Jul 16, 2023

Kevin the Pelican Catches Flight to New Home


“Kevin” the American White Pelican was officially transferred to Zootah in Utah last quarter. He went to join another non-releasable pelican named Nigel who was alone for more than a decade.

“Kevin” the American White Pelican, one of DCHS’s Wildlife Center’s most social-media-famous water birds (patient #22-2515), recovered in care from a traumatic beak injury last year but was later deemed non-releasable.

When individuals in rehabilitation are unable to be released back into the wild, our team of licensed rehabilitators and veterinarians discuss future options for that animal. Sometimes this includes permanent placement to a captive wildlife facility, such as a zoo or sanctuary, but other times, humane euthanasia is the most ethical decision that can be made for that animal. For most wildlife, living in an artificial environment for the remainder of their lives is more stressful, and potentially harmful, than any other alternatives.

Lucky for Kevin, being a juvenile pelican has its perks. At his age and being a social species that lives together in large groups called a “pod of pelicans,” he was an ideal candidate for placement. Kevin is now at Zootah in Logan, Utah, but it took a lot of effort to get him there!

Top photo: Wildlife Program Manager Jackie Sandberg carries Kevin to his transport carrier. Above: Kevin enjoys his first day in his zoo enclosure after flying all the way from Chicago, Illinois to Logan, Utah, first-class. Photo credit: Zootah in Utah.

Shipping a pelican across the country is not easy. Logistics are complicated, animals are fussy and unpredictable, and live animal transport regulations are dense, to say the least. Sometimes wildlife rehabilitators need to study-up and get creative when it comes to transferring a wildlife patient into permanent placement. Little did I know that building a custom pelican crate would be on my to-do list last month, and it took a lot longer than I expected! Somehow, I pulled it off in the span of about six-hours on a workday, as I was under pressure to get Kevin the non-releasable American White Pelican on time for his early morning flight from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, to Salt Lake City.

No joke –I used the largest dog crate available to me, which happened to be one that I had bought and kept at home for our family dog (a DCHS alumni, Bamsii) if he needed it. Instead, we turned it into a bird box.

The size of the crate had to be big enough for a pelican to stand upright and turn around in, eat fish and drink water from a hanging interior dish, and have a padded ceiling. Oh, the bottom surface of the crate had to be made of absorbable, non-slip material that could soak up pelican poo (I went with six layers of puppy pads).

And another thing–it needed to be secure. And by secure, it meant hardware cloth on the outside so that the pelican couldn’t poke his beak through the crate holes (what beak?) to injure the flight crew or cargo loaders. The hardware cloth could injure a pelican’s soft beak, so yet another layer of soft mesh had to be placed over the top of that to keep him safe! But wait –there was more.

It also needed to be darkened to reduce stress, and the front opening had to be covered. It needed a feeding flap in case of an emergency landing, a one-time supply of fish and a way to provide it water (i.e. my patchwork funnel duct-taped to a tube), and the whole crate had to be zip-tied shut. No way in or out until Kevin arrived in Utah. I estimated about three full rolls of duct tape and all available padded tape from our medical supply cabinet.

My carrier creation, a Frankenstein so-to-speak, was too large for most commercial flights coming in or out of the Madison airport. Armed with that knowledge, and two hours on the phone with Delta Airlines, we managed to change the original flight so he could be loaded onto the largest possible plane. Apparently, his crate needed to fit through the doors, so instead of flying the bird out of Madison, a trip to Chicago became our closest option to get him across the country to Utah.

Wildlife Veterinary Technician Erin Lemley helps carry Kevin to DCHS's blue van for transport to O'Hare International Airport.

After all that was said and done, DCHS’s Wildlife Veterinary Technician, Erin Lemley, and I loaded the bird into a shelter van early the next morning. It was a two-hour trek to make the trip to Chicago with him. We arrived at least 1 hour early to make sure everything was in order. The best part of arriving was letting the front desk staff know that I had a pelican in the van and that he’d be flying first-class.

Permits were printed, three copies of every document were made, and all aspects of the carrier were measured, inspected, and approved by Delta Cargo staff. At one point, Kevin was almost rejected for his large size due to a pet crate embargo, so it took a few extra approvals to get him boarded (again).

In the end, he was the most exciting part of the Delta Cargo crew’s day and mine. One of the cargo team members even had prior experience with pelicans, having volunteered for a rehabilitation center in Illinois where he helped to capture and rescue injured pelicans in the field. He happily shared his photos and stories about three different pelicans he had rescued in the last year.

Kevin in a celebrity photo-op with the Delta Cargo crew who helped get him boarded.

I thought to myself “What a small world! What are the chances that I would meet someone today who has also worked with rehabilitated pelicans?” I think it was fate that we met that day, and I knew Kevin was in the right hands.

Kevin arrived safely, right on time, and he was picked up by Zootah staff for one last drive to Logan. On release from his transport carrier, Kevin stretched his wings and quickly became accustomed to his Western surroundings.

On the day Kevin landed (June 13), Zootah Zoo Director Troy Cooper said, “Kevin is a rock star with everyone. In summary, and I hope the pictures show this–Kevin is happy and content in his new home. He eagerly eats out of hand, readily comes to the fence to say hello, and basks in the sun. Thank you for checking in on him/us.”

Kevin, the American White Pelican, eager to be hand-fed his daily allotment of fish by Zootah Director Troy Cooper.

Troy shared a new update on July 12th: “Kevin is doing very well! He's adjusted well enough that we're doing visitor feedings with him, he gets along well with Nigel, and he even survived a Beaver invasion into their enclosure.”

This story was only successful because of the number of caring community members from start to finish who were involved in this Pelican’s rescue, rehabilitation, transport, and placement. Thank you to all of the donors, volunteers, caretakers, staff, veterinarians, and more who helped this bird find his new home.

Jackie Sandberg is the Wildlife Program Manager at DCHS's Wildlife Center.

Thank You for Your Support

Pelican & Swan Clothing Sale

Local artist Lisa Leick was so inspired by the story of the Pelican and Swan at DCHS's Wildlife Center, she created a design that celebrates their success story. The design brought so much joy to Wildlife Center staff and volunteers that they asked if we could get the design printed on clothing, which led us to this clothing sale event. You can show your continued support for this duo and DCHS's Wildlife Center with a long or short-sleeved t-shirt, hoodie, or sweatshirt. Many thanks to Lisa for this sweet design!

Order Your Pelican & Swan Swag Today

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