albright said. "With birds, they almost behave like they’re drunk, so stumbling around and falling over."
Treatment varies from species to species but usually involves fluid therapy as the toxin is processed through the liver and kidneys of the animal. Patients can be in the hospital from a few weeks to a few months depending on how advanced the poisoning is.
Albright said the public has been extremely helpful these past few months.
“With so many red tide calls and so few volunteers that we can send out, people are stepping up and doing thing that they are not maybe comfortable with like maybe capturing a bird that they would intimidated to try to capture otherwise," Albright said. "We have also had people come forward to help with things like transport. It’s been great to see the community come together to help out in that way.”
The latest red tide report from the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation indicates that the bloom still persists along the coast and sea turtles are still being severely impacted. Meaning the staff at CROW will continue to feel the emotional impacts.
The staff at the Crow Clinic urge people who may encounter an animal being affected by red tide, to please call them at (239) 472-3644 before approaching the animal.